I had an interesting and highly technical conversation about running minimalist with English Pete yesterday at the pool that pushed me a little to the minimalist side of the equation, but just a sliver. The conversation also, on the other hand, bolstered my point that plodding heel strikers have an inherent problem with the way they run. In other words, heel striking may not be so bad if you’re doing it properly.
Paraphrasing, the conversation revolved around the heel striker’s penchant for “putting on the brakes” by striking the ground with the heel at anything steeper than say a 75 or 80 degree angle. If one were to drive one’s heel into the ground at too great an angle, the shock from the plant would actually work against forward motion until the runner got his hips over the plant leg to push (see the crude illustration below):
This is absolutely correct, and would explain the difference in economy that I tried to wrap my head around here the other day. The theory (it has been tested to a degree that should withstand scrutiny so it’s no longer a hypothesis) is that if one shortens his stride, planting with the forefoot (ball to toes) at a steeper angle to the ground (90 or more) with the foot more under the body, one wouldn’t be required to work his hips over the force created by striking the heel first, farther out. This would result in a more economical stride. But that’s not the end of the discussion. Based on my experience, this is simply too long of a stride. I normally run as more of a “glider” where my feet are striking, in such a location, that has my heel hitting a sweet spot just in front of me, maybe a millimeter or two before the rest of my foot – I’m almost a full foot striker rather than a true heel striker (and the additional padding gets my heel up just a bit to allow me to elongate my stride, thereby increasing my economy because I’m not having to work my hips over my leg either. This, I believe, is where studies run into trouble. This is not a black and white issue and the studies (at least the few that I’ve read) only deal with a full heel strike and a forefoot strike.
That notwithstanding, there is a glaring fault with the way I run and this gets to the heart of the conversation. My stride/strike changes as I tire. If I’m not careful, the farther I run, the more I tend to plod. I detailed that battle just the other day here. To add to the problem, if we look at just the heel striking aspect of modern running shoe (with padding on the heel) running, it is far easier to allow oneself to devolve over a long distance into an improper stride which will eventually lead to pain, or worse, injury. Common sense would maintain this because the padding will mute the impact, thereby making the error less evident. In the near term, say a half mile, the feedback would be minimal – over five miles, it becomes obvious. The next day, in training, it can hurt bad enough that it could limit further training… Which is why it is suggested to keep from adding too many miles to the weekly workout too fast. Voila.
With minimalist running, the devolution would be noticeable far sooner because there is no padding to cushion the error. This, of course, is why it isn’t advisable to simply jump into running with minimalist shoes as well. The stride must necessarily change by shortening to get the forefoot in the proper location under the body. This works several muscle groups (and the tendons connecting those muscle groups) in a manner that they are not familiar with being used. They have to be built up to absorb the shock.
So the question becomes, do I stay the course or do I try to make the switch? After kicking this around a bit, I think it wise to continue with my training as it is for one very big reason: I’ve already got my running mileage to where I’ll need it come spring time. I just have to train there, rather than going back to square one and starting over which could present several problems, not limited to increasing mileage too fast to meet a deadline resulting in an injury, increasing my speed too fast resulting in injury, or worse: finding out that I hate it and having to go back and increase to my current mileage all over again. In other words, I know where I’m at, because I’ve been there before, so why upset the apple cart now and make completing my goals all the more difficult.
I think it far wiser to finish my season off with a bang on September 9th and then worry about the change for the winter off-season. This way, if I like it as much as my friends do, I can enjoy reworking my mileage and stride without the pressure of having to get through it quickly (and if I hate it, I’ll have time to leisurely switch back).
UPDATE: After re-reading this yet again, to make sure I liked the grammar, I couldn’t help but think: How awesome is my life that this is what I’m thinking about this morning. How awesome is my life that if I do end up changing to minimalist running, I’ll have that much more to talk about with my wife, English Pete and Marc. Life is good.