In Search of: Midfoot

Wed, 12 June 2013 - 1:09 a.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Deciding to correct your stride can be tricky business. Distance runners can have idiosyncratic form, and adjustments can lead to unintended changes that leave an athlete vulnerable to injury. Even marathon champion and Nike coach Alberto Salazar famously failed to do so for American hopeful Dathan Ritzenhein, who in November of 2010 finished only eighth in the New York City Marathon after months of painstakingly attempting to correct his stride.

Salazar always felt that his form left him injury prone and shortened his impressive early career. Ritzenhein was prone to developing stress fractures in the metatarsal bones of his feet, and Salazar thought he could help. But as elite Australian runner Craig Mottram pointed out back in 2010, “When you run a hundred miles a week, your body finds natural positions that work. It’s flirting with disaster to mess with that.”

Still, running a 2:12:33 marathon injury-free after battling tendonitis and stress fractures— finishing second among American runners—is nothing to sneeze at. The fact is, altering your stride, if risky, is not impossible and may be beneficial. Here we discuss ways to go about it that are gradual and sensible.

Since high school, Ritzenhein had been a heel striker; even when he was running at speed, his heel struck the ground before the ball of his foot did. Salazar wanted to protect him from injury by running more on his forefoot. The research shows that this isn’t a bad idea.

 

Daniel Lieberman, author of the influential 2004 paper in Nature that convincingly argued that humanity is largely defined by distance running, has since written persuasively about the benefits of unshod running, consequently leading to the current barefoot running craze, which in fact has its roots in the 1970s. the idea is that forefoot strikes can protect against injury, while heel striking is associated with increased injury risk. Running barefoot pre-empts heel striking.

 

In fact, it isn’t necessary to run barefoot or otherwise force a forefoot landing if it feels unnatural—a better way to improve your stride is to practice midfoot landing.

To look into the issue, Lieberman, who is the director of Harvard’s Skeletal Biology Laboratory, and Adam Daoud, a graduate student there who has since gone on to medical school at Stanford, examined Harvard’s undergraduate cross-country team training database and also videotaped the runners.

Of the 52 Harvard runners, 36 (69%) were heel strikers, and 16 (31%) were forefoot strikers.  About two-thirds of the group wound up hurt seriously enough each year to miss two or more training days. But the heel strikers were much more prone to injury, with a twofold greater risk than the forefoot strikers. This finding, the first to associate heel striking with injury, does not specifically address the benefits or risks of barefoot running, but it does raise important questions about footstrike. 

It’s important to note that the study found that many of the forefoot strikers were felled by injuries as well. Still, those runners who landed on their heels were considerably more likely to get hurt, often multiple times during a year.

If you’re considering altering your form away from heel strike, a sensible start is to try midfoot landing. Here are some tips to help you find your midfoot:

  1.  Lose the Heavy Trainers

An excessively cushioned shoe will always make it more difficult to land other than heel first. It’s not necessary to purchase a minimalist shoe right out of the starting gate, if ever, but do  look for a shoe with modest cushioning to facilitate your body’s natural tendency to land on the balls of your feet when they are running unprotected from impact forces. 

  1.  Focus 

In the early going, you’ll need to continuously remind yourself to land on your foot’s front half until it becomes second nature. “Midfoot” varies from person to person, but any move away from the back end of your foot is a, well, step in the right direction.

  1.  Reduce, Don’t Eliminate, Heel Contact

Your heel should touch the ground briefly. The goal is simply to carry most of your weight directly above your midfoot. As soon as your heel makes contact, your foot arch and lower leg muscles can gather the spring they need to move your body forward. This way you can land much more lightly and bounce out of each stride rather than pound the ground. 

  1.  Reduce Stride Length

Though studies have shown that elite athletes tend to have longer strides than the rest of us, don’t try to make more than one biocorrection at a time. This means you may well need to shorten, not lengthen, your stride if you’re newly adjusting to midfoot running. Many midpack runners extend their legs so far ahead that the foot lands in front of the body's center of gravity, facilitating heel strike. 

Keep your back straight, lead with your chest, and bend forward slightly in the way described by Danny Dreyer in his book Chi Running, as if you were being pulled by a rope tied to your waist and peddling a tiny bicycle.

A typical distance runner may practice shortening stride length by running while listening to songs with tempos of around 180 beats per minute. The website jog.fm is an excellent resource for structuring playlists at various tempos. 

In the long run, good midfoot form is easier on your joints and spine and strengthens your ankles, feet, and lower legs. But it is a big change for your underused lower leg and foot muscles. This is why it’s crucial to make the change gradually. Learning a new running form is the equivalent to being a new runner. Be patient, pay attention to how your body feels, and avoid injuries by taking it easy during your transition period. 

 

The New Yorker, Nov. 8, 2010, “The Perfect Stride: Can Alberto Salazar Straighten Out American Distance Running?” by Jennifer Kahn, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/11/08/101108fa_fact_kahn

 

 

The New York Times, Feb. 8, 2012, “Does Foot Form Explain Running Injuries?” by Gretchen Reynolds, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/08/why-runners-get-injured/?ref=health

 

Active.com,“How to Find Your Mid-Foot,” 2011, by Trisha Reeves, http://www.active.com/running/Articles/How-to-Find-Your-Mid-Foot.htm?cmp=291&memberid=111514241&lyrisid=23791684&email=ssmajstrla@multibriefs.com

 

Chi Running by Danny Dreyer, 2004, Fireside, New York, NY, 236 pp.

 

 

(RUNNING & FITNEWS® January / February 2012 • Volume 30, Number 1)




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