Friday, August 9, 2013

Minimalist Running–Heel Strike Controversy

There is currently a small backlash in the media against minimalist running and the success of the market in minimalist running shoes. One good article from the Washington Post is here: 

There is another interesting perspective from the wonderfully articulate Kenyan runner Kiplimoc Chemirir:

The Washington Post article does not come as a great surprise to me because it is addressing the issue of forefoot versus heel striking. Some time ago I realised that forefoot striking was not right for distance running – at least for my legs. The Achilles tendon and calf muscles were destroyed by this and even after a short layoff it was hard to run only 5k without problems in this area. None of this is news however! One of the most popular representations of running technique that is applied to minimalist running is ChiRunning. (This and “pose” method are the most prevalent). In ChiRunning it’s made clear that the foot should strike the ground with the heel – however there is a subtle twist that is completely missed in the above articles! The trouble with modern thick heeled running shoes is that they encourage over-striding in front of the body – leading to a heel strike on the back of the heel. Runners don’t learn to be aware of their feet or stride due to all of this cushioning. ChiRunning explains that you need to aim for a point towards the front of the heel. This is quite a fascinating exercise because there isn’t actually a real contact point there – you have to just visualise and aim for this target. It’s probably more of a mid foot strike but with an emphasis towards the heel. It probably looks like a mid foot strike, but it’s slightly different and feels different. When I started using it with minimalist shoes it dawned on me that it’s the feeling I used to get as a child running very happily in standard flat un-cushioned plimsolls – and it was totally natural for me then – before being seduced by my first pair of Brookes running shoes based on the Nike principle of encouraging over-striding as a way to lengthen stride.

In conclusion – the news that most barefoot African runners actually heel strike does not come as a surprise and certainly goes a long way towards vindicating author Danny Dreyer  in ChiRunning. Initially I was very skeptical of his work but after studying it very closely and persistently I was very surprised at how each detail he described turned out to be right – and how much of my own resistance had to be overcome to get to this point of understanding.

Kiplimoc’s writing is beautifully poetic and inspiring – but he seems to write more from the heart than from the head. He criticises “barefoot running” success on the track but ignores the fact that world records have been broken barefoot (Zola Budd 1985, 5000m). He points out the obvious negatives in barefoot running but fails to acknowledge that there may be value in the fact that he grew up barefoot and developed his instinctive running style from that foundation. He also ignores the fact that elite racing shoes are very close to minimalist in design – being very thin and flat. You don’t see fat Nike running shoes on elite racers.

Barefoot running on tarmac with exposure to glass, steel objects and all sorts of unnatural risks doesn’t make much sense. Minimalist shoes that protect but allow natural feeling and sensitivity of the feet are at least extremely useful for developing both awareness and allowing the body to find it’s own natural efficiency. Some of the older generations of UK fell runners – when they only had heavy  boots – would scout their entire routes barefoot. Apart from the fact that 1/3rd of the body’s bones are in the feet there is a mechanical effect that ripples up all the way through the body. If the stride is wrong then posture is damaged and all sort of havoc is generated. Landing on the front of the heel, with the foot below the body (not in front) and extending the stride behind the body creates an entirely different and positive set of physical consequences compared to over-striding and landing on the back of the heel – which damages knees, hips and backs – probably causes basic shin splints too.

Minimalist shoes seem to be needed across a range of functions. Very thin and light seems to be great for soft trails. When there are stone chips to run on then slightly thicker protection is needed and where there is mud then proper treads are needed to grip. The key seems to be to always go as minimal as possible while respecting the terrain. Feet that are able to feel the ground seem to act like a second pair of eyes – that’s probably what nature intended and where Nike went wrong.

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