Thursday, January 16, 2014

Let the force be with you, Part II

In my previous piece, I talked about one of the two forces we--as runners--must contend with: gravity. And rather than fighting against gravity, it makes sense to use it to our advantage, which we can do by running with a slight forward lean (though still maintaining a proper posture). The second force to contend with is that of the ground, the constant impact of our feet against it.

Landing is a critical issue for runners. Indeed, poor technique in this regard is one of the major sources of injury, from shin splints, to blisters, to joint damage. Prior to my exposure to a new way of running, I tended to land on my heel first, laying down the rest of my foot, then pushing off the ground with my toes. There's something to be said for such a technique, in terms of power, but I now think the costs far outweigh the benefits. at least for me. In keeping with the Altra/Chi Running approach, I'm in the process of shifting to a midfoot (or forefoot) strike, as a opposed to a heel strike.

Now, it is not the case that the weight of scientific evidence is on my side here. Really, the debate over the best way to land when running is ongoing and there is no clear answer. Read this article from the New York Times to see just how uncertain things are in this regard (it also addresses barefoot running, which I hope to get into some time down the proverbial road). That said, the change to a midfoot/forefoot strike is clearly benefiting me, for a number of reasons:
  • I'm experiencing notably less soreness in my joints, from ankle to knee, since I began the transition.

  • I'm able to maintain a higher cadence (number of steps per minute) than previously.

  • I find it easier to breath normally, when I maintain correct posture and use a midfoot strike.

  • It just feels right; I've processed the "why" behind the change and this allows me to run freer, more unencumbered by worries about the above issues.
The reason for the last is my now-more-organic understanding of what I am doing when I run. As I noted above, with each step I take, there is an impact, a collision of forces, as a matter of course. Picture in your mind what this looks like. When you land heel-first, and you are moving with any kind of pace, the force of the impact pushes up and back against your heel and on through your leg. When you land with your mid or forefoot, the force of  the impact no longer pushes back--just up--and it is more spread out, is in fact less of an impact (this is assuming you're doing it right, of course). This picture--which is actually based on a barefoot forefoot strike, but works for our purposes--shows the differences:

Source: Minimalist Shoes

Again, I don't want to get into a scientific debate on this. I take it as a given that heelstriking works for many, many runners. But it wasn't working for me; I had clearly hit a wall. My transition to a midfoot strike, coupled with other changes as well, has made a huge difference for me.

And to be absolutely clear, I'm still in the process of the change(in keeping with T'ai Chi principles). I revert to a heelstrike on occasion, but now I notice it quickly when it occurs. I feel it in my joints and in my mind. And I find my body correcting itself almost automatically in this regard.

This, I believe, is a consequence of seeing myself through a new lens of understanding, where all of the forces at play are working more in concert, rather than in opposition, where I am more in tune with both my body and my surroundings. And before anyone asks, no I'm not going to start chanting! But it's a good feeling, a comforting feeling, and it makes me enjoy the time I spend running even more.