Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Are we messing with form and shoes as a substitute for hard training?

Everywhere I look today, I see information on "the perfect running form." Articles on how to move from an ungainly heelstrike to a beautiful stride where your midfoot gently kisses the ground. How you should ditch your heavy foamboat foot coffin trainers with their high wedge heels and go to a minimalist zero-drop shoe that promotes good form. How this will all help you run faster, more efficiently, and injury-free. I can hardly go to a running website or forum anymore without being bombarded with information overload on form and shoes! And people are eating this information up too, to the point that I see more questions about running form and shoes than about training!

I know a lot of runners. There's a lot of variation as far as form goes, and as far as what shoes they wear. There are a lot of heel strikers, some midfoot strikers, and even a few forefoot strikers. And their shoe choices run the gamut from traditional trainers with a high level of cushioning and stability to completely barefoot. And it's not like the slow ones are the heel strikers who wear heavy trainers...my fastest friend is a heel striker who primarily wears the Brooks Defyance, a neutral trainer with a 12mm heel-toe differential and a high level of inherent stability for a shoe of its class (yes, neutral shoes have support built in). However, there is one thing that all of the fast ones have in common...they all work their effin' asses off.

Now, before we go any further, let me answer the question that several angry people are ready to pose: am I insinuating that people who are concerned with form are not training hard? Of course not. You can play around with form and still train hard. AlSal had Dathan doing it, and he's working pretty darn hard. That's not what I'm talking about at all. The catch is Dathan is not more concerned about his form than with the rest of his training (I'm assuming so anyway, since I don't actually know Dathan, but I think it's a reasonable conclusion). My concern is the people who are trying to change their natural heelstrike to a midfoot strike or transition from their Brooks Glycerin to the Somnio Nada in hopes of getting faster, and convincing themselves that that's more important than say...hard 800 repeats on the track.

Not every person has the same structure. We all have the same big structures, and we all run basically the same way. However, there are small structural differences from person to person. Small differences in the angles of our bones, or the laxity of our ligaments. All of this means that different strides are most efficient for different people. Amby Burfoot just wrote about how generalizations about foot strike and shoe choices are stupid. It just doesn't work. Not everyone will run best as a midfoot striker who wears minimalist shoes, and for many people, those two conditions will increase their risk of injury. The idea that everyone should transition to minimalist shoes is every bit as ludicrous as the idea that everyone needs orthotics.

But enough preaching about that. I do enough of that in other posts. What I want to discuss is the fact that many people are trying so hard to attain that perfect form that they are losing sight of what actually needs to be done to make them a better runner. That's hard, quality training. Depending on where you are in your running career, it could be high mileage, it could be fast track work, it could be long tempo runs, or it could be, and most likely is, some combination of those (and more). Hard work is sometimes unpleasant. I'm not going to sit here and lie and say it's all fun and games, because it's not. But it's what makes you faster. We all like to try to find the easiest, least painful way to attain our goals. That's just human nature. And working on moving to a midfoot strike or running low mileage because you're transitioning to less shoe sure sounds easier and less painful than 10x1600 at tempo pace. But the easiest and least painful way isn't always the best way (and sometimes, it's the completely wrong way). Most of the time, shortcuts don't work. Changing your natural footstrike or transitioning to a more minimalist shoe is not a substitute for real work.

Similarly, there are a lot of people who get injured and automatically blame their shoes or their "poor form." However, assuming you're not in a radically wrong pair of shoes for your biomechanics, most injuries are training related. Simply put, you went faster or longer than what your tendons and ligaments are currently able to handle. Structural changes happen slowly (much slower than cardiovascular changes, for example), making it easy to push too hard and injure the structures of your body that are taking longer to adapt than your cardiovascular system. (Gotta be honest here, I'm guilty of this too sometimes.)

In general, I'd encourage people to stick with what kind of stride comes naturally to them, and to figure out their most efficient stride through training. When you're putting in high mileage weeks or running Daniels' style repetition work, your body is going to figure out what's most efficient for your personal structure on its own. You'll be too tired or trying to run too fast to run with anything but efficient form. Your body will have no choice but to to run in a manner than conserves energy (the definition of efficiency). But if you really want to play around with your stride, nothing I say is going to stop you. So instead, I'll just give you a friendly reminder to keep in mind that it won't make you faster the way quality work will, so please don't lose sight of what it actually takes to make you a better runner.


  1. I have to agree with this post, especially the last paragraph. Nature knows what its doing. This isn't to say messing with form is necessarily bad (I did it to stop being a huge heel striker) but too often I read how midfoot striking or barefoot running magically raises your efficiency levels and makes you faster. FALSE! The only way to get better is consistent training. Being more efficient can save energy, but in itself won't increase fitness levels.

  2. Good stuff, Ziranshng! As you said, consistent training is the "secret" to faster running. Being faster is a combination of a ton of factors, no magic involved. Efficiency is *one* of those factors, but nothing improves efficiency like training hard anyway! Coincidentally, consistent training helps with all of the other factors too: VO2 max, lactate threshold, endurance, etc.

  3. Do you REALLY know many runners who believes that improving their form or changing shoes is a replacement for hard training? Really? Are you really "bombarded with information overload" on running form and minimalist shoes? Or are these just minor annoyances that become exaggerated in your own mind?

    I'm curious what makes you so hyper-sensitive and seemingly bitter about a trend that is obviously helping so many runners enjoy their sport more fully, become more efficient and stay healthier. I think the minimalist movement is one of the best things to happen to running in decades. Maybe it hasn't worked for you but that's no reason to be so condescending to those it has.

  4. Sorry you feel that way.

    Trust me, the "information overload" doesn't annoy me. I read most of those articles, not to get angry over them, but because I think they're interesting and want the perspective. If it truly got to me, I'd just ignore them. The first paragraph was simply my expression of surprise at the sheer volume of articles on form and shoes that have cropped up in the past year or so, and how there seem to be more articles on form and shoes than on actual training.

    Bitter? Nah. I just want to help people reach their potential. The faster people are, the better off the sport is. And I just want to make sure people don't lose sight of what's truly important. As I stated above, it's possible to consider form, yet still focus on hard training. That's not what this article is about. The problem arises when people assume that switching to a minimalist shoe or going to a midfoot strike will make automatically them faster, and that it's the best way to go about doing it. This is not the case. Some people are more efficient with form that's not textbook perfect, and some people are actually at a higher risk for injury running with textbook perfect form.

    But hey, if playing with your form is what makes you enjoy running, by all means, play with your form. It certainly works for some people. But it doesn't work for everyone, and it's generally not the best way to go about getting faster.

  5. "The problem arises when people assume that switching to a minimalist shoe or going to a midfoot strike will make automatically them faster,"

    Problem? Does any one really believe this, or did you just make that up to make them sound silly?

    "I just want to help people reach their potential. The faster people are, the better off the sport is."

    Oh come now. Do you really believe that improving form and running in lighter shoes will make runners slower and hurt the sport? Could you be any more condescending?

  6. really interesting stuff!
    Sometimes I think people just injure themselves trying to change form and wear light shoes.

  7. I think most people can wear a lighter shoe for racing, especially since they run the gamut from stability flats to neutral flats, though for longer races, some people may find that the increased foot fatigue slows them down more than the lighter weight helps them. But there are definitely people who injure themselves trying to change their form or transition to minimalist. It's all dependent on your personal biomechanics. Glad you found it interesting!

  8. Rarely do I post a comment on something but I feel compelled to share my story. I just got back into running in April after a 25 years break. Of course I have tried all the gimmicks to get faster. I've tried every shoes out there that promise to fix my form and make me more effecient. Ha... big waste of money. The most funny movement to me and what i feel worked the least out of everything I tried was lighter more minimal shoes. I trained for 3 weeks in 15 oz shoes (11 oz originally but I put a 4oz gel insert in them)and then went to 7 oz (Lunarracers 2+) shoes for a race. Ha.. I ran over a minute slower than my normal average. My legs got tired and fatigued and I ran slower. Later that day I ran another 5K in my trainers and ran my average. Tried the same thing the next week. Same result on race day. Back to my big heavy trainers that leave my feet feeling refreshed and ready to go after a hard race.

    BTW . I am a gimmick junkie... I have the means to try every gimmick on the market, like the original poster said, nothing makes up for a good training schedule. Not everyones bodies are the same and I can say that I read a lot on the internet about what I am supposed to be doing to get faster. Your body will show you what works and don't be surprised if it is easier than most or harder than most. I push hard and take 3 days off a week. When I started in April my times for the 5K were mid 24's, I have now had 2 times in the high 17's and my average keeps getting lower depending on the course between 18:30 and 19:10. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that lighter more minimal shoes did not do anything but make me sore, fatigued, and slower. Just set a schedule, cross train on offdays and push hard on training days. I have never ran more than 20 miles in a week and I feel I am still improving. -Matt

  9. Thanks for sharing your story, Matt! I have no doubt that minimalism is fine for some people, but as you've seen, it certainly doesn't work for everyone, and it's most definitely no substitute for real training. It's very interesting that you mention that it slowed you down. I've long heard that too little shoe will fatigue your legs early, and logically, it makes sense, but you're the first person who I've talked to that ran an experiment like that. To add to your experience, you'll notice that many elites aren't wearing their sponsor's very lightest flats for marathons, instead opting for something with a little more shoe to it to ward off fatigue (i.e. Ryan Hall's Hyperspeed over the Piranha).

    Great stuff about the schedule too. That kind of drop in times definitely means that you're doing something right! Daniels actually has a piece in this book on how, when you get older, you can start to get rid of "junk" miles and focus on the quality stuff. I don't know how old you are, but it sounds like a similar concept seems to be working great for you! Keep up the great work!

  10. I think no matter how good your shoes it won't matter. What matters is the one who wear it.
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