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Running Form, the Origin of Minimalism, and the Elite vs. Recreational Divide

Posted on September 21 2010

Hartford Form I love when I read something that makes me think – that’s exactly what happened when I read Steve Magness’ latest post on his Science of Running blog. In his post, Steve discusses his perspective on how we arrived at our current state of affairs with regard to running shoe design, how this relates to changes in observed patterns of running form over the past 50 or so years, the origins of the minimalist running movement, and where we should go from here. Additionally, he provides some comments on the Newton running form panel discussion that I presented in my previous post, some of which are rather pointed.

What I’d like to do here is look at the topics that Steve discussed from a slightly different perspective. Whereas Steve writes from the perspective of someone who has spent a most of his career in the high performance running and coaching world, I came to the sport seriously just over three years ago as an overweight and out of shape college professor (that’s me above showing off my pained 26.1 mile running form at the Hartford Marathon last year). While our running backgrounds and abilities clearly differ, we tend to agree on a lot of the topics we write about (e.g., form and shoes), likely since we both share a common interest in the scientific side of running. However, we also represent different running constituencies to a certain degree, and thus can look at topics like form and shoes from different angles – it is for that reason that I am writing this post.

It’s becoming clear to me that discussion of and interest in running form is growing rapidly. However, I’m also starting to see a bit of a break in discussions of form as it relates to elite runners vs. recreational runners who have no interest in setting speed records and simply want to be able to enjoy running injury free. One of the points that Steve argues in his post is that track and cross country coaches were the driving force behind the current minimalist running movement, not shoe companies like Newton or Vibram or form gurus like Danny Dreyer or Nicholas Romanov. His point is that the use of minimalist style shoes and the practice of barefoot running for the purpose of technique building have long been employed in the competitive track and cross country running world. I don’t dispute this point at all – in fact, a colleague of mine who is a former elite level 1500m runner has made this point to me (the recreationally self-competitive runner) on many occasions.

Where my perspective differs is in how these practices made it into the mainstream. I would argue that an important characteristic of the current minimalist running movement is the fact that everyday runners like myself and most of those reading this blog are now employing practices (and shoes) that used to be largely restricted to the very realms that Steve refers to (competitive track and cross country). The practices have been there all along in the competitive running world (probably varying a bit from coach to coach), but even just a few years ago very few recreational runners would have considered running regularly for a large chunk of their miles in a cross country flat. Now, I have more than a few friends who do so on a daily basis, and report that they love it. How did this happen?

Though there were certainly people running minimalist or barefoot prior to its appearance, I view the publication of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall as the tipping point for the minimalist running movement and the current shift in form and footwear that we are now seeing. McDougall’s book, and the media explosion relating to shoes and barefoot running that followed, are what really brought the notion of minimalist running to the masses (myself included). Were it not for Born to Run, I’d probably still be pounding my heels in stability shoes, and shoes like the Saucony Kinvara or the soon to arrive New Balance Minimus would probably have never been put into production. The Vibram Fivefingers would probably still be nothing more than a freaky looking water shoe. The competitive running world may have known the value of running barefoot or training and racing in flats, but it took a mainstream book to get that information into the hands of everyday, middle-of-the-pack runners like me. Once that happened and people started experimenting with stripped down shoes and talking about their experiences, the market started to follow, and new minimalist shoe designs are now trickling out to complement the flats that have always been there – it’s exciting to imagine where we might be five years from now.

Along with the new focus on minimalist footwear came discussion on proper running form, with particular interest settling on the question of proper footstrike (whether or not that was the proper place to focus is a valid question, but it still remains a focal point for most people). Runners are now very interested in form, and it’s beginning to extend beyond just the question of footstrike to things like the role of the hips, posture, arm carriage, etc. Perhaps the bigger question, though, is where to direct people if they want to learn more about running form. Nowadays, it seems that form is largely taught in traveling clinics by shoe companies like Newton or in books, videos, or classes created or run by proponents of methods like Chi, Pose, or Evolution Running. I don’t see many elite track or cross country coaches traveling around the country to teach proper running form to the masses, and that is partly a function of the break between elite and recreational runners. Elite coaches are interested in teaching top athletes how to run as fast and as efficiently as possible (nothing wrong with that, it’s their job), whereas the major goal of most of the so-called “guru” methods are to teach recreational runners how to run without getting hurt (with speed being a secondary goal).

Incidentally, the distinction in approach when it comes to elite vs. recreational runners discussed above is exactly why I view Steve’s blog as being so valuable – he’s an elite runner and coach with a very strong background in running science, and I have learned a ton from reading his work. However, he’s also an effective communicator of science who puts good information from his training and coaching background up on-line for all runners to see. Until Alberto Salazar shows up at my door to teach me hip extension, I’ll keep relying on him for the expert/elite perspective.

I’d like to make a few additional comments on Newton and Chi. I agree with Steve in that there are elements to Newton and Chi Running that I disagree with – for example, I don’t believe we can initially contact the ground directly below the center of mass, and I don’t believe that gravity can propel you forward (it’s a vertical force). However, what styles like Newton and Chi do accomplish is helping to guide people, probably mostly recreational runners (but also some very accomplished athletes), to better form than they started with. For example, if you took an overstriding heel striker and had them apply the principles of Newton or Chi, I think they’d end up much better off since they would be taught to use a shorter, faster stride with a more midfoot strike. At they very least, they might lessen their overstride (check out the video below for a demonstration of Newton’s natural running method ). If this lets people enjoy running and results in them getting injured less often (and I have read many anecdotal accounts of this happening when people adopt these styles – check out my interview with 2:24 marathoner Mark Cucuzzella as an example), is there really any harm if it doesn’t sync with how the elites are being taught or if some of the details might be disputable from a scientific perspective (and believe me, it’s very difficult for the scientist in me to write that last bit!)? Furthermore, if the method works for some, perhaps it can serve as a springboard for further research – the science gets ironed out, and maybe we learn something new in the process.

Where I give Newton and Chi even more credit is that they actually get out and interact with the public and try to teach better form to everyday runners. Yes, they are also trying to sell books and shoes, but that’s their business, and I don’t begrudge them that. Regardless of whether I agree with Newton or Chi on every point, they are doing good by making people think about form and how better form can help reduce injury, and even if their success is largely because their methods provide useful cues, the fact that they work for some makes them worthy of recognition. The Newton panel discussion was a good example of this – I may not agree with everything that was said, but at least they were having the discussion, and a few top-notch running scientists participated (Irene Davis, Jay Dicharry). It’s a discussion that would surely benefit from the more frequent addition of top notch coaches who see the world’s best runners on a daily basis. To be honest, what I’d really love to see is more discussion between these two groups with regard to form, and a clearer answer to the question of whether approaches to teaching form to elites and recreational runners can and should be the same. It’s a question for which I’m not sure we yet have an answer.

To follow up on that last thought, every proponent of an approach to proper running form to a certain extent views their form as the “right” way to run. Personally, I still tend to the idea that human variability is so great that identifying a single right way to run for every runner is probably an impossibility, especially when comparing elites to recreational runners. Even when I looked at form among some of the elite runners at the 2010 Boston Marathon, a striking degree of variability was evident. If this is the case, does it all come down to a need to experiment and find what’s best for each individual? Surely there are some basic and fundamental principles that we can all agree on (and I think we do, avoiding overstriding being a good example), but how we get there might require different approaches for different people, and there is always going to be some degree of variability layered upon the ideal.

I’ll finish with a personal story that somewhat highlights this break in approach to the teaching and practice of running form. My wife and I are both runners. Though I am nowhere near being an elite runner in terms of ability, I tend toward the more competitive side of things when it comes to mentality, and I read anything and everything I can get my hands on regarding training, form, etc.- this includes sometimes obscure technical and scientific studies of training methods and running form. My wife, on the other hand, is completely non-competitive, and prefers to run 2-3 times per week simply because it provides a release and she enjoys doing it. Though she could be fast if she had the desire (she did very well in some local 5K’s when we first started running), she hates racing and has pretty much sworn off ever doing it again. The problem for her is that since giving birth to my daughter she has had chronic hip problems whenever she runs for an extended period, and is now trying to figure out what to do about it (she has been to a physical therapist, but not much good came of it).

Being the experimenter that I am, I filmed her the other day and discovered that she seems to be overstriding with a fairly dramatic heel strike (much to my surprise given her shoe wear pattern – there is little heel wear at all), and has some seemingly excessive overpronation on her right foot, possibly related to a bunion on that side. I told her about a study I had recently read that quickening and shortening stride can reduce hip impact, and that maybe some form work would be worth a try. Her response was something along the lines of “I don’t want to do anything that’s going to make me have to think too much when I’m running.” My follow up was “Well, you can make a change, see if it works, and keep running, or you can do nothing and quit running because your hip hurts.” The point here is that she doesn’t care about performance and doesn’t want to think about form – she just wants to enjoy the few hours each week that she gets to spend out on the road. So how do I go about getting her to try a change so that she can run without pain?

One option would be to go through a litany of scientific studies, pulling data, and trying to convince her of the benefits of changing stride as it relates to ground reaction force, joint torques, etc. This is the kind of thing that would work for me. However, she doesn’t care about this kind of stuff, she just wants to run. Given that she is also a yoga fanatic (that’s her first love when it comes to exercise), a method like Chi Running might be a better choice for her, even if I disagree with a few of the finer points of the method. Ultimately, the answer is probably going to be similar using either approach, so why not use the one that’s going to appeal to her style to a greater degree?

So at the end of this way-longer-than-initially-anticipated post, I’ll say that I agree with Steve’s argument that some of the best practices of the minimalist running movement have their origins in the elite running world. However, I think credit is also due to Newton, Chi, and people like Christopher McDougall for helping translate these practices to the masses of recreational runners like myself. Maybe they don’t always agree on the details, but as long as we keep moving forward, studying, and pointing out errors when they are made, I truly believe that we all are going to end up with a fairly similar conclusion. My hope is that Steve continues to do just this, and I look forward to the follow-up to his first post on this topic. And me? I now need to find my wife a new pair of shoes…wish me luck.

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