The problem with the “foot-strike”

Proponents of minimalist and barefoot running often suggest that we should run by striking the ground with the ball of our foot (forefoot-striking). Most expert coaches these days try to get their athletes midfoot-striking (at the level of the arch). And minimalists and experts agree that both forefoot- and midfoot-striking are better than heel-strking (where the heel hits the ground before the rest of the foot).

This post isn’t about any of that.

It’s about the problem of thinking that when our foot lands on the ground, our foot must “strike.”

Why is this important? Because most common source of running injuries is undue mechanical stress. In running, we can’t get around some stress: every time that we step and the body is lifted off the ground, gravity accelerates it back to the ground. But exactly how we do that—whether we do it in a way that’s amenable to the body or not—will influence whether we become injured or not. And if we think that the action of accelerating towards the ground is supposed to be “a strike,” then our subconscious is liable to make our footfalls increasingly aggressive. They’ll tend to evoke all the things that we associate with “striking:” disruption, damage, and violent displacement.

“But we can’t damage the ground!” You might say.

My argument would end there, if it were not for Newton’s Third Law of motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

All the force that we put into the ground also travels into our body. And you could say: “Yeah, but we just call it striking. It doesn’t really affect our footfalls.”

If only that were the case. The brain happens to be an associative machine. Our knowledge quite literally grows by linking concepts with other concepts, and these links powerfully influence our actions. Their repercussions extend at least to the physical and social systems we navigate. As the saying goes: neurons that fire together, wire together. Neurolinguistic Programming—the idea that we can affect the ways in which we do things by thinking of them differently—is based on these scientific findings. So is most of the advertising industry, which tries to make us associate eating McDonalds with being an Olympian, and Coca-Cola with happiness.

It logically follows that if we associate footfalls with the act of striking, we’ll inevitably put greater stresses into our body than if we associated footfalls with something less violent.

That, by the way, is not a new idea. It’s all over, but rarely seen in Western culture. I believe that we care too much about combat, too much about shock-and-awe, and supremacy—ideas I don’t feel I have to justify further, given our long-standing colonial tendencies—to accommodate it easily. One example of this idea is a Tarahumara saying (which has also been attributed to the Navajo and the Apache, just to name two of many): “The fastest runner leaves no tracks.”

Other examples crop up in many, many of the cultures that have a firsthand appreciation of the biosphere (as opposed to a firsthand appreciation of a constructed world, in which the biosphere is referred to as “the wilderness” or “the outdoors”). Many of these cultures teach their youth to walk “like a leopard” or “like a tiger“—very softly, that is. To many of these cultures, there was practicality in stealth.

The point isn’t to impress upon you the alleged wisdom of the Other. I mean to make the point that the core defining values of a society, and the attitudes from which we gain social capital, will have effects all over—including in our biomechanics.

The social systems in which we live are quite capable of affecting the way in which we run, whether we’d like them or not. This assertion should not be construed to mean that we can’t have softer biomechanics if we live in these “shock-and-awe” societies. We just have to pierce through the veil of the everyday and become aware of something we used to be blind to. Basically, we have to understand what paradigms we’re coming from. We internalize the idea that our culture comes with lots of baggage, some of which may be conducive to better running and better training, and some of which may not. Having internalized this idea, we have the power to make new associations: maybe a footfall doesn’t have to be a “strike.”

I think about it in terms of “receiving” the ground. When I run, I don’t strike the ground. I don’t want my body stiff as all those forces go into it, thank you very much. I receive the ground with my foot and move it behind me, like in judo. I offer no resistance to it, like in aikido. Then, as my center of gravity moves forwards, I express myself again. With practice and mindfulness, our footfalls, our action of reception and expression, can become faster and increasingly more powerful.

Suggested Reading:

Corbett, Jim. Jungle lore. Oxford University Press, 1953.

Lee, Bruce. The art of expressing the human body. Vol. 4. Tuttle Publishing, 1998.

McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run: A hidden tribe, superathletes, and the greatest race the world has never seen. Random House LLC, 2011.

Powell, M. Norman, and Ingwe Powell. Ingwe. Kendall/Hunt, 1995.

Pulvermüller, Friedemann. “Brain mechanisms linking language and action.”Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6.7 (2005): 576-582.

Running and inquiry: A few thoughts and neuroses.

Running shouldn’t be understood as an activity that’s only for the lucky, crazy, or indestructible few.

There’s a growing body of evidence, fueled by the likes of great scientists like Daniel Lieberman and Tim Noakes (among others), which suggests that running is much more than a popular pastime, or a good opportunity for a multi-billion dollar industry.

According to them, we aren’t just great runners compared to the rest of the animal world. We stand on two legs, have big butts, a big brain and a capacity to plan into the future because we evolved on the run. (I’m making it sound like this idea is still being seriously contested; you should see my Intro Biology professors at Reed offhandedly mention this like it’s old news, as a side note during some random lecture).

But I like to reference people and use conditionals because it gives me deniability.

In that spirit, if it is the case that we are great runners, why do we think of running as “hard,” as “a pain-fest,” and as “pounding the ground” (or whatever)?

See, the thing about me is that nowadays I take this growing body of evidence as evidence that we evolved to be runners. (At first I didn’t. Not for real). By this, I mean that for all accounts, running should feel kinda similar to how an unnamed German test pilot described the sensation of flying the first jet fighter, the Messerschmitt me 262. He said it felt “like angels pushing.”

For most of us, running doesn’t feel like that. And let’s get real: for those people who have severe neuromechanical problems and certain disabilities, there are mountains to be moved, which none of us can move alone, before running can feel like that. It is our collective responsibility to cooperate to move those mountains, and create opportunities, so that whoever wants to partake in this human activity can do so.

In my case, running didn’t feel like angels at first.

I started really running about a year and a half before I read Born to Run. After I read it, my usual 4-mile runs abruptly increased in distance by 350 percent. Bad idea. My shin splints got so bad that it would take two miles of running before my battered shins went numb.

It took me two years and four injuries to internalize the fact that the problem with my shins wasn’t whether I “was” or “wasn’t” a runner in some abstract sense. Try reading Lieberman’s paper: it’s a bit dense, like most academic papers, but the evidence is solid. We’re runners. Period. Which led me to realize:

It’s not whether we can run. The question is why it’s working for some and not others.

The truth is that I’ve never been surrounded by a culture of running like the Tarahumara. I’ve never had the biomechanical opportunities which are available to a less urban person. But although I’ll never have innate, timeless wisdom (if there is such a thing), there are opportunities available to me and you: all the knowledge about physiology, biomechanics, psychology and society that we have accrued. All of it at our fingertips.

As runners, we bring to the starting line whatever hand we were dealt: a life of running. A culture of athletics. Great genetics.  The cumulative knowledge of western science is not an insignificant hand.  Problem is, most of us, (myself included) don’t even look at our cards before we toe the line.

We can’t shed a tear over which genetics we “got” (whatever that means). Epigenetics is a thing. There’s plenty of hidden code we can pull out of our chromosomes, if we train under the weight of more knowledge.

That said, let’s go find some giants and stand on their shoulders.

The nice thing is that these days we have giants aplenty, a few clicks away.

I’ve done a little bit of clicking, and I’ve begun to ask the “why” question for my own personal situation. I’d say i opened a can of worms, but it’s more like a can of many-headed hydras. Questions only beget more questions.

The short story is that running isn’t the problem. It’s everything else. It’s whether I think of myself as a slow runner or a fast runner. A forefoot-striker or a heel-striker. Whether I like to have a light breakfast, a heavy one, or no breakfast at all. But most importantly, why i do, or don’t. Because behind that “why” lies another variable, which was affecting me (my physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health) and without my knowing, influencing the consistency and power of my athletic expression. Not knowing what lies behind the “why”—or not caring—is the problem.

There are so many variables that we interact with on a daily basis, and all of these affect our energy level, our posture, whether our energy use is predominantly anaerobic. Maybe we’ve been told that we’re bad runners and therefore we run shyly, putting ourselves at a mechanical disadvantage in relation to gravity. Maybe it’s something else. We can take inventory of those maybes. We can learn what other maybes lie behind, and change them.

In the interest of developing speed, power, and endurance, and to develop faster, I like to use concepts from Systems Thinking (of which Donella Meadows and Peter Senge are luminaries) to try to understand the biological, psychological and social systems which we are parts of. I want to outsmart these systems. I want to get their tricks, their purpose, and their inner workings. I want to use them to my advantage and quicken the process of building a hell of a running machine. Maybe you want that for yourself too.

In a nutshell, that’s what I’ll explore here.