Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Running Form and Barefoot Running: an Interview

The barefoot running controversy has gone global.  In India, which has about 1.2  billion people (three times the population of the U.S.), running is gaining popularity fast, thanks in large part to the writing of runner/physician Rajat Chauhan.  Dr. Chauhan writes for Mint, the Indian affiliate of the Wall Street Journal, which recently interviewed me for a special feature on running form.  Here are their somewhat provocative questions, and my responses:
1)  The running world seems to be divided into two bitter groups – the barefoot exponents and those who warn that shoes should never be taken off? Would it be fair to say that the right path is somewhere down the middle?

       Research by evolutionary biologists Daniel Lieberman, Dennis Bramble, and David Carrier and their colleagues finds that humans evolved as barefoot “persistence hunters,” and their findings have led to a romanticizing of barefoot running.  However, 10,000 years of civilization have changed us.  Personally, I could not run without good running shoes—not flimsy sandals or “minimalist” models, but shoes that are fairly sturdy and protective.  When I ran the 50-mile JFK 50-Mile (America’s largest ultramarathon) last year, I didn’t see any of the thousand runners in the race running barefoot.  On rocky trails, you don’t want to be accidentally kicking rocks with your toes. 

2)  I read somewhere that the barefoot running revival is happening for the fourth time in the last few decades. Can you throw some light on this as a runner who has been competing for the last 55 years?

     Several decades ago, serious long-distance runners began competing in “racing shoes”—much lighter shoes than the shoes we trained in.  A model called the “Nike Sock Racer” was little more than a sock!  I tried running a marathon in one of those models, and by the time I reached the finish the bottoms of my feet felt as if they were on fire.  For anyone who needs some pronation control (a majority of us, I think), it’s better to run races in the same supportive shoes you train in.  Yes, you’re carrying a bit more weight, but you’re also running with better biomechanical control, which is more energy-efficient.  Elite runners who have flawless biomechanics and light body weight can (and do) run successfully with ultra-lightweight shoes.

3)  How do footwear and running form contribute to running injuries? Can you share any examples of balanced research you have come across on this topic?

     The links between footwear and vulnerability to injury are hugely complex, so I’m a bit skeptical about some of the findings.  I think the book “Born to Run” was just plain wrong in its suggestion that Nike’s development of the modern running shoe caused countless injuries.  Even if solid correlations were found (and I’m not sure they were), correlation is not causation.  Today’s runners may have more injuries than yesteryear’s, but I also have the impression that today’s runners more often take training shortcuts like trying to run a marathon within the first 6 months after taking up the sport.  (Half a century ago, we believed you shouldn’t run a marathon until you’ve been practicing at shorter distances for several years at least, and I think that’s still sound advice.) 

4)  What is your position on the forefoot/heel strike debate?

     Most long-distance runners naturally touch down on their heels.  Sprinters land on their forefeet.  Forefoot running yields greater power, so you’d be unlikely to succeed as a sprinter or 400-meter runner if you land on your heels.  But heel strike is more energy-efficient, and that’s a big factor in long-distance running.  Running with maximum power burns more energy, but for a short distances that doesn’t matter, just as it wouldn’t matter to the driver of a drag-race car if his engine burned 5 gallons per mile!  Elite runners at distances up to about 1500 or even 5000 meters tend to be forefoot strikers for this reason—power and speed are the name of the game.  Ultrarunners are nearly all heel strikers.  At distances in between, you’ll see both kinds of heel strike succeeding.

5)  Another topic that seems to be going around in the running community is stride rate and over striding. What are your thoughts on this issue?

     I’ve struggled with this issue, especially as I’ve gotten older and my natural stride length seems to have shortened.  I do have the impression (from both personal experience and observation of others) that over-striding is a common mistake because it burns too much energy and interferes with the natural rhythms of the body.  Top coaches and runners have always emphasized the importance of finding the right rhythm—or as athletes in other sports put it, the “groove.”  As for stride rate, I’ve heard of the argument that the rate should be around 180 strides per minute (3 per second) even over varying distances and speeds, so that running slower entails taking shorter strides rather than slowing the tempo, and running faster entails taking longer strides but keeping the tempo fairly constant.  I’ve played with this idea in my training, and I think it makes sense.

6)  Is running form/technique by itself a panacea for all injuries?  For instance, isn’t trading heel strike for forefoot impact just shifting the likelihood of injuries from knee to ankle? What other factors should runners keep in mind?

     No, form is not a panacea.  Funny thing, when I first started writing about running nearly 40 years ago, I liked to say that one of the great appeals of the sport is its simplicity.  But in its biomechanics and physiology, it is dauntingly complex!  Form alone is complex, but there are many other kinds of factors affecting the risk of injury:  overtraining (too many miles per week), too much speed work, poorly-fitting shoes, etc.  Regarding the forefoot-vs-heel-strike issue, I think each individual needs to find what feels most natural.  And regarding form in general, there are some basic rules: Run vertically with your center of gravity over your feet.  I’ve seen people jogging with their legs out in front and their upper body leaning forward to keep balance, but with the butt hanging behind as if it doesn’t really want to go along for the ride.  I call this “C-shape” running, and anyone who does it isn’t likely to enjoy the sport for long. 

7)  Which are the frontiers to be explored when it comes to research in running biomechanics?

     I haven’t kept up with the science, and in recent years have focused mainly on my own “experiment of one.” (I’m in my 56th consecutive year of running now, and fending off the injuries is definitely more of a challenge.)  I’d be very interested in seeing more study of the “tempo” issue—stride length and frequency.  My sense is that the received wisdom on this may be a little too simplistic.  I’d also like to see more work done on the form changes that take place with ageing.  If getting older necessarily means losing muscle mass and oxygen uptake capacity, are there ways that the older runner can modify his or her biomechanics to compensate somewhat?


8)  What are the biggest myths that exist around “running form” or the science of running?

     The idea that barefoot running will free you from injury is a myth.  I say this with reluctance, because the science says we evolved as barefoot long-distance runners, and I like the idea of getting closer to my ancestral roots.  But early humans also chased down lions or aurochs with spears, and I don’t think many people are itching to get back to that.  In some respects, civilization is a one-way road.  And the roads we travel in the civilized world have hard pavement (ancient feet didn’t have to run on that), glass shards, trash, etc.  The floors we walk on are hard and smooth.  Maybe running barefoot works for rural Kenyan kids who grow up barefoot and have access to uncluttered dirt trails, but for people who’ve grown up in cities, wearing shoes, bare feet is a romance that won’t last.  Maybe if a city park has a groomed trail of pine needles or wood chips, barefoot running on that trail might provide a limited form of enjoyment.  But on public roads or rural trails with rocks and roots . . . no.


9)  Can you also share examples of interesting recent research around running technique that you may have come across recently?

     Others will be able to answer this question better than I.  The best research I can cite is that of professors Daniel Lieberman at Harvard and Dennis Bramble and David Carrier at the University of Utah.  I don’t know if the evolutionary biologist Bernd Heinrich of the University of Vermont has done any research in this area, but he has written a couple if very good books on the origins of human running—and is a former U.S. ultrarunning champion himself.


10.To conclude, what would be your definition of correct running form?

     I don’t know whether there’s a “correct” form that’s right for everyone.  Our running forms vary as much as our faces or personalities do.  But in general, the ideal form for a given person is that which feels easiest and most rhythmic when kept up for the desired distance and speed. 


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