You walk and run wrong

23 03 2013

Last year when out on a Tuesday night ride with Rich (a good cycling buddy) he asked an innocent question near the beginning of the ride “I’m thinking about running an ultramarathon, want to join me” naturally I said no. After years of recurring running injures, I decided to stop running and just ride my bike, I don’t get injured cycling. I made that choice about 5-6 years ago. Seems Rich knew me better than I thought, by the end of the ride I’d taken what I’ve learned about long distant cycling, turned that in to a training plan and had agreed to give it go. I was going back to running.

heel strike

With a 40 mile event identified we signed up and started our training. It was during my first run with Rich that it happened. “You know James, you’re a real heel striker” Rich is a physiotherapist with an interest in running and cycling injuries. I didn’t really know what he meant so we chatted and I read around a little. Seems there are different ways to run, and walk for that matter. A heel striker will usually have a long stride and their heel will hit the ground first somewhere in front of the knee, such as the runner above. A mid foot or forefoot runner will have a shorter quicker stride, and land on their mid foot usually under the knee.


So what? Well, having the heel land first, so the theory goes, is an unnatural motion, you are slowing yourself down every time your foot hits the floor and putting a lot of stress up through your legs. Mid foot runners, have a lighter step, don’t have that braking motion and use the bodies natural biomechanics to take the shock. It’s simply a better way to run.

So I attempted to run differently, to shorten my stride, and continued to read. The ultra marathon approached, Rich and I were doing marathon length off-road training runs where we would talk about running style. It was like being back in the pool learning to develop an efficient swimming style. Thinking about form gets addictive. Then 4 days before the ultra I picked up an injured and had to pull out of the race. Despite that I went to the start on my new bike to ride the route whilst Rich ran the 40 miles. It was a fantastic December day in the Beacon Beacons, frosty, clear sky’s, stunning.


Rich only made it to mile 10, he turned his ankle over on a downhill section and had to pull out. So we both have unfinished business with that run and plan to head back next December. However, I stated to read a bit more. I picked up a copy of ‘Born to Run’ by Christopher McDougall. A fascinating read that takes you in to the world of barefoot running, ultra marathons and human evolution. The theory goes that as a race of animals we are a bit ‘pathetic’ really. We are not that strong, don’t run that fast, can’t climb that well. So how did we survive, what was our evolutionary advantage that allowed us to thrive? Seems that we are good at sweating and we can run very long distances. It means that in hot climates we can run down other animals because they cannot sweat. When they get hot they have to stop to pant to cool down (think about a dog on a hot day). If you keep startling an animal and keep it moving, it doesn’t have the opportunity to cool down and in the end will collapse through heat exhaustion. Simple.

The book also explores running injury and design of modern shoes. Simply put it would seem that the more ‘engineered’ a shoe i.e the thicker and stiffer the sole, the more padding then the more likely runners are to heel strike and the greater the incident of injury. Conversely, those runners that use minimal shoes or no shoes (this includes a number of tribes across the world) are more likely to run on the mid & forefoot and pickup less injuries.

So what’s going on, it’s not what I would have thought. Again the theory goes that the foot is an amazing piece of biomechanics, engineering for barefoot walking and running. Far from needing shoes to give them support to function correctly, modern over engineered shoes actually work to reduce the foots ability to feel the ground, reduced it’s ability to move naturally and reduces its natural strength. We end up becoming heel strikers because we have a great piece of padding protecting our feet. If you don’t have that padding then it hurts to land on your heel so you don’t! The foot doesn’t t need modern engineered shoes, it does a very good job on its own if allowed to, and we are less likely to get injured in the process. Sounds good to me.

making strides

This has all been fascinating. My reading has led me to the conclusion that I should now move away from my overly padded stiff shoes, and instead use shoes with a minimal sole. No padding, just a thin sole to protect your foot and zero difference in height between the heel and forefoot. But it’s not just a case of throwing all my shoes out and starting tomorrow, I’d end up injured. I need to strengthen my feet and legs, change my running and walking style and slowly move in to minimal shoes. It’s been all the more fascinating as Adam has just started to walk. Think Rach and I will be nurturing a minimalist walker and runner.

For now, well apart from the odd run where I practice my new style, and some specific strengthening exercises I’m back on the bike training for a 430 mile Highland Trail Race. A self supported mountain bike race in the Scottish Highlands. Once that’s done and despite my love for it, I plan to put long distance cycling on the back burner for a few years, get back out on the trails and start my journey towards becoming a minimal and hopefully injury free long distance runner. The journey will be one of form rather than purely fitness.

It’s been hard to find a single good source of information in order to explain this subject to those that are interested but I stumbled across an article today that inspired the title for this post. You walk the wrong way: It took 4 million years of evolution to perfect the human foot. But we’re wrecking it with every step we take.

painted gazelle

Rich, this journey of obsession, it’s all your fault!




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