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Running “is so prone to these sorts of trends”

November 15th, 2011

I don’t mean to fixate on the topic of running form, but I just want to recommend Gina Kolata’s piece in today’s New York Times, which reads a lot like a response to Chris McDougall’s recent piece (and echoes much of what I wrote a couple of days ago). Her basic point: people are desperate for advice that will “explain” how to run, when in reality the biggest is barrier is simply that running is hard (especially for people who have been inactive for years) and takes more time to adapt to than most people expect.

Researchers who have no financial ties to running programs or shoe manufacturers say that most of those complications are unnecessary and some of the advice is even risky, because it can make running harder and can increase the chance of injury. [...]

“There is good evidence that your body is exquisitely lazy and will find the easiest way for you to run,” said Carl Foster, professor of exercise and sports medicine at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. [...]

Running form is just one example of the confusions buffeting beginning runners. Running, said John Raglin, professor of kinesiology at Indiana University, “is so prone to these sorts of trends.”

People “will latch onto anything,” he added, and an anecdote or two about what is supposed to be an ideal running form often passes for evidence.

Kolata’s articles can sometimes seem a little nihilistic, as she writes about the surprising lack of evidence for very common treatments in sports medicine and physiotherapy, and common practices like warming up. The point isn’t that we shouldn’t do anything that isn’t “evidence-based” — life is complicated, and we inevitably have to make lots of decisions armed only with imperfect knowledge. But we should be aware of that, and not mistake our current guesses and hypotheses for “the one true way.”

  1. Richard Ayotte
    November 15th, 2011 at 18:23 | #1

    “There is good evidence that your body is exquisitely lazy and will find the easiest way for you to run,” said Carl Foster, professor of exercise and sports medicine at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. [...]

    Maybe. But I would say:

    There is good evidence that your body is exquisitely lazy and will find the easiest way for you to run pain free

    What do you think about this?
    Babies aren’t taught to walk with any particular form yet they naturally walk landing on their forefoot.

  2. alex
    November 15th, 2011 at 18:36 | #2

    So are you suggesting that we should land on our forefoot while walking? That’s completely opposite to what all great apes (including humans) do naturally. Evolutionary biologists believe that’s precisely why we evolved such prominent heels, since it takes about 50% less energy to land on your heels while walking.

  3. November 15th, 2011 at 18:57 | #3

    While I certainly agree that there’s no single right way to run, nor a single program that will guarantee running success, I do disagree with some of what Ms. Kolata has written, particularly:

    …studies have found that individuals automatically run in a way that is most efficient for their own bodies. Those who change the way they run naturally are less efficient and more prone to injury.

    “There is good evidence that your body is exquisitely lazy and will find the easiest way for you to run,” said Carl Foster, professor of exercise and sports medicine at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

    To think that we cannot become more efficient runners with adjustment through practice and training, I think, is absurd. And sure, an adjustment in running form may render a runner more prone to injury, but only if that runner is not slowly and gradually incorporating that adjustment into his or her training – just as Kolata recommends.

  4. alex
    November 15th, 2011 at 19:08 | #4

    Sure, I agree with you, Ben. The studies that Foster is referring to are, in general, short-term studies with people who already have at least some minimum proficiency in running. They don’t rule out (a) a non-linear relationship where you initially become less efficient but eventually adapt and end up more efficient than when you started, and (b) the possibility that some people, for whatever reason, have truly, unequivocally bad form.

  5. Bman
    November 15th, 2011 at 20:52 | #5

    First – babies land on their forefoot b/c they are very unsure about their footing (kind of the opposite of finding a relaxed, efficient stride) and their achilles tendons are short relative to their size.

    Second – I am a pro swimmer, not a runner, but I’d like to add from the swimming stand point: when I and my training partner train in a public lap-swimming setting, we frequently get people just watching us for long periods of time and I have eventually learned, from some encounters when getting out of the pool or in the locker room, that people are looking for that magic trick that makes us the speed we are. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that we are the speed we are because we started swimming competitively when we were extremely young (5 in my case, 6 in my training partner’s case) and we have both trained extremely hard for decades. Yes, swimming takes a lot more technique work than running, but there is no magic. It takes a lot of work.

    Third – on the topic of finding the most efficient stride (or in my case, the most efficient stroke) – I find that some people are very good at knowing their bodies and at feeling how efficient they are, etc, and some people are not. The swimmers who make it to the international level are always ones who really know their body – for example, any top distance swimmer can do a set of 10 x 100 meters on some interval (equivalent of doing 10 x 400 running) and without looking at the pace clock tell their coach, to within about 2-tenths of a second, the time they went on each one. There is a lot more feedback in swimming (you see a pace clock every 50-meters of every workout… in some pools, every 25-meters or yards), and there are a lot more issues to being efficient I think, but a lot of it comes down to the same thing. If you are able to listen to your body well and know the basics of technique you should naturally tend towards efficiency (assuming you have some desire to swim as fast as possible for a given effort).

  6. patrickg
    November 15th, 2011 at 21:19 | #6

    “Babies aren’t taught to walk with any particular form yet they naturally walk landing on their forefoot.”

    Babies naturally crap their pants whenever they feel like it, but I’m not proposing to follow the trend! “Natural” does not necessarily equal “good”.

    I find it a bit strange how happy people are to champion “caveman”, “paleo”, “thousands of years” stuff etc; for thousands of years human mortality was around 40. I’m not saying everything cavemen and women did was bad, but I think we can set the bar a little higher than that. Cavepeople probably would have loved some sneakers!

  7. freeman dennis
    November 15th, 2011 at 22:31 | #7

    i enjoyed your comment that kolata was sometimes nihilistic. i have regarded her books on exercise(exercise isn’t really good for you) and nutrition (diets don’t work, you were meant to be fat) as “counsels of despair” but i never miss her articles and look forward to them.

  8. Bman
    November 15th, 2011 at 23:03 | #8

    @patrickg – AGREED!!!

  9. November 16th, 2011 at 13:58 | #9

    @Benjamin Markus

    “And sure, an adjustment in running form may render a runner more prone to injury, but only if that runner is not slowly and gradually incorporating that adjustment into his or her training – just as Kolata recommends.”

    Not true; you could slowly incorporate an adjustment that slowly increases your chance of being injured. The idea of slow change does not magically confer protection against injury in a general way (as you suggest by saying “only if”), it just reduces the chance of the type of injury that happens because of a fast change.

    People have questions about whether barefoot running can work for them, and slow change is a good piece of advice but does not address the question of what the differences will be for you as an individual once that transition has been made.

    In any case, “slow change” may seem like too much of an investment for current runners who see a) time spent retraining b) disruption to current training patterns, and c) possible chance of injury as some costs of adventures in barefoot running.

    As someone recovering from an Achilles injury, when I started running longer distances, I took it slow to avoid injury and eventually surpassed the half marathon distance. However, that felt like steady progress I could be happy with. There is no similar feeling of progress I can imagine, switching to barefoot running. This works against motivation.

  10. KG
    November 16th, 2011 at 15:14 | #10

    @Richard Ayotte

    In fact, no one, not even young children walk naturally on their forefoot. Not even when barefoot. I defy you to walk naturally on your forefoot. The only way to get a natural forefoot strike is to speed things up by running.

    The McDougall groupies seem to forget that the most basic, natural form of human locomotion has never been running — it’s walking. And, the way humans walk is by heel striking. This explains why all of those evil shoemakers have been “forcing” us to use “elevated” heels for so long. Because most people walk and when they do, they heel strike. So putting an extra cushion there seems like a good idea.

  11. November 16th, 2011 at 17:04 | #11

    I would add here that studies have shown that one can increase stride rate by as much as 10% without incurring a metabolic penalty (work by Hamill, Derrick and others), and at the same time reduce loading of the knee and hip, so the statement that changing form always leads to inefficiency is not true. These studies were the basis for Bryan Heiderscheit’s recent study looking at the effects of increasing/decreasing stride rate by 5 or 10%. As I understand it, the reason he chose those values was specifically because they fell within a window that would not incur a metabolic penalty. And, as you point out, the fact that all of these studies looking at efficiency are based on immediate, on the spot changes without acclimation or learning is very important.

  12. Phil Koop
    November 16th, 2011 at 17:51 | #12

    You see the same attitude in cycling: there must be some easily-imitated secret that would make you go faster. Pedaling technique, or cadence, for example. Most bizarrely, people are convinced that there is some technique that accounts for good climbing performance. Well, I know exactly why other people can climb faster than me: they have more aerobic power (specific.)

    I know you are a big advocate of the “practice makes perfect” school, Alex, but I have trained enough – 80:20 rule – to think that people who are faster (at least those who are a lot faster) have an innate advantage.

  13. alex
    November 16th, 2011 at 18:09 | #13

    @Phil: “I know you are a big advocate of the “practice makes perfect” school, Alex, but I have trained enough – 80:20 rule – to think that people who are faster (at least those who are a lot faster) have an innate advantage.”

    Not sure what gave you that idea — I certainly don’t think that “talent is a myth,” or whatever other foolishness the latest books on talent are peddling. I linked a few months ago to a great discussion of these issues on the Science of Sport blog.

    I don’t think that all I have to do to run like Bekele is practice a lot. My point in this post is that, if my goal is to run like Bekele, I believe that the most valuable thing I can do is to run a lot, as opposed to attempting to make my running form look like Bekele’s running form. But I think it’s safe to say that, even if I had 1,000 lives to try 1,000 different approaches to running fast, I wouldn’t run as fast as Bekele in any of them.

  14. alex
    November 16th, 2011 at 18:48 | #14

    @Pete: “I would add here that studies have shown that one can increase stride rate by as much as 10% without incurring a metabolic penalty…”

    Well, let’s say (as Heiderscheit does) a “minimal” penalty. The two papers he cites (from 1982 and 1995, each with ten subjects) both clearly find that (a) metabolic cost as a function of stride length forms a parabola, and (b) the self-selected stride lengths of the subjects fall at or very, very close to the minimum of this parabola. Of course, the slope of a parabola close to its minimum is very gentle, so it’s perfectly reasonable to say that small changes in stride length won’t make a big difference to efficiency. But the general principle that metabolic cost is minimized (to a local, though perhaps not global, minimum) more or less “automatically” remains widely accepted.

    Of course, this is just quibbling. The real question, as we’ve both noted, is what happens over a prolonged period of time.

  15. Matt Thomas
    November 16th, 2011 at 19:07 | #15

    I offer two perspectives on the running form debate.

    The hypothesis that the body will naturally run its most efficient on its own is as anecdotal as the hypothesis that barefoot running will decrease your likelihood of injury. Look at nearly every other sport – swimming, cycling, track and field, baseball, basketball, golf, tennis – and you will see that some element of proper form is required for success. You will not swim fast without proper technique. You will not consistently make free throws without proper technique. You will not hit a 100 mph serve without proper technique. It does not just happen naturally. Running is no different.

    To return to the discussion of the “100 up” drill, one aspect that is not mentioned is that most recreational runners – me included – do not have a scholastic running background. We didn’t participate in track and field or cross-country in junior high or high school. We decided to run a marathon and picked up a training plan to guide us in our preparation. I didn’t care too much about the other aspects of training; I just looked at the daily, weekly, and monthly runs on the spreadsheet and laced up my shoes.

    The one criticism of McDougall’s piece is that these drills aren’t anything new. The “100 up” is over 100 years old. That is true, but for recreational runners – the vast majority of participants in road races – these drills are “new.”

    A swimmer with bad freestyle technique will ultimately injure his shoulder. A pitcher with bad motion will certainly end up on the disabled list. A runner with bad form will end up with knee pain, plantar fasciitis, or IT band syndrome.

    There may not be “perfect” form, but there is good form and bad form.

  16. alex
    November 16th, 2011 at 19:33 | #16

    @Matt: “The hypothesis that the body will naturally run its most efficient on its own is as anecdotal as the hypothesis that barefoot running will decrease your likelihood of injury.”

    No, it’s not. Check out the two papers I linked to in the comment above yours. There have been many, many studies that directly measured running efficiency while tweaking parameters like stride length. So far, no one (to my knowledge) has been able to find any way of tweaking running form that doesn’t produce an immediate worsening of efficiency. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to improve efficiency in the long run — but let’s be clear about what’s “anecdotal” and what’s not!

  17. November 16th, 2011 at 19:34 | #17

    Alex,

    There may be a parabola, but the 1995 paper by Hamill found no significant difference in metabolic cost between preferred stride rate and +10% stride rate. The 1982 paper found that most, but not all individuals fall close to the optimal value. Three of the ten individuals in the 1982 paper had strides that were in fact 5-10 cm longer than the predicted optimal. Heiderscheit found on average a 5cm longer stride length in runners with a 5% reduced stride rate, and this was enough to significantly increase braking forces and loading of the knee. One could argue that for almost a third of the runners in the 1982 study, stride length modification might be of some benefit. This is yet another case where long-time dogma based on majority patterns has obscured what might be best for the individual, and not to mention that these patterns might only represent what is optimal under only the conditions in which the experiment was performed.

  18. November 16th, 2011 at 19:41 | #18

    @alex
    But neither have any studies to my knowledge actually looked at whether efficiency with a change in form improves with time. As you agree, this is a very important point. If I asked someone to start using their non-dominant hand to write, they would probably be pretty lousy at it at first. Give them a month or two of consistent practice and they probably improve quite a bit. As anyone who has tried to change running form knows, it can feel very awkward at first, but with time it becomes the new normal.

  19. alex
    November 16th, 2011 at 20:06 | #19

    @Pete: Indeed. But what we’re all waiting for is a study that shows that writing with your non-dominant hand eventually ends up allowing you to write better than with your dominant hand, rather than just “feeling normal”! :)

  20. November 16th, 2011 at 20:12 | #20

    @alex
    The better analogy is if I can feel “normal” writing with my non-dominant hand but have a reduced risk of writer’s cramp. :)

  21. Matt Thomas
    November 17th, 2011 at 01:01 | #21

    @ Peter, good point… “This is yet another case where long-time dogma based on majority patterns has obscured what might be best for the individual, and not to mention that these patterns might only represent what is optimal under only the conditions in which the experiment was performed.”@Peter Larson

  22. Richard Ayotte
    November 17th, 2011 at 16:45 | #22

    @alex
    Well, it’s not the most efficient way to walk but after an hour, it feels quite natural and it is much less jarring on the body. Plus, it could be a better recovery tool than walking normal.

  23. Paul Wallis
    November 18th, 2011 at 00:31 | #23

    @James P. Burke
    I just wanted to reply to James really quick. While I can see your point of view, after dealing with my achilles injury for the last 10 years and the pain associated with it I made the switch to running barefoot. All three points ie. time spent retraining, diruption to current training patterns, and possible injury were risks all worth the transition and the ability to run without pain again. I’m also up to running half marathon distances again, and with no pain after running, something I’ve never experienced in shoes now for 10 years. It may not be something most people would be willing to do, and I know of runners who have quit running because of achilles problems, but when you love something so much (like running) the imagined risks and time spent is well worth it to me.

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