Running technique miracle?

One of the great aspects of the running technique coaching I’ve been doing this year with Mark Gorski has been the incredible opportunity to see how a wide range of runners of varying abilities move over the ground. Recently we’ve worked with a number of runners who have, for various reasons, been prescribed orthotics. Some of these runners have also been advised to wear their stiff orthotics inside heavily cushioned motion controlled running shoes. Generally, the orthotics we have seen have been the bulky, stiff and hard plastic kind that make fitting into running shoes a challenge and seemingly running well even harder.

There’s no doubting that the runners concerned sought out treatment for legitimate injury concerns and that in the short term the orthotics may have helped alleviate the symptoms. However, you have to wonder whether in many cases if the prescribed cure is so much worse that the disease. For me the alarm bells start ringing before these runners even step on the treadmill – simply standing has their feet tipped out at very aggressive and unnatural angles. A closer inspection of wear patterns on their shoes usually reveals the outside of the sole has been worn away at a faster rate than the rest of the tread.

One runner with such an orthotic and motion control shoe combination was in the store one day complaining of knee pain when running, it wasn’t hard to see why, the combined intervention of his 250 ($AUD)  trainers and $400 orthotics had him standing bow legged and looking like he has a very real chance of spontaneously breaking an ankle. He’s not a client yet and we’d love to see runners like this moving away from this kind of heavy handed intervention in their running and focusing on fundamentals like improving their overall strength, posture and coordination. However, we’re not podiatrists so if we feel that a runner could benefit from having their orthotics unprescribed we always refer them to a sports podiatrist for an expert opinion.

The number of runners Mark and I have seen wearing orthotics throughout this year has been quite surprising.  It suggests that either we’ve devolved as a running species or there is a serious amount of over-prescription of orthotic devices going on to runners who don’t really need them. Most runners can address their injury concerns through simple strength training and good coaching advice. Strength training is running technique training.

One of the questions I ask runners who have orthotics is to explain why it was they were prescribed in the first instance.  I haven’t had a great response to this question so far, runners either were never told or had forgotten. We are generally on the whole very trusting of advice received from people in white coats or those in control of computer aided shoe-fit technology. Always remain skeptical and keep asking questions.

My personal view is that orthotics should not be obtained for the objective of trying to improve running technique. I can make a case in my mind for their use in overcoming a clinical problem where the foot cannot function properly or for short term relief of an injury. But if your hooves are ok, then accepting orthotics as a pathway to avoiding injury or becoming a better runner is a risky and expensive business. Sock Doc Steve Gangemi, an iron-man chiropractor, recently took a big swing at orthotics on his blog and has promised on Twitter to wear Braveheart style blue warpaint as he declares war on orthotics. I can’t wait for the YouTube video.

The practical answer.  Have a run with and without orthotics and seek a second or even a third opinion from experts with different perspectives. What we are starting to do now is video runners with and without their orthotics and then refer them to a sports physician for an expert opinion on whether their orthotics are needed. This gives the podiatrist or physiotherapist plenty of information to work with and is probably more useful that jogging up and down the corridor of the clinic.

So getting back to the miracle cure. We recently saw two very different runners within the space of a few days that both exhibited dramatic improvements in running technique through the simple step of taking them out of a regular motion controlled running shoe, throwing away the orthotic and putting them in a pair of Nike Frees. For the avoidance of doubt this is not a Nike advertisement as we probably would have seen a similar result in other shoe models with a similar profile to the Free: i.e relatively modest heel-toe drop and flexibility under the foot. Thanks to Jonathan for allowing me to use this footage.

Before – running in supportive shoes and orthotics


You can see in this video that the foot strike pattern and foot and ankle posture is relatively heel-toe orientated. Remove orthotics and into some flexible, lower profile shoes and the foot and ankle posture becomes far more neutral. Interestingly, the overall running technique in terms of activation of the hamstrings and glutes also appears to improve. We noticed that wearing the Free Jonathan was also much lighter on his feet and whisper quiet on the sometimes noisy treadmill at Melbourne Running Company HQ . The footage is taken at the same speed 15kph or 4 minute km pace.

After – running without orthotics in Nike Frees


Before you get the wrong idea, I’m not a forefoot zealot, it’s more important to get your big running muscles (buttocks and hamstrings) working than to obsess about foot-strike.  What’s of interest here is the overall improvements to running technique that can be stimulated by changing footwear.  For example, in another case we noticed that the change in footwear not only modified the foot and ankle posture on contact but the resultant improvement in activation of the glutes (buttocks) actually improved the alignment of the runner’s leg with the hips.  This removed a good deal of pronation which was possibly one reason why the orthotics were initially prescribed.

The overall picture running in Nike Frees

 

What appears to be happening is that some runners with relatively good base running mechanics can have their technique compromised by shoes and the introduction of orthotics. Remove the intervention and the technique returns to a better state of affairs. However, unfortunately the solution is not so simple for every runner.  I’m in the category of runners who noticed less dramatic improvements to their technique with a change in footwear.  Having said I believe it has helped me evolve towards better running technique, over three years I’ve moved from wearing ASICS Kayanos, expensive inserts and $40 fluffy cushioned socks into being able to run 20km in a pair of Nike Free 3.0 wearing paper thin socks. The point is, for many runners it takes time and patience, for a lucky few faster improvements might be possible. Check out my article on safely transitioning to minimalist running shoes for more information.

Your running technique tips: find out if your orthotics and motion controlled shoes are really necessary and if they are doing more harm than good.

Written by

Related articles

, , ,

16 Responses to Running technique miracle?

  1. Alexandra April 16, 2013 at 1:23 am #

    I got orthotics a couple of months ago after I got a serious case of plantar fasciitis and shin splints during a hockey season. I have pronating ankles and rather flat feet and my orthotics are full length, such that they are the length of my entire foot as i also have a problem with my big toe when I walk too much. I also did an eversion ankle sprain three months ago and haven’t been able to wear my orthotics again until a couple of weeks ago, I have been wondering for a while if I should get some of the Nike free runs to wear as I am more comfortable in bare foot than anything. What do you suggest?

    • Brian April 16, 2013 at 8:32 am #

      Hi Alexandra, sorry I can’t give specific advice here. Best to get a couple of different professional opinions on what to do. If you were to get some Frees down the track they are now called Free 5.0 FYI.

      • Alexandra April 16, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

        Thanks

  2. Bree July 29, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    Hi there, great article. I was wondering if barefoot running could help me? I suffer from a tilted pelvis and when I run get bad shin splints.

    • Brian July 29, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

      Thanks Bree, I wouldn’t rush into barefoot running, get strong first

  3. Sarah March 19, 2012 at 3:56 am #

    I have orthotics and neutral running shoes, but I find they really make it hard to transition away from heel striking. I really want to try a more minimalist shoe, but I don’t know if I could or should continue using the orthotics in a minimalist shoe? I’m in dire need of new runners as mine are over a year old and probably have 1000 kms on them, however I can’t afford to buy two pairs of shoes. Any help/suggestions you could provide would be greatly appreciated!
    PS. Great article and information provided on here.

    • Brian March 19, 2012 at 8:58 am #

      Hi Sarah, that’s a tough question to answer as it depends on how you run, where you run and how much you run. I can’t really recommend a personal strategy because of those factors. Generally speaking, however if a runner is looking to move away from orthotics I’d suggest doing this very slowly and cautiously i.e. 5 – 10 min jogs without orthotics a few days per week keeping a keen eye on how the body reacts and backing off immediately if pain or discomfort arises. In terms of shoes a lightweight trainer with a small amount of support may be a good choice to help a transition away from orthotics, for example a Mizuno Elixer. Have a look at the article on minimalist podiatry, it might pay to get a second opinion on your orthotics. Depending on how they are made it is also possible to grind them down and reduce their support so the transition is more gradual. Brian

      • Sarah March 21, 2012 at 3:09 am #

        Hi Brian,
        Thank you so much for you reply! I went out yesterday, and purchased my new shoes and I now have a pair of Mizuno Wave Precision 12’s. After trying on several pairs and receiving excellent assistance, these were the winners. They were very comfortable, a lot less rigid than my old shoes and they fit my orthotics well. I have very high arches so a comfortable fitting shoe has always been very hard for me to find. Especially once my orthotics were inside! These shoes seem to have lots of room, but aren’t too loose even without the orthotics. I like your advice to try running without the orthotics very gradually. I don’t want to give myself any new problems by trying to transition too quickly! I read the article on minimalist podiatry and found lots of great information there too! Thanks again for your help!
        Sarah

        • Brian March 21, 2012 at 8:23 am #

          Hi Sarah, no worries, great that you found a good shoe. The Precision is a good place to start a transition, neutral shoe without too many features and a bonus they fit your orthotics. Definitely take any transition very slow and think about strengthening up your feet at same time – a few strategies in the a href=”http://www.runningtechniquetips.com/2011/10/barefoot-running-how-to-begin/” title=”Barefoot Baby Steps” target=”_blank”> article like walking about barefoot at home can help. Brian

      • Jake May 12, 2012 at 12:14 am #

        Brian,

        At he beginning of college Invested in a pair of orthotics because my right foot arch started to fall. Since then ( 5 years ago), I started wearing minimalist shoes and noticed that my right foot has been more fatigue than the left. I should note that my orthotic has been SOO built up in the arch of the right that it has me “finding” my foot when it hits the ground.

        The idea of my right foot has been “crutched” seems to be true since my calf and all the intrinsic muscles around my ankle are being worked and are weak.

        My question to you is…. is it possible to build back a fallen arch?

        • Brian May 12, 2012 at 7:50 am #

          Hi Jake, thanks for the comment. I’ll see if I can find an expert to provide a view on the fallen arch – no experience in that myself.

          • Stew May 15, 2012 at 7:41 am #

            Jake,

            The simple answer is that there is no simple answer – it all depends on the actual cause of the fallen arch as you describe it.

            If your right arch is just lower than your left (and we are not symmetrical), then no you cannot build it back up.

            It could also just appear lower than the left if your legs are not the same length (anything over 5mm will affect your arch heights differently). Building up the should leg would raise the right arch.

            If your arch has collapsed because of a weakened Tibialis Posterior muscle, then you can retrain the muscle in the early stages of degeneration, but not the latter. The “Tib Post” muscle/tendon complex is THE major supporting muscle of the medial arch.

            You really need to have this professionally looked at.

            I’ll do you a favour, get in touch with Brian and he can forward your email address to me. I will then correspond with you, asking for photos of your feet – I will then be able to help you.

            No, I am not some crackpot on the web, but a Sports Podiatrist since 1994 and see on average 150 Tibialis Posterior Dysfunctions a year – no exaggeration!!

            Ta,

            Stew

          • Brian May 15, 2012 at 8:26 am #

            Thanks Stew, great advice as always.

  4. Greg Strosaker February 23, 2012 at 3:00 am #

    Another good post, timely for me to stumble across this one as I’m dealing with some achilles/PF issues and the sports med doc is tossing around the idea of orthotics. Though, in my case, there is a little bit of leg length discrepancy to deal with too. I’m hoping that more hip flexibilty/mobility and glute strengthening exercises (I already do a lot of the latter) will help realign the hip and eliminate the leg length issue, thus avoiding the need for orthotics, but we’ll see.

    • Brian February 23, 2012 at 8:53 am #

      Hi Greg, Thanks and please keep me posted on how that works out for you, the glute strengthening and mobility work won’t be wasted whichever way you end up going. I’ll be posting another article about orthotics in a few days. Brian

  5. LobsangRama September 20, 2011 at 6:49 am #

    My personal story included Nike Frees. Stability and cushion shoes gave me trouble but they did better with simple sole inserts. Nike Free was better but I still had some pain. Barefoot and minimalist shoes took all pain away. However I was then a complete novice runner so I never tried to do miles and miles. And that slow start possibly saved me from “too much too fast” barefoot and minimalist shoe injuries.