Sunday, January 13, 2008

Running dyslexia : Heel vs mid-foot strike

People get awfully fired up about when talking about whether heel striking or a mid-foot strike is a better running technique. Foot strike is obviously important, but there is a danger is being too prescriptive how it should occur.

What is more important is that each runner find the running style which is most beneficial for them. There is never one formula which can be universally applied to all body types, running shoes, speeds and surfaces.

How do you find your ideal running style? Your body is preprogrammed to find the most efficient way of doing things. Running is no different. If you focus on the training task rather than your form, you will naturally adapt your gait pattern to that which is most efficient for you.

So why do so many people run so badly? And why do we have to teach people how to run?

I suspect that a major component will turn out to be that modern running shoes not only disrupt our biomechanics, but also stop us from learning how to run efficiently. By blocking the precise sesnory information usually gathered by the foot, they appear to give us a kind of running dyslexia. If you can't feel your feet properly, how can you learn to run efficiently? Running in a pair of Nike Air Max is surely akin to trying to play piano with astronaught gloves on.

When viewed from this perspective, the solution is not to teach runners how to run, it is remove those factors which are preventing them from learning this for themselves. Coaches need to get their athletes either into bare feet for part of their training or to find them a shoe which does not block their capacity to learn. Once this is achieved, then the coach can stand back and focus on distance and intensity whilst style takes care of itself.

So what is the end result of this unimpaired learning process? Everyone is different, but most distance runners will end up landing on the mid foot or with the foot flat to the ground. I am yet to see a natural heel striker whilst running in bare feet, but have heard of a few people who maintain that this is their natural gait.

So get out there and find your style! You don't need a coach and you don't need a fancy pair of shoes. Just find a grass track and introduce it to your bare feet. If you take it slowly and give yourself plenty of time to adapt you will find it very rewarding.

So what do you do if you then want to go back to running in shoes? The challenge is to find a pair of shoes which allow you to maintain your barefoot style. Unfortunately, you will find that most shoes will dramatically change the way you run and many have been deliberately designed this way. To avoid this, a shoe with a thin, flat, highly flexible sole is a good start. Think Dunlop Volleys, think track shoes with waffle soles.

Unfortunately, even these shoes alter gait. It was this frustration that led Dr Scott Nightingale and I to begin developing barefoot running shoes for our own use. Our current favourite is the "Barefoot on Grass". As well as minimising mechanical disruption to the foot, we also specifically designed it to optimise sensory feedback. To achieve this, we constructed the sole from a series of overlapping scales. Each scale is independently mobile, thus allowing your foot to detect precisely localised changes in pressure.

I wear this shoe when I am not training barefoot and it is the only shoe I have tried in which I still feel 'barefoot' and don't have to consciously work to maintain my natural barefoot gait. Check it out at