Wednesday, January 16, 2013

FOOT STRIKE for distance runners - Transition from heel strike

In the beginning, like many others, I was a prominant heel striker.  By prominant I mean I'd wear my shoes down considerably on the outside edge of the heel before any other signs of use came visible on the shoe. 

What is the foot strike?  Essentially, the foot strike is point where the foot meets the ground at the completion of a stride.  The positioning of this strike plays a vital role to your overall technique and with proper practice, can make massive improvements to your overall run speed and race times.

It wasn't until I built a base level of fitness and began looking into technique tips for distance running where I came across the concept of forefoot and midfoot striking.  To be honest, I didn't even know there was a particular technique for the angle and position of your foot upon grounding each stride.  I thought most of your technique was based around body alignment and breathing.

Following all the craze, I decided to start this 'forefoot' running straight away.  WOW, I don't think I made it 1/4 of my normal distance before my calves were screaming at me!!!!  "I'd better get used to this..............."

After several attempts over several weeks, nothing seemed to be letting up when trying to strike on the front of my foot.  It just didn't feel natural.  It wasn't until I become really fatigued on a long run one weekend and tried to continue the forefoot landing but couldn't that I found myself compromising to a mid-foot strike.  Almost immediately I found this relieving. In fact, everything pretty much fell into place with stride, effort vs output, and general comfort with the remainder of the session.

Why is it that some people swear by forefoot, while others can't go near it?  It's a near certainty that no one of any worthy experience in distance running agrees with a heel strike so we can automatically put that in the rubbish bin.  If you're in that category, do what you can to rid yourself of the bad habit ASAP.

6 months of habit forming, I'm happy to say I'm a comfortable mid foot striker.  I feel fresher for longer, the joints seem to feel better after long sessions (especially on hard pavement or bitumen) and I've massively reduced my vertical movement.

Breaking Ultra running down into it's core is that it is ultimately about running as efficiently as possible.  Or in other terms, the ability to move forward as fast as possible with as little energy usage as possible.

2 of the biggest energy zapping errors many runners make in the early days are:
  1. heel strike
  2. too much vertical movement
There's many more but that's for another day.  The reason a heel strike is poor for your form in terms of efficiency is that you are landing with your foot in front of the body.  A foot landing in front of the body means you are effectively breaking upon striking the ground.  Why would you want to use energy to slow down?  Too much vertical movement means you are using energy to move up, not forward.  Again, a waste of much needed energy.  You will no doubt need some vertical movement, but keep this as little as possible.  You have feet, not wheels so to cut this completely is near impossible.  A good guide to your vertical movement is to look at the horizon as you run.  You should see only a slight movement in your view up and down.  Should this look like an amateur video with the view jumping about, you need to drop your stride down.

The good news is, I found by changing my strike to mid-foot, this automatically cut out a substantial amount of my vertical movement.  Pacing sped up by around 15-20 seconds per KM in training within a month purely from a change in form.
How do you change the strike position?  Put simply; shorten your stride! If ever I find myself heelstriking I can always put the issue towards striding out too far.  I pull my stride back, and straight away I mid-foot strike again.  The most common time I find myself falling back into the bad habit is if I'm majorly fatigued, or running downhill and not thinking about it.  Running downhill in poor form can rapidly cause damage to your knees and other joints so be sure to work on this here.

You may also find that by shortening the stride, your cadence (leg turnover speed) will increase to keep up the pace.  This will take a short amount of getting used to but bare with it.  It comes about pretty quickly.  Throw in a couple of extra speed sessions in the coming few weeks and you'll find this issue resolved.

What's the aim?  The concept of mid-foot or fore-foot striking is to improve your efficiency whilst reducing risk to injury.  There's nothing wrong with your foot going slightly in front of the body during stride, but it needs to be on it's way back by the time it hits the ground. (think of the Road Runner cartoon where his legs go around in a circular motion).  I personally haven't been able to master this however I've seen some other quality distance runners use this quite well.

Try turning off your Ipod for the next month, and set yourself the target of improving your strike and stride over the next 4 weeks.  Initially use the first 1/4 of your run to deliberately focus on the changes you want, followed by the remainder of the run as normal. By the 2nd week, increase this to half of the run, and 3rd week to 3/4.  You get the idea. 

Why not 100% change straight up?  Depending on the amount of change you need to make, this could create quite a shock on the surrounding muscles, causing strain, excessive fatigue or even inury whilst you're getting used to it.  The other issue is that if you have an event in the near future, you don't want to put undue stress on the body in your lead up.  Changes in technique and form are vital to your continual improvement (And I personally have a long way to go) but they need to be managed and undertaken properly and inteligently.

Who knows, maybe one day after a long period of running mid-foot, I might move towards fore-foot, but for now I can't see that working for me.  I suggest to try both out to see what's comfortable and gives the best result.

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