Running is a great cardiovascular exercise that we humans are specifically designed to do. Our whole system is built to be able to run long distances with a great deal of efficiency. Running is a past-time currently enjoyed by millions, but also comes with its controversy and injuries.
Landing Pattern: Heel to toe is not all its cracked up to be
There has been a lot of debate about how we are supposed to land through a running gait. The pattern that my generation grew up with is the heel landing, pressure moving through the arch of the foot, and ending with the final push off of the toes. This is a relatively new phenomenon of running after the advent of modern, thick soled, running shoes. These large soft heels were added to the rear of the shoe to try to reduce the stress on the Achilles tendon. While it accomplishes that minor goal it fundamentally changed how we as a society ran, and brought with it a plethora of new running inefficiencies and injuries.
By adopting a rear foot landing pattern, we effectively lengthened our gait and brought our foot farther out in front of us to land. This then straightened our leg on ground impact, which transferred the force through our joints, instead of being absorbed by the elastic qualities of our ligaments and muscles. This new running style caused a sharp increase in joint injuries of the knee, hip, low back, etc. It also decreased the overall efficiency of the movement, as every time we strike the ground with our foot in front of us on a straight leg, we are effectively putting a “brake” on.
Another common running injury worth mentioning is shin splints. Because we are constantly having to control the descent of our foot from heel to toe on each impact, the muscle that does that (the Tibialis Anterior) gets greatly overworked. The Tibialis Anterior runs from the top of your foot to the inside of your shin. Because the muscle attachment runs along the whole length of the shin, and not one single strong tendon, it can get very inflamed from the repeated stress.
So, what should we do?
The biggest thing I recommend patients start with is simply to shorten their stride. Stride shortening pushes you to land with your foot more underneath you, which helps to dispel the ground reaction forces through the muscle/tissues (as they are supposed to), pushes you to land on your midfoot, takes stress off the shin muscles, and increases your cadence (strides), thereby increasing your efficiency of running by tapping into the elastic properties of our body. Focus on taking more steps, and keeping your foot underneath you when you land.
What about the minimalist shoes?
We were designed to run at peak efficiency with bare feet and a midfoot strike pattern right underneath the body allowing you to use the big, meaty calf muscles and glutes to propel yourself through the movement. Minimalist shoes attempt to recreate that by taking the majority of the material out of the bottom of the shoe, resulting in a “barefoot” feel. These are fantastic, IF you give yourself time to become acclimated to them.
Start Slowly and Be Patient!
Wearing giant, padded shoes our whole lives has effectively weakened all the supporting musculature in our legs, ankles and, most notably, our feet. There are 20 muscles and over 30 ligaments in each foot, that need time to regain their strength, endurance, and flexibility before you go out trying to run your usual routes in minimalist shoes. Start with a slow and excessively short run. Be prepared for your feet, your calves and glutes to be quite sore! Thankfully, our bodies have an amazing ability to heal, recover, and strengthen, so it will return in time.
Shortening your stride, changing your landing pattern, and moving towards a more minimalist shoe are a great way to increase your running efficiency and reduce the risk of running-related injuries.
This article is written for informational purposes only, and should not serve as substitute for the consultation, diagnosis, and/or medical treatment of a qualified sports physician or healthcare provider.