This post has been a long time in the building. Not so much in the writing (though, as you’ll see, that certainly took some time), but in the learning, in the progression. Some things you just can’t rush. This is true of many things in running, but especially form changes. Oh sure, you can read the books, attend the clinics, and buy the shoes, but forcing things often leads to injury. Yes, there are the occasional runners gifted with the right balance of strength and good natural form. But whatever it is – being raised in elevated shoes, or spending a lot of time sitting at desks, running the “wrong way” for years, whatever explanation you may believe – most of us have to invest significant time if we want to become more injury resistant via improved running form. This is the summary of one such journey, and I don’t think it’s a unique trip.
The desire to move in this direction has come from the same motivation most runners have – getting away from recurring injuries. No, the high hamstring strain and Achilles tendinitis that plagued training the past few years weren’t entirely form-related. They were more likely the result of a bit of too-much-too-soonitis. But the “too much” threshold can certainly be raised through the gains described below (at least, I hope so – and so far so good). And the benefits in potential improved running economy and long term performance through consistency make the investment very worthwhile. Yes, every runner will be a little different, but these ideas will be directionally accurate for a great many of us.
The goal in working on form wasn’t to become a minimalist runner, or even to completely stop heel-striking. Such actions are just steps on the path to running success, and may not even be necessary ones at that. The goal was, however, to become quicker and lighter on my feet, and to be able to move to shoes that are lighter and less cushioned, especially in the heel, with an understanding that this can boost performance simply by quickening the stride.
I’ve mentioned previously subscribing to the belief that form follows function, that you can’t jump directly into running form improvements without making the right investments in strength and coordination. This may involve fixing imbalances, improving your mobility, or overcoming inherent weaknesses. Shortcutting this step is a major cause of such issues as Achilles tendinitis or plantar fasciitis arising from the use of minimalist running shoes, which is why sports medicine doctors and physical therapists love the trend.
Thus there have been three phases in my effort to become a less pronounced heel-striker, each of which involved a focus on both strength and mobility improvements and specific form gains related to these improvements, as detailed in the table below:
The progression ended up moving from gross motor to fine motor developments, and was driven by both honest self-assessments of weaknesses and informal diagnosis from a chiropractor and massage therapist, often in the form of seemingly innocuous questions like “is that all the further your toe can flex?”. The path therefore wasn’t preplanned, but more of a stumble-through process of finding and resolving the next issue at each step. And this isn’t to imply that the process is complete, as there are likely further gains to be made.
The initial focus was to reduce any potential overstriding by building core strength and working on stride rate and the manner in which I generated force while running. Again, the latter had to follow the former. Taking a broader definition of core strength to incorporate the glutes (via the Prometheus advanced core routine) and hips (via the Kratos upper leg and hip routine), and later incorporating the Runners Connect Strength Training routine, I focused on building sufficient strength to push off instead of pulling forward. Combining this with striving for a 180 steps-per-minute cadence resulted in landing with my foot underneath my body, instead of out ahead of it, with the knee slightly bent.
To audit these “form fixes”, I’d occasionally take stride counts on an ongoing basis (recognizing that “observation bias” may play a role, causing me to increase my rate when I was counting), and observing my form when passing reflective shop windows (note – daylight required). Eventually, this became second nature and on all but the slowest of recovery runs, my stride rate seemed to be stable around 180. Furthermore, I noticed more soreness in my glutes when running than in my quads or even hamstrings, suggesting success in making the glutes work harder, which was a desired outcome.
While this first phase kept me running for most of 2012, the calf remained a source of concern. It was never bad enough to make me take more than a day off, but it seemed always on the verge of tanking the season. Incorporating active isolated stretching several times per week helped as my mileage peaked. After the 2012 Towpath Marathon, I shifted my focus to improving my calf strength and mobility, specifically through adding the Achilles routine from the Runners Connect program. After about 8 weeks of consistent execution (2-4 times per week), I noticed a significant difference in my calf strength. The pain was significantly less frequent, but not completely gone.
Additionally, I increased the focus on core strength and again noticed significant gains after 8 weeks. My upper body felt even more stable (less bouncing, less rotation) when running, meaning less wasted energy and better efficiency. Combining this with an increased use of strides during training runs seemed to lead to a generally quicker turnover. And the newfound calf strength and mobility perhaps led to an improvement in my ability to “lean forward at my ankles” when I run and keep my knees bent when landing, instead of straightening my legs out in front.
But the calf (and hamstring) niggles continued, less significant than before but still noticeable. And I could tell that something was still off a bit about my stride, maybe it was a bit uneven. There were a couple of diagnoses that happened rapidly in sequence that provided the next set of clues as to where to focus. First, my chiropractor evaluated my big toe mobility and was “shocked” at the lack thereof. And shortly after that, the massage therapist at his practice (who is also his wife, and they are both elite runners) commented on the lack of mobility in my right ankle. Both these issues are probably injury-related – I spent much of my senior soccer season in high school playing on a sprained right ankle – and I’d never taken any steps to address them. Protecting my right calf / Achilles from excessive flexion during the 2012 season probably compounded the issue.
So the final (for now) efforts were around increasing both the range of motion and neuromuscular control in my foot and ankle, through strengthening and mobility work. I go into this more in a post on proprioception and ankle dorsiflexion on Runblogger. But this work, along with a form thought from Caleb Masland about “toe up, toe off” – in other words, dorsiflexing the ankle when the foot is in the air to create the opportunity for an elastic rebound and good toe-off during your stride.
It was this final run thought that seemed to seal the deal on moving to a midfoot strike. Such a pattern was abundantly clear during a recent tempo run, where the uptempo portion (around lactate threshold pace) was clearly run on the midfoot (or even forefoot) with my heel barely touching the ground, if at all. It wasn’t a conscious effort on how the foot landed that caused this, but all the work done in the past and the final “toe up, toe off” thought. I can’t guarantee that I’m a midfoot striker every time I head out – nor do I feel one needs to be – but certainly the tendency is now there at any effort that is marathon pace or faster.
And the calf pain has completely disappeared (save for the occasional odd twinge when I land funny during non-running activities). I noticed a bit of slowing in my workout pacing initially, perhaps due to a little bit of inefficiency in working with the new midfoot or forefoot strike. But I’ll gladly take the tradeoff of no pain and, hopefully, reduced ongoing injury risk. And I look forward to jumping at the opportunity to move to even more of a minimalist running shoe this year with a greater degree of confidence.