Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Putting your best foot forward

Running is a simple activity, so keep it that way

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For years, little attention was paid to how runners run. After all, running is little more than putting one foot in front of the other, something most of us have been doing since we were toddlers. And unlike more technical sports such as swimming or golf, where good mechanics are drilled in from a young age, running is thought to rely more on good physiology than on good form.

That's not to say most recreational runners couldn't benefit from improving their technique. There's quite a bit of difference in how elite runners eat up the kilometres versus the average plodder who runs through the streets of their neighbourhood. Most telling is the fluidity and economy of movement found in elite runners versus the heavy-footed stride and busy upper body found in almost everyone else.

Yet most improvements in running form have been limited to upper-body mechanics, with very little time spent on changing a runner's stride. In fact, until a few years ago, the general thought was that most runners naturally adopt the stride best suited to their own body mechanics. What felt most comfortable was probably your own version of the perfect stride.

But in the last few years, there has been a lot more discussion about the perfect stride, in particular the importance of which part of your foot makes contact with the ground first. The subject first popped up around 2008 when Christopher McDougall's popular book, Born to Run, advocated that the forefoot strike of barefoot runners was the preferred way to run.

The theory was backed up by Harvard's Daniel Lieberman, who in 2010 published the first scientific article proposing that the mechanics associated with barefoot running was a more natural way to run.

Claiming the introduction of cushioned running shoes has changed running from its natural forefoot landing to a heel-first landing, both McDougall and Lieberman suggest the change in footwear and foot strike is the reason so many runners get injured.

The trouble is, it's not easy to change how you run, even if you change your footwear to shoes designed to help mimic the foot strike of barefoot runners. Modifying running mechanics takes hundreds of hours of practice. And even then, for most the change simply doesn't take.

Besides, several studies of marathons, half-marathons and 10-K runs found the overwhelming majority of the pack, including those at the front, are heel strikers, which suggests landing on your forefoot doesn't necessarily make you faster.

Adding to the debate is the publishing of several new studies that have found adopting a barefoot running style isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Biomechanics experts Benno Nigg and Hendrik Enders of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Calgary took a look at the claims of the barefoot crowd and reviewed the studies to date. They report that landing on the forefoot has no better track record in terms of injuries than does landing heel first.

A U.K. study published by Footwear Science in July 2012 compared the impact stress of running barefoot against running in both minimalist and conventional shoes. Contrary to that purported by barefoot advocates, impact stress was less in conventional running shoes than it was running barefoot or in minimalist footwear. It also found minimalist footwear didn't help runners adopt the same running mechanics found in barefoot runners.

Nigg and Enders also suggest that the style associated with barefoot running isn't the perfect way to run. Instead, they're proponents of the old-school theory that good form is whatever feels best.

Bottom line: If you feel good while running and have been relatively injury-free, chances are you've found the perfect running form, even if you'll never be on the cover of Runner's World magazine.

But if you're chronically injured and running feels anything but good, a few form fixes may indeed be in order. Start by shortening your stride, landing as close to your body as possible. Stand tall with a slight forward lean from the ankles and keep your arms low and close to your torso. Don't worry about what part of your foot lands first. Despite all the debate, running is still primarily an act of putting one foot in front of the other.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 D16

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