I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between footwear (or lack thereof) and how it affects my running footstrike. Over the past year I’ve been running in everything from full-blown, pronation-control stabilty shoes (Saucony Progrid Guides, Brooks Adrenaline GTS 8) down to Vibram Fivefingers KSO’s, which are about as minimalist as you can get without being barefoot. Like many other runners, I read “Born to Run,” Christoper McDougall’s great book on the joy of running, the reasons why we humans should run, and the potential dangers of modern footwear. I took many of the lessons from that book to heart, foremost that we humans evolved to be distance runners, and that messing with what we do naturally is probably not a good thing. However, in my mind the great unanswered question remains: What is natural when it comes to running?
I find myself in a unique position to begin trying to provide at least a little additional insight into the answer to this seemingly simple question. I am a biologist with a background in anatomy and biomechanics [although my research has mostly focused on frogs (yes, frogs!), the basic principles are the same], and I teach Human Anatomy & Physiology at a small college, and will be teaching Exercise Physiology for the first time next semester. I admittedly don’t have a background in human research, but I’m learning a lot in this process, and we’ll see where it goes. I have a small lab, a troupe of research students, and some funding and equipment that allows me to do some things that are not easily done at home (e.g., high-speed video cameras). Perhaps as important as my biological background, I’m also a fanatical runner, and this is really what drives my interest in trying to answer questions like that posed at the end of the opening paragraph. This new line of work has quickly become my passion, and I’m excited to be heading in this new research direction. We have some interesting projects already underway, most notably a high-speed video analysis of footstrike patterns in over 900 runners from the 2009 Manchester City Marathon that was run in early November – details and video clips (like this one) from that project will hopefully begin to trickle out over the next few months.
Before getting into the videos that follow, I’d like to state a bit about my philosophy about science, academics, and research. I, like all other other academic scientists, use scholarly journals as a primary outlet for disseminating the data I collect (you can view my work webpage here). This allows for review by our peers to control quality of data and soundness of interpretations, and scholarly publication is required in most institutions if we want to get tenured and keep our jobs. I see a lot of value in scholarly publication, but unfortunately these publications often get missed by those who might most benefit from their content. Journal articles can be highly technical and hard to read, they usually do not get wide circulation unless picked up by the media (and trust me, tadpole research doesn’t usually attract much attention), and their conclusions are often hedged due to the nature of scientists to not want to take a firm stand on a given issue (the old, hypotheses can’t be proven, only “supported” or “not supported” by the data philosphy that we get drilled into us early on). I publish, but I’m not hung up on counting articles – at the end of the day, I’d feel more gratification if one of my blog readers decided to get off the couch and start running than if I added another paper to my CV. In fact, one of my primary reasons for starting this blog back in January was to find a more open forum to bring some science out in a more understandable and conversational fashion. I am first and foremost a teacher (this is the part of my job I enjoy the most!), and my hope is that through posts like this I can teach a bit about how academic science works, as well as present some scientific data in a readable, and hopefully entertaining way. If any of my students happen to be reading this, they can vouch for me that this is my approach in the classroom as well.
Now, back to the videos. Like any good scientist, I tend to think a lot about the things that I study. Project ideas (as well as blog posts like this!) often come to me on my runs, and so it was the other night that I was trying out a pair of Newton Sir Isaac shoes that had been sent to me (Newton’s are designed to facilitate a forefoot strike) when I decided to film myself running on a treadmill in just about every shoe condition I could think of. Several running friends on Dailymile have suggested this as well (e.g., Matthew L., David H. to name a few), so yesterday I finally took the plunge. As an honest scientist who respects statistics, I should point out very clearly at the outset that I am a sample size of one, and although I did my best to control conditions, what follows is merely a first look and nowhere near a true scientific study (coordinating turning on and off of the camera while hopping on and off the treadmill was quite a challenge in and of itself and made for some interesting slow motion video footage!). I shot the following videos mainly to provide some food for thought for myself and for you reading this, and as a way of generating some ideas for projects for my research students and Exercise Physiology class next semester. I’d love to hear what you think – any and all thoughts/suggestions/criticisms/ideas are welcome, and I truly mean that!
So here are the relevant details about what I did yesterday. All of the videos below were filmed in an approximately 20 minute session in fairly rapid succession. I ran five minutes to warm up, then haphazardly changed from one pair of shoes to another (in no particular order). For each condition, I filmed myself for about one minute at 300 frames-per second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 digital camera. Each clip below is a small segment of the total video clip pulled from the end of the one-minute session (this was plenty of time to get into a comfortable running gait). Speed was the same in every single video (7 mph). Below each video is a brief summary of what it contains, and what I could gather from looking at my footstrike. The videos tend to stutter a bit, which is either a result of the conversion process during upload, or something to do with the Vimeo site (they are apparently working on the issue). The raw videos are perfectly smooth.
Brooks Adrenaline GTS 8 from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Brooks Adrenaline GTS 8′s – definite heel strike here. Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.
Brooks Launch from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Brooks Launch – mild heel strike here, but extremely smooth heel-toe transition (this is my current go-to shoe). Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.
Newton Sir Isaac from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Newton Sir Isaac shoes – used my natural gait, and still have a heel strike here (I’m a newcomer to Newton’s – only one 5-mile run so far). Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.
Newton Sir Isaac from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Newton Sir Isaac shoes – tried to shift to a more forefoot footstrike here, but still feels strange (I’m a newcomer to Newton’s – only one 5-mile run so far). Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.
Nike Free 3.0 from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Nike Free 3.0 – mild heel strike. Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.
Saucony Kilkenny 3 from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Saucony Kilkenny 3 cross-country flats – appears to be a midfoot strike. Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.
Running in Vibram Fivefingers KSO from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Vibram Fivefingers KSO’s – appears to be a midfoot strike. Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.
Smartwool Ph.D. Socks from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Smartwool Ph.D. socks – appears to be a midfoot strike. Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.
Barefoot Running on Treadmill from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of barefoot treadmill running – appears to be a nice midfoot strike (this was my first ever attempt at running barefoot on a treadmill). Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.
So what can I conclude from this very simple experiment? First, I am definitely a heel striker in stability shoes like the Brooks Adrenaline and neutral shoes like the Brooks Launch and Nike Free 3.0. When switching to cross-country racing flats (Saucony Kilkenny 3) or Vibram Fivefingers KSO’s, I take on a more midfoot strike, which is also clearly present in the sock and barefoot conditions. What I find particularly interesting is that when trying to run naturally in the Newton’s (which as mentioned above are designed to facilitate a forefoot strike), I still tend to heel-strike, and only when I consciously forced the issue was I able to shift to a forefoot landing. Forcing the forefoot landing did not feel comfortable to me, and in no other case did I exhibit a forefoot strike (not even when barefoot).
My gut feeling is that at least for me, midfoot may be the most natural landing style since I do it when barefoot, but much more work needs to be done before any generalizable conclusions can be made (reminder – I am a sample size of one, I ran at one speed, and am not an experienced barefoot runner!). I plan to give the Newton’s more time (I’ve only done one 5-mile run in them), but from watching marathon videos, my sense is that a “true” forefoot strike is biomechanically very different from midfoot/heel striking. It seems that I can get to midfoot relatively easily from a heel-strike, and it seems to be related in me to footwear type (less/no shoe = midfoot strike). Those “true” forefooters I have seen so far mostly seem to land way up on the outside of their forefoot, and would probably do so wearing a shoe with twice the heel of my Brooks Adrenalines. I should point out that none of this really argues one way or another as to which style of landing is “best” – we may never have an agreed upon answer to that question. It’s all very interesting, and I haven’t quantiifed anything yet, so stay tuned!
I’ll finish by repeating what I said earlier – I’d love to hear feedback/ideas/suggestions, so don’t hesitate to leave a comment!