If you’ve been following this blog for the past few months, you’re probably aware that I’ve developed a deep interest in the topic of running form, and have spent a good amount of time working to modify my own form to a shorter, quicker stride with a midfoot landing. Well, after a long process and a lot of practice and hard work, I finally feel like I’ve clicked into a new comfort zone with my running form. As I’ve said before here, my reasons for trying to change were mainly to see if I could, and to find out if there was any benefit to me in doing so. I was not injured, nor was I particularly unhappy with my speed/efficiency, but as an evolutionary biologist I find the notion of running like my my ancestors did, and my 6 year-old son currently does, appealing, and I figured I’d make myself a guinea pig and give it a shot.
Let me start by showing a video of me running in the Manchester City Marathon from last November (2009):
What you’ll notice in the video above is that I was a heel striker, though not as pronounced as some others I have seen in the same race, and my leg was extended a bit more at the knee upon ground contact than I would have liked, though again not so bad that I would call it extreme overstriding. I probably could have continued running like this without much problem, but I’m an experimenter, and an opportunity for self-experiment like this simply could not be turned down.
Below is another video of my gait from early Fall 2009 – again, a very distinct heel strike in Nike Free 3.0′s:
My approach to form change began mostly with me running once a week or so in Vibram Fivefingers KSO’s. I was very cautious with the Vibrams, and used them in this manner for about 9 months. For quite awhile, the Vibrams were the only shoes in which I was able to run easily on my midfoot or forefoot, mainly because they lack a heel and almost force you to shorten up your stride and avoid heel-striking. Earlier this summer I got a pair of VFF Bikilas, and built my mileage up in them to a long run of 15 miles – I found the Bikilas to be even more effective than the KSO’s for my stride work, possibly because my KSO’s are a size to large for my feet and I could only run in them with Injinji socks.
During this past summer, I began working on my form in a much more focused manner. This was spurred in part due to prodding by some friends on a discussion forum that I participate in (thanks Harry and Tuck!), and I did a few barefoot runs just for fun. Running barefoot is one of the most effective ways to do form work since your feet can really sense the interaction with the ground, and you have to be very conscious of what you are doing. I have done as many as 2 miles on asphalt fully barefoot, though it’s been a bit since I have returned to it. I also found speed work on a track in my Brooks Mach 12 flats to be very helpful – by running fast on the track with no music or distraction, I found that I could really focus inward on my body. I used Steve Magness’ cue to “put the foot down behind you” as a way of trying to shorten up my stride in front of the body and get my landing a bit closer to the center of mass (i.e., roughly my hips), and I also tried working on increasing hip extension behind the body on the track (the latter is a work very much in progress).
While doing nearly all of this, I still found running on my midfoot or forefoot to be very awkward and inefficient in any shoe that had any form of heel. This includes things like the Nike Free 3.0 or Saucony Kinvara, both of which have only a 4mm heel lift. I had reached a point where I was fairly well convinced that I would heel strike in any shoe that was not zero-drop. Then something strange happened. I received a test pair of GoLite Amp zero-drop trail shoes in the mail, and took them out for a spin one night. The GoLite Amp is a fairly bulky shoe (12.5oz) and does not line up with my typical preference for very lightweight shoes, but it has no heel lift, and I was very curious to try it out. To my surprise, despite it’s bulk, I could run in it on my midfoot almost effortlessly. Something clicked that night, and for the next week I did all of my runs in the Amp or in another test shoe I had received, the Mizuno Wave Universe. The Mizuno is by far the lightest shoe I own (3.8oz), and it has a 5-6mm heel lift. However, I found that like the Amp, it was effortless to run in them with good form. What once felt awkward now felt natural, and I was clearly now using my leg musculature to absorb much more of the impact shock (could definitely feel it in my quads).
The strange thing is that ever since that week of running only in the Mizuno Wave Universe and GoLite Amp, I have been able to carry my form over to any shoe with a reasonably reduced heel. It’s almost as if my body said “OK, I know how to do this now, and from now on it’s going to feel comfortable.” It felt like after a long trial period, the new motor pattern was finally accepted by my body that week, and has now been committed to muscle memory. This may sound totally crazy, but it was my experience, and right now things are going very well.
As a result of all of this, I now believe that you can run easily with midfoot/forefoot form in most shoes with a reasonably low heel, but that it will be much easier to get there if you employ some form of zero-drop shoe along the way (or go barefoot). For me, the Vibrams were a huge help, and the GoLite Amp, though not an everyday running shoe for me due to its weight, made me really realize the value of zero-drop. My muscles are getting stronger, and I feel like I am getting more efficient with my retooled stride – hard to know if I am any better off now than I was last Fall, but it certainly has been a fun and eye-opening experiment. Form change is possible, it just requires patience and hard work.
There’s one other thing that I have found very helpful in my attempt to modify my running form, and it’s something that my friend Mark Cucuzzella talks about a lot – get flat as often as possible. Whenever I’m not running, I try my best to be either barefoot (around the house) or in shoes with little or no heel lift (Vibrams, Birkenstocks, yard work in Nike Sneakerboats, walking in GoLite Amps, at work in black Nike Free 3.0′s). My goal now is to be done with all forms of majorly heel lifted shoes for almost all occasions. I still find value in shoes with some heel lift and will continue to use them regularly (e.g., things like the Saucony Kinvara, Nike Free, etc.), but gone are my days of running in anything with a traditional 12mm heel lift.
I’ll prelude my current form videos shown below by saying that my form is still very much a work in progress, and this will probably continually be the case from here on out. Now that I have become more aware of my running body, it’s hard not to think about the little things that one might try as a way to further improve. If you notice anything in the following videos or have any suggestions for me, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
First, here is a video of me running in Brooks Mach 11′s from early July – pretty big heel strike, and my son follows me to show how it should be done (in Crocs!):
Second, here are three clips of me running taken yesterday in the Nike Free Run+, Saucony Kinvara, and Newton Distance Racers. All three show pretty decent midfoot form with the foot landing more-or-less directly below the knee – this is what I have been aiming for. It’s hard to run naturally when you know you are filming yourself, but this is a pretty good set of clips in which I attempted to zone out and run as I do when out alone on the road. Making progress!