Thursday, December 27, 2012

Changing My Foot-Strike ... Huge Success!!!

The other night during a Christmas visit I ran into a guy that I usually try to avoid at parties.  He's a nice enough dude, but he's one of those people who are an expert on everything with a loud obnoxious voice, and doesn't stop talking.  So basically if he's in the immediate area, you get a constant monologue of his less than thought-out opinion from start to finish.  Before I was able to escape the room, our conversation went like this ...

Know it all ... "How's the marathoning going?"
Me ... "Awe, pretty good - just running a lot."
Know it all ... "Your knees killing you yet?"
Me ... "No, I think I just have good genes.  I really don't seem to get hurt much."
Know it all ... "But you haven't ruined your knees yet?"
Me ... "No."
Know it all ... "You will."

I think I just shrugged and said, "Hope not" before I quickly found somewhere else to mingle.  But even though the only thing this oaf knows about running is his mouth, he's not definitely not alone in his general perception and engrained theory of running ... ANYONE OVER 30 + RUNNING = INJURY.  And the more I run, I think he might be right.

The Problem
In December of last year, I had just completed about 5,500 miles in 24 months.  I was simply exhausted, and the familiar end of the year sore ankles, arches, and feet were setting in from the pounding they'd received throughout the spring, summer, and fall.  I've always been a really healthy runner, and even though I put on more miles than most folks, I've just never really battled any serious injury.  The main thing I struggled with was chronic tendinitis of my upper hamstring - the area immediately below my butt.    But the more and more I read about snapped Achilles, broken hips, chronic Plantar Fasciitis, MCL & ACL surgeries, etc, etc, etc, it seemed like I was probably running on borrowed time and sooner or later, all of the miles would catch up with me.  So at the end of 2011, I decided to make a somewhat preemptive strike and fix a potentially huge problem in my running ... the DREADED HEEL STRIKE!!! (ominous dramatic music here) 

Photos on left: Heel striking in previous races with rigid, non-flexible front landing leg with toe up and heel absorbing all of the 
impact of the strike - shoe tread showed wear completely on the heel
Photos on right: Recent race photos with slightly bent front leg creating more cushioned landing and forefoot/mid foot  

absorbing the impact of the strike - shoe tread shows wear on forefoot & slight mid foot & heel
(the black lines represent the angle of the landing leg, and the relationship to the foot)
When I first started reading about different foot-strikes, I thought it was all simply a contrived "oh my gosh you must change the way you run" effort to sell shoes (and frankly I still think it might be a small part of the equation).  I mean, I've been an athlete all my life and I'd never thought twice about my foot-strike ... I just went out there and ran man ... plain and simple.   Changing your foot-strike was just something people used as an excuse or as an attempt to compensate for their lack of ability or speed.  Ya know, it was just the latest & greatest, so it must be the best ... right?  But the more I studied the science behind the way the foot strikes the ground while running, and the effect it has on the entire skeletal frame, slowly I began to buy in.  And I reluctantly decided to give it an honest shot.  I thought if it could make me healthier and without taking any of my already declining speed, it wouldn't be all bad.

From my own experience, I gathered some of the facts about my current heel striking ...
      1. If your heel hits the ground first, it's going absorb most of the impact of each stride
      2. When your heel makes the initial contact, your leading leg is locked and rigid
      3. When your leading leg is locked and rigid, it almost becomes a "braking mechanism" and slows you down
      4. Because the heel gets all of the wear & tear, heel striking wears out shoes very, very quickly

People who changed to a forefoot/midfoot strike noted these facts about their running ...
      1. Striking the ground with the center of your foot spreads the impact over a wider base
      2. When your midfoot makes the initial contact, your leading leg is slightly bent at the knee
      3. When the leading leg is slightly bent, each stride becomes more cushioned and "bouncier" like a shock absorber
      4. Striking with the forefoot/midfoot extends the life of shoes since the heel is not the only thing receiving wear & tear

Making The Change
So there it was ... I would just snap my fingers and totally change the way I ran.  But I soon found that making the transition from heel striker to forefoot/midfoot striker was not exactly that easy.  In fact, it was A LOT tougher than I thought it would be.  And honestly, I'm still not sure that it's for everyone.  There are a lot of statistics that show most people attempting the change at some point revert back to their original running style out of frustration, or because they acquire a whole new set of injuries.  Changing your running stride takes an incredible amount of time, focus, dedication, and discipline because it's literally a complete running transformation.

The POSE Method, created by Dr. Nicholas Romanov, is a forefoot or
ball of the foot strike when you land, and then a quick "pull" of the leg
 back toward your butt ... all with a slight lean forward while keeping
 the back straight.  It's meant to eliminate heel-striking, while focusing
 on "energy loading" and using the muscles of the leg more effectively.
It essentially turns the full legs into more of a "shock-absorber" system
and meant to help you run more efficiently.
When I first started the new approach, I was pretty skeptical.  I was convinced that I was just trading old aches and pains for new ones.  My calves hurt like never before and ached constantly for days during the process.  And my hamstrings weren't nearly as strong as I thought they were, and no where near where they needed to be for this transition.  Worst part was, I was exhausted after only 4 or 5 miles each run ... this from a guy who averaged about 70 miles per week at the time.  All of my race times were much slower, I lost fitness during the process, and running just simply wasn't fun for a while ... it was work.  This went on for about 5 months.

I quickly found that I couldn't do this effectively on my own.  I did quite a bid of research and decided that if I was going to transition from a full-time heel striker to a forefoot or midfoot striker, I was going to use the POSE method.  There are other similar running techniques such as the Chi Method, but I really liked the logical approach of the inventor of the POSE method, Dr. Nicholas Romanov.  It just made the most sense.  Plus, I was contacted by a fantastic POSE coach, Ken Schafer, who helped me through the initial stages and struggles.  I would highly recommend Ken if you are making a change.  I also received invaluable advice and coaching from Jill of Run With JillShe really helped me with some strengthening exercises and talked me down from the "POSE Running Cliff" a couple of times!

Overall, the two most important things I did during the transformation were reduce my mileage and strength train  (although Coach Schafer would probably argue that I didn't reduce my mileage nearly enough). I had to cut my mileage from about 70-75 miles per week to about 25-30 ... and it SUCKED!!!  This was one of the toughest things for me to handle mentally.  But I literally had no choice.  I would go out for a run and either get tired or sore very quickly, and instead of creating a new injury by pushing on - I played it safe and called it quits for the day.  But I soon found that strengthening my calves, hamstrings, and butt really helped with the process.  I became stronger physically, which really carried over into holding this new form longer, and eventually as a natural stride.

Minimalist Shoes
With the popularity of the book "Born To Run" by Christopher McDougall, also came the tidal wave of minimalist shoes.  While the book is an fascinating and entertaining read about the evolution of running and the human body, in my opinion it's also a half-baked rant against shoe companies with dozens of years of scientific foot and shoe research.  McDougall's personal struggles and failures as a runner inspire him in a blame game campaign against all running shoes with any type of cushioned heel, in favor of sock-like, paper-thin-soled shoes. You know the type ...  they're flat, look a little like house slippers, basically missing their heel, and typically blindingly bright colored!

Looking for anything that would make this transition easier, I caved in and bought a couple of pairs.  I was a little embarrassed to run in them because I think the whole minimalist running shoe thing is a passing fad that will be gone by this time in 3 years after a massive out-break of heel spurs.  But I tried the Brooks Pure Cadence anyway.  I love Brooks products and the Pure Cadence is a good minimalist shoe, but it just didn't have the same amount of cushioning that I was used to.  Also, they were a little lighter than my normal shoes which was nice, but I just never felt comfortable in them and they really didn't work for me.  I'm convinced that minimalist shoes work better for minimal people.  I'm 6'-2", and about 180 lbs.  Not huge by any standard, but slightly on the larger side for a runner.  (For most races I qualify for the Clydesdale Division, although I've never entered as a plus-size runner.)  The bottoms of my feet always seemed really sore after just a few miles in the minimalist shoes.  And the few long runs I tried with them left my feet aching for about a day.

So I changed back to my Brooks with the big heels.  I wear Brooks Ghost and Glycerin mostly.  It was a little tough at first trying to land on my forefoot with a giant padded heel getting in the way.  But that was because I was trying to prevent my heel from hitting the ground at all ... which is a mistake most runners make when they first change strides.  Your heel actually is supposed to "kiss" the ground with each stride, even though your forefoot absorbs the initial impact.   But now that I've figured that out, I run with a forefoot/mid foot strike in the Brooks Glycerin just fine.

My Brooks Pure Cadence - good shoes - just not for me
Fast-forwarding through a long, non-fun filled running Winter & Spring ... during the Summer is when things finally started becoming a little easier with the new stride and really seemed to click.  Most of my initial leg soreness from the new strike had subsided.  It seemed as though the new muscles I was engaging with the new strike had caught up to the speed at which I was used to running.  And most importantly, the tendinitis in my upper hamstring/lower butt that I had battled for OVER A YEAR had almost completely healed, which was one of the biggest reasons for making the change in the first place.

The tendinitis in my hamstring was a real point of frustration for me.  It wasn't like it kept me from competing - typically once I got loosened up for a race, I could still go full speed. But I literally felt it almost every step I took from late 2010 until early 2012 ... about 16 months of it.  It was so bad that I sought out A.R.T. (Active Release Therapy) for it - which if you know me, professional help is usually the last option.  But changing to a forefoot strike forced me to shorten my stride and land on my forefoot, as opposed to lengthening it and over-striding and landing on my heel. And the over-striding was the primary cause of the hamstring tendinitis. It feels amazing to run pain-free again.

Great Results
When you get to know me, you discover that I'm really a grumpy old man at heart.  I hate change.  I think most things "new and improved" are most often here today and gone tomorrow.  I rarely do something because everyone else is doing it.  And I over analyze every single detail of my life to the point of being annoying to everyone around me.  Completely changing the way I ran really put these building blocks of my being to the test.  I tried everything I could to disprove this "stupid forefoot strike" craze that everyone seemed to be so enthralled with.  But after I evaluated it, exhausted every test I could put it though, and actually experienced results ... I can tell you that it has unequivocally improved my running like nothing else.  After running 3,000 miles in 2012 ... I feel completely healthy and ready for 4,000 miles in 2013.  Nothing aches.  Nothing is preventing my from running my best.  And I'm 100% satisfied with the transformation.

If you decide to make the transition, get ready for a long, sometimes discouraging ride.  But if you're committed to it and really apply yourself, it will work for you too.  I've recommended it to a few people close to me and it worked for all of them.  If you have questions about changing your foot strike, I would happy to answer any that I can.  I'm obviously not an expert, but I can share with you what worked for me.  As always, feel free to email at anytime and I'll help in anyway that I can.  Have a great New Years and best wishes with your running!
... be great today!


  1. NIce job switching from a heel strike , I will have to check out the POSE method. Did you notice in one of those pictures of you, you are wearing a black instead of a blue shirt?

  2. NIce job switching from a heel strike , I will have to check out the POSE method. Did you notice in one of those pictures of you, you are wearing a black instead of a blue shirt?

  3. Hoka's. Give them a try, and you won't look back. Love your blog.

  4. I'm reading your blog, while sitting on a hot water bottle. I have followed your strength training routine for some months now - and I was doing great. I added power cleans a few weeks ago and I am right back to square1 - incredible hammy pain - right below my but - just like you describe. IDK. I will check out the POSE method - Thnx

  5. Of course I'm smiling reading this!! We've had discussions of how difficult it is mentally for mileageaholics like ourselves reeling in the miles to make this change, but once you buy into the whole rationale, it becomes clearer that mileage doesn't mean a squat when you're a walking time bomb ready to be on the DL at any second. Besides, all the cool people midfoot strike and now you're one of the gang :). Seriously though, I watch a lot of the front pack racers and I can't find any that heel strike. There's a lot to be said about that.

    I was just watching the Kona IM on tv the other day and they were throwing out statistics left and right about how weight plays a huge factor in your race outcome, and shoes came up. Lightening your shoe by 5oz (I think it was 5) can cut 4 minutes off your marathon time. That's incredible. But minimalist shoes also cause your body to be beat up more, so thus the racing flat enters the pic. Don't race in your everyday training shoes; the flat will not only physically make you faster, but mentally you'll feel lighter and this plays a huge roll in how you perform.

    I also am not so much a firm believer in 'minimalist' as I am 'low heel drop'. I do believe that for someone like me, who has been running for 35+ years, my feet NEED cushion. But high heel drop shoes make you land on your heel more than a low heel drop shoe and thus you're causing some of the same heel striking issues you were when you heel striked when you're midfoot striking. Well, that's what I've been told anyway. I have heard wonderful things about the Hokas...ugly as hell but if you like cushion and low heel drop, they are remarkable. I hope to get a pair of their trail shoes soon.

    Okay, just had to chime in. Carry on... :)

  6. Very informative and detailed post Jim. I really appreciate all of this information and am so glad you took the time to write it out. I do not heal strike but I can still benefit from a lot of the information you shared here.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. What a trip you have been on!
    I have been on a little bit of a journey too, though I did my transition after only about a year or so of running. I was at about 40 MPW and went out for a 7 mile run (my usual at the time). I concentrated on form, and thought nothing of it until the next day and I COULD BARELY WALK, my calves were so sore. LOL. It's a good switch though!
    Also, I love my ghosts. I still need plenty of cushion..I also would not do well running 20 milers in the pure line, though I know some who do. I keep mine for the shorter stuff.

    Congrats on the successful crossover and the determination to follow through on it.

    Nicely written post here.

  9. I think it was a smart move Jim, I am a believer in forefoot running and have been working on it for over a year now. Do you still catch yourself heel striking at times? I find I still have to think about what I am doing or my form gets a little sloppy.

  10. I'm just as grumpy as you are. But I am a true believer of the mid-strike. Unfortunately I went from a heel shoe to a 3mm heel drop shoe that reactivated my Plantar Fasciitis blah blah blah. When I run now I really try to keep my body aligned and my cadence high. I'm still in the middle of the difficult transition but reading this makes me feel like there will be an end in site.
    PS. Your knees can last forever!

  11. Glad that you made it to a midfoot strike! I recently bought Brooks Pure Flows and Newtowns, in general I like them. I'm still not 100% sure that I run with a midfoot strike now, I should probably get a stride analysis by someone.

    And lol on your Sharapova comment!

  12. I remember reading quite a while ago about how you were going to pull back a bit and really focus on form. I am so happy that things have worked out so positively.

    I also get sick of people commenting that I'm ruining my knees. I work in health care and the people I see getting knee replacements aren't runners, they are the people who are overweight and haven't exercised in years.

  13. that is awesome! I might have to check out the whole foot strike thing. Just had a coach give me a few pointers the other day on form in general and it seems to be helping already. Lord knows I don't want achy knees - at 44 I guess I am already on borrowed time!


Thanks for stopping by ... your comment's always welcome!