Running technique myths

Running is a sport that despite being apparently simple is still heavily weighed down by myths. This wouldn’t be a problem, except for the risk of this misinformation causing you to get hurt or injured.  Many myths relate to running technique, but some also focus around shoes and training methods.  I’ll introduce some of the more spurious technique related myths here.

Heel-toe running: despite all of the evidence that better runners don’t generally run with an extreme heel-toe contact pattern some people still actively instruct runners to develop this in their running technique.  While I’m the first to put my hand up and say that minor heel-striking is not a major problem, the issue with teaching it as a fundamental skill is that it can prompt incorrect muscle activation patterns that may result in larger problems with the overall technique of a runner (e.g. propensity to over use the quadriceps muscles).   To give you a further example, if I instruct a runner to land heel-toe there are two things that could happen.  Firstly, the focus on landing itself may prompt the runner to switch off the impulse to activate their buttock and hamstrings muscles ahead off contact with the ground.  This results in a passive, weak and unstable contact phase where the runner loses momentum, no energy is stored in, or released by the muscles and tendons and the runner has to virtually start from scratch to develop power into the next stride.  Secondly, by searching for the ground with the heel the runner might be prompted to contact the ground with the foot ahead of the knee with a relatively straight leg – again this can cause high collision forces and braking.

So when is heel-toe not a major problem? When the runner has a minor heel-toe contact that is part of an overall active contact phase with the foot contacting the ground under or behind the knee and the buttocks and hamstrings are engaged ahead of and during the contact phase.  In this case the overall technique of the runner is sound even though there is minor heel-toe contact.  One runner that exhibits this moderate heel-toe pattern (and has been bagged for it by some experts) is American Meb Keflezighi.  However it’s worth pointing out that his overall technique is excellent with huge drive from the buttocks and hamstrings.  Despite his so called flawed running technique, Meb has been good enough to snag an Olympic Silver medal in the Marathon (Athens 2004) and win the New York City Marathon (2009).  If only my technique were as bad as Meb’s!

Running on your toes. One of the more risky things you can do as a runner is  deliberately attempt to run using a contact pattern that always has you up on your toes.  I cover this in detail in my eBook Running Technique, but the short version is this: At the elite level of middle and long distance running there are very few runners who remain on their toes the entire time their feet are in contact with the ground.  I’ve filmed many athletes including some world record holders, world champions and Olympic medalists. It’s very clear that while the majority of them contact the ground forefoot first, that this is part of a larger pattern where the foot flattens and the heel does contact the ground.  If you think about it, this makes sense, this pattern absorbs shock well and loads the calf and achilles complex and the feet with energy as the runner drives forward over a foot that stiffens into a strong, springy and stable platform.  Having the whole foot in ground contact is stable and efficient.

So how should I be landing? The simple answer is don’t obsess about it in the early stages of any campaign to improve your running technique.  A contact pattern that is minor forefoot, mid-foot or minor heel-toe is fine provided the overall muscle activation pattern is good.  A better running technique tip is to advise a runner to work on running with active glutes and hamstrings.  If you can do this you’ll find any heel striking will tend to become less extreme without much conscious effort.  Another area that is often neglected in discussion about running technique is how the foot leaves the ground – very important, but a story for another day.  The point is that one small element (e.g. minor heel-striking) does not tell you everything about a runner’s technique – the whole picture needs to carefully observed and understood before making any judgements.

The dangers of running. Running isn’t inherently dangerous.  Some people would have you believe that the act of running is akin to sleeping in a nest of vipers, but it’s really nothing of the sort.  Running with poor technique and de-conditioned muscles can be a problem I agree. However, some good instruction and a program of simple strength and coordination exercises can get you moving with a serviceable running technique that will help protect you from getting injured if you train sensibly.

Is it possible to improve your running technique? As the author of a book about improving running technique, this is my all time least favorite myth.  It persists, even in an age where every sport focuses on technique as being a critical component of success, but in running many people still believe that it’s not possible to change or improve a runner’s technique without making a pact with dark powers.  Having improved my own running technique, I can safely say that it is possible to make changes for the better,  and I didn’t have to meet the devil at the crossroads to do it:  like anything, if you work at it with persistence and a little knowledge it is possible to improve. The irony is that the people who say that technical change isn’t possible are often the coaches of elite runners or elite runners themselves.  These runners are clearly already technically very good, which leaves the rest of the population who have issues with their running due to lack of natural talent and coordination or de-conditioning of the muscles wondering who we should believe.

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