What Should We Be Really Looking At?
Yes, I know, it took me a while to finally write about barefoot running. I guess I dragged my feet because I thought it was just going to be another fashion fad. I was wrong. People are taking the Vibram 5 fingers and no-shoe running seriously.
I agree with the recent articles from Nature on barefoot running when it comes to correcting biomechanics. Barefoot running will encourage runners to not heel strike. However, keep in mind that heel striking is not necessarily bad. And it hasn't been proven so either way. I do believe there needs to be more research done as there are flaws in the Nature article. Firstly, there's a small sample size. Secondly, why were there only USA and Kenyan runners studied? Also, you cannot correlate injury or performance based on the article's findings of shod or barefoot running. These are not the only flaws, there are more. However, I do think the article is doing a good job at stirring up the thought processes behind running biomechanics.
It Started with Forefoot Landing...and Now It's Back
A while back, many thought it was best to land on our forefoot, like sprinters. A study
of elite runners in the 2004 Sapporo International Half Marathon released in 2007 found that nearly 75% of the runners were heel strikers, 24 were midfoot strikers, and about 1% were forefoot strikers. So, if only 1% of elite runners were landing on their forefoot (and they weren't in the top 4 finishes), then it's safe to say it's not efficient to land on your forefoot. Plus, landing on your forefoot can cause calf and achilles problems. We were meant to engage the supination/pronation/supination sequence of gait. It sparks the entire kinetic chain up and down the body. There are other interesting findings in this study, however, since there are many ways to interpret research studies, I don't want to cause anymore confusion by delving into them here. The point is, forefoot strikers were not the norm of elite half marathoners. Another point is the elite marathoners crossing the finish line are not barefoot, in Kenya OR the USA.
What should we be looking at, the golf swing?
Let's look at golf and golf research. (Even if you don't golf, there's a lot to learn from golf biomechanics!) There are many different looking golf swings out there. Within each style (one plane, two plane, etc.) of swing, each player brings his our her own uniqueness to the swing style. Therefore, if we study 100 different professional golfers, we'll see most likely 100 different kinds of swings. Running is no different. We have POSE method and Chirunning. We have professional runners with their arms by their sides, up in the air, hands in fists, wrists flexed or extended, heels almost touching their glutes, high knees during the swing phase, etc. If we videotape 100 elite and professional runners, we'll see 100 different styles.
Golf research has found ONE particular variable that is consistent with tour players: The kinematic sequence of the golf swing. MyTPI
has found that the tour players as compared to amateurs, were consistent with timing of the movement of their pelvis, trunk, arms, and club head.
I feel we are lacking this kind of research for running, though I believe we are close. However, most of the research performed on runners takes place on treadmills. The problem with evaluating on treadmills is that it is an open kinetic chain exercise, not a closed kinetic chain exercise like running on the ground. The biomechanics of gait can change from treadmill to ground running and therefore, treadmill running is not an accurate research technique.
Where does this leave us?
We should be looking at WHERE our foot strikes the ground in relation to our body rather than what part of our foot hits the ground. In my own video analysis business, I notice elite and professional runners midfoot and heel striking close to their center of gravity. I notice amateurs are most likely to heel strike and land too far IN FRONT of their body, causing their center of gravity to be behind their foot strike, and thus, causing a braking situation during the gait cycle.
Let's now turn to basketball. Basketball players will spin a basketball on their finger. If you watch their "technique", they are not stopping the ball, and then swiping the ball to get it started again. While the ball is spinning, they are gently swiping the ball on a tangent as to not cause the ball to stop or slow down. Meaning their hand is moving about the same speed or faster when they strike the ball in the same direction the ball is moving. We can apply this to the running gait.
As your foot swings forward, it will hit the end of it's "pendulum". Ideally, your foot will start moving back into extension to begin the pendulum swing backwards (occurring in milliseconds) before it hits the ground. This way, your foot will be moving in the same direction on the ground to maintain and create more momentum while reducing friction causing you to slow down.
Landing too far in front of your body, as stated above, can create a braking motion causing you to slow down and then having you to regenerate the momentum again, which can be an inefficient use of energy. However, landing too far in front of your body can also cause excessive strain on your knees, shins, and calves since your center of gravity is behind the point of impact.
Example of overstriding
Heel strike too far in front of the center of gravity
So What About the Shoe Question
Good foot strike
What the articles and no-shoe advocates are saying about the benefits of no shoe running are correct. Running barefoot will encourage you to NOT heel strike. However, I stated earlier (and the research justifies) that landing on your heel is not such a bad thing. It's where your foot lands in relation to your body that matters. If you want to learn how to land closer underneath your body, then learning to midfoot strike may be a benefit to you because it's awfully hard to land midfoot so far in front of your body. You can do this without barefoot running and it takes practice. Soon I will post an article on exercises for landing efficiency.
The Cons of Barefoot Running
For most of us, we grew up in shoes and are used to wearing shoes to run, walk, work, play. Therefore, my advice is to take caution. I do not recommend it for long distance running and I do not recommend running barefoot for the majority of your runs. If you want to start running barefoot to strengthen your feet and work on running technique, my advice is to start walking barefoot at 1/4 mile increase at a time. Walk around the house barefoot, around the yard barefoot. Wear your Vibram shoes about town. Then eventually start running barefoot or in your Vibram shoes 1/4 mile at a time and increase accordingly. Unless you have grown up barefoot, I would not recommend running more than 5 miles barefoot or in Vibram shoes. Of course, we are all different and some may be able to handle marathons in Vibram shoes, I would advise against it to avoid foot and achilles injuries. Remember, most of our shoes, including running shoes, have a slight heel lift in them so our achilles are accustomed to this rise in our shoes. If you start running longer distances barefoot, you are putting yourself at risk of an achilles tendon injury as the achilles tendon now has to adapt to a new length while running.
Wait, There's More
Yes, running is not just about where your foot lands, it's about stride angle, stride length, how long your foot stays on the ground, etc.. All of these topics (as well as how to run like a Kenyan) will be described in my new website, Runanalysis.com, scheduled to be released in about a month. Stay tuned!
Another thing to think about, the golf club industry has sored over the last 40 years coming out with technology that will make you play better. However, what hasn't changed in the last 40-50 years is the average score in golf. In running, the injuries haven't been reduced by "better" technology, either. Your body is your most important piece of equipment. I think it's time we start paying better attention to it.
Meanwhile, visit Innersport
to learn more about the benefits of video analysis of gait by Dr. Jess