Tag Archives: systems thinking

An analysis of the paradigmatic features of midfoot-striking and heel-striking.

The term “heel-striking” shouldn’t just refer to which part of the foot hits the ground first. Even in the common parlance, it should refer to the collection of neuromuscular gait features across the body that contribute to a type of overstriding in which the heel lands first, ahead of the center of gravity.

When I write the words “heel-striking,” this is invariably what I mean.

This way, we can neatly sidestep the conversation of whether someone landed on their heel under their center of gravity, or only “appears” to heel-strike. Let’s do away with reductionist analyses: let’s make it about something else than just “the strike.” The most widespread way in which the western runner overstrides is by heel-striking.

In a previous post, I reviewed how there is a paradigmatic body geometry to midfoot-striking, which corresponds to a paradigmatic pattern of muscle use. Heel-striking is no different.

When I say “paradigmatic,” I refer to the core components of the stride; to its most generalizable features. For example, the paradigmatic body geometry of midfoot-striking consists of a full-body arch, which begins at the base of the head and ends at the heel.

Establishing the paradigmatic features of types of running strides allows us to observe those features and make reasonable predictions about them. If you look at a runner who appears to be heel-striking, and yet is creating a full-body arch starting from the base of the head and ending at the pushoff heel, you can be reasonably certain that if you look closer, you will actually find this runner to be midfoot-striking. In other words, you can know that Meb Keflezighi’s apparent heel-strike (left), is actually a “proprioceptive heel-strike”—rather, a “disguised” midfoot-strike—just by looking at the continuous arch made by his leg and back at pushoff. (This video makes my point rather well). You may notice that other noted forefoot-strikers create very similar arches:

elite arches m

Because every person has a slightly different body geometry, the specifics of their stride will be slightly different. But these specifics are much more similar to each other than it is usually claimed. For example, in the post previously mentioned I reviewed how, necessarily, for all humans, dynamic strength is necessarily achieved by creating a series of consistent and symmetrical arches with the body’s bone structure. The reason this applies to all humans is because it applies to all structures. The integrity of every possible structure—from the Hagia Sophia to the plantar vault—is subject to the symmetry and consistency of its arches.

From this idea, we can extrapolate that no human can be the strongest version of themselves without creating the most consistent and symmetric arches across the body. Therefore, when you look at the differences betwen midfoot-striking and heel-striking, the differences in body geometry stand out starkly: unlike midfoot-striking, heel-striking paradigmatically breaks the full-body arch that makes the midfoot-striking body so resilient.

There may be a few runners out there for whom a true heel-strike doesn’t break this full-body arch. There may even be others who can land on their heels, under the center of gravity, without breaking this arch. But paradigmatically, the stride difference between forefoot-strikers (left) and heel-strikers (right) looks like this:


As mentioned before, a paradigmatic body geometry corresponds to a particular pattern of muscle use. In the above graphic, you can observe major differences between midfoot-striking and heel-striking in the neuromuscular paradigm of both the extensor muscles used during pushoff (red) and the flexor muscles used during the swing phase (blue). Of course these two types of body geometry load different tissues in different ways. That’s the point.

The most important differences are (1) the reduced iliopsoas function for the heel-striker (depicted by a grayed out X at the hip), (2) the reduced function of the upper back extensors (grayed-out X at the back), and the concentric activation of the quadriceps muscle for the heel-striker (blue arrow at the thigh).

The heel-strikers’s upper leg is in a bit of a predicament: during the swing phase, both the quadriceps (front thigh muscle, blue), and the hamstring (back thigh muscle, blue) are active at the same time. This is a problem because, when the leg is forwards of the hip, the hamstring flexes the knee, while the quadriceps extends it. This means that two muscles of the body which perform opposite functions are active at the same time, pulling in opposite directions. And this is happening as the leg is nearing the ground—during the landing phase—which means that two of the major muscles of the body are fighting each other, and they are doing so at the very moment that the body is about to slam into the ground.

This isn’t a problem for the midfoot-striker: the fact that the front knee is bent, and near the height of the hips, means that the quadriceps is largely inactive at that stage. Full quadriceps activation only occurs towards the end of the pushoff phase (front thigh muscle, red).

Because athletic power is generated through the creation of consistent and symmetric arches, any running body will always be the most powerful version of itself as a midfoot-striker. Furthermore, the body is designed around these principles: because load-bearing structure (the arch) is most consistent when the body is powerfully midfoot-striking, the body is at the peak of structural resilience when midfoot striking. Given that resilience is a hallmark of systemic integrity, this means that a systemic analysis of the body can only basically conclude that the human biomechanical system is operating at its “peak” when it is midfoot striking.

Similarly to the heel-strike, the midfoot-strike doesn’t refer to the part of the foot that hits the ground first. It refers to the constellation of stride components (such as the creation of a full body arch), that allows this part of the foot to hit the ground first.

This post shouldn’t be construed to mean that we should ONLY midfoot-strike. There may be plenty of reasons to heel-strike, such as rapid deceleration, and the opportunity to use the heel bone as a swivel, in order to turn quickly. However, for the purpose of producing safe and sustained forward motion, no type of stride will yield results that are as consistent or as powerful as those allowed by the midfoot-strike.

The human body as a system of suspension bridges: The geometric source of athletic power.

To say “stand up straight” is a bit of a misnomer; the body is made up of a series of curvatures.

When you look from the side at someone standing up straight, you’ll see that their body actually follows a curve which begins at their heels and ends at the top of their head. Think of a hunting bow: when a bow is strung, the bowstring holds both ends of the bow together, allowing the structure to store a magnificent amount of potential energy, to be released when an arrow is loosed. The extensor muscles of the body (hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles) perform largely the same function as the bowstring:

bow 1

The quintessential proud or dominant posture is achieved by tensing the extensor muscles to align the majority of the bones in the body to create a series of arches, or bows. By maintaining tension in this way, the body creates a firm (yet dynamic) structure. This isn’t a spurious analysis: throughout the history of architecture, arches have been the quintessential support structure. For these same reasons, suspension bridges are built in high-wind and earthquake-prone areas: because using tense cables to support the structure not only maintains the bridge’s shape very well, but does so despite the power that wind or seismic events can exert on it. By contrast, a bridge that is completely rigid through and through would be far less resilient. 

Because the body is a moving system (as opposed to a rigid system), it creates these arches in order to more easily engage with the forces that routinely interact with the body, such as the force of gravity and the kinetic energy generated during exercise.

Continue reading The human body as a system of suspension bridges: The geometric source of athletic power.

From maximalist to minimalist footwear (and back): a lesson in resilience, and in “shifting the burden” systems.

The popularity of the trend of minimalist (zero-drop, low-cushioning) shoes has coincided with a sharp increase in running injuries, according to some sources. This has caused a large amount of community, media, and legal blowback on minimalist shoes, the most salient of which is the recent class-action lawsuit against Vibram, for misleading advertisement.

Misleading advertisement should always be punished. Vibram peddled their five-fingers shoes as the solution to running injuries. They are not. They should never have been advertised that way.

But this blowback has created an unfortunate tendency: blaming the minimalist shoes themselves as the cause of injury.

They aren’t the cause. Although this may seem contradictory, it is the fact that so many people get injured when switching from “maximalist” (shoes that are highly-cushioned; often with an elevated heel) to minimalist shoes—but not vice versa—that suggests that minimalist shoes are better for the biomechanics of human running.

This apparent contradiction can be resolved—but in order to do that we must look at the issue from a systems thinking perspective. And for that, we have to begin with the concept of “resilience.”

Continue reading From maximalist to minimalist footwear (and back): a lesson in resilience, and in “shifting the burden” systems.

Systemic paradigms and their repercussions: the athletic phenomenon of “heel-striking,” and its origins in scientific reductionism.

It would be misleading to say that the philosophical currents that drive society affect our behavior and influence events. It’s much more accurate to say that those philosophical currents largely determine our patterns of behavior and generate those events.

The widespread and damaging athletic phenomenon of heel-striking is no exception.

(By “heel-striking” I refer to the global set of gait characteristics which results in the runner putting their weight on the heel of the landing foot ahead of the center of mass).

Systems thinking proposes that our “mental models”—our belief systems about the world—create the very fabric of society, and therefore the patterns of behavior that emerge. The repercussions that our worldview has on our thought, our social structure, and our lives, are vast, and they are powerful.

Continue reading Systemic paradigms and their repercussions: the athletic phenomenon of “heel-striking,” and its origins in scientific reductionism.

Hitting The Wall: “The Tragedy of the Commons” in the marathon.

All of us marathoners have a feared enemy: “The Wall”—that shock of exhaustion that always hits around mile 19. Those of us who are ultrarunners have gotten to know it better than our oldest friend. For some of us, it just might be our oldest friend.

We’re all beset by The Wall, until one day we outrun it, and it vanishes in the road behind us.

But why is The Wall such a shared experience? Why does it happen? And perhaps most intriguing: is it possible to find a way around it?

Yes. Systems thinking lets us explore recurring patterns of behavior, which is why it helps us to understand The Wall. The Wall isn’t inevitable; it isn’t “a fact of life” for runners. Most runners use their bodies in a particular way, and The Wall arises from the reality that most runners don’t use their bodies in the right way.

How many times have I heard a runner say, near the beginning of the race: “I’ll charge up this hill while I still have energy!”

Many. And that’s because the patterns of behavior that elicit such thinking are rampant. Continue reading Hitting The Wall: “The Tragedy of the Commons” in the marathon.

An internet encounter with static stretching.

Yesterday, while I was browsing Facebook, I happened to click on a link that advertised the 30 best premium WordPress themes. Curious, I started to browse through the list, and I came upon one that I was curious about: “spartan,” which has a nice internet-mag style layout.

As I looked at the live preview—nothing fancy; just catchy headlines, stock images and lipsum text—I scrolled down and saw that one of the example articles had a headline that read: “Don’t forget to stretch after your workout!”

Continue reading An internet encounter with static stretching.

The Tales of Forgotten Subsystems, Part II: The “Central Governor.”

Exercise is one of the biggest challenges to the continuous functioning of our body—also known as homeostasis. When we exercise, we wear down tissues, spend calories, consume nutrients, and basically threaten the integrity of our bodies. That’s not a problem: the human body has been designed and built by the creative errors of evolution to be a high-performance athletic machine. And this machine comes with a regulatory mechanism whose purpose it is to ensure that our homeostasis does not become compromised by athletic activity: the “central governor.”

Although this may be obvious to some, it is news to the majority of exercise physiologists, and it is still being debated by cutting-edge researchers. What can you say? Old ideas die hard.

Continue reading The Tales of Forgotten Subsystems, Part II: The “Central Governor.”

The importance of a “Vision.”

These days, we find ourselves in a multitude of wars, literal and metaphoric. We are always fighting against something. Whether it is obesity, aging, injury or death, it seems that most of what we do is to try and stave off the avalanche of the inevitable. This battle cannot be won—and yet we fight it. But the reality is: we don’t have to.

When the majority of us lay athletes begin to exercise, we often do it to hold something at bay. Maybe it’s heart disease. Maybe it’s something else. In systems thinking, is often referred to as “Negative Vision.” We bring into our minds the image of what we don’t want to happen, and we exercise accordingly.

There are several big problems with this approach: first and foremost, we don’t have a mission in mind—something that we are driven to accomplish. For that very reason, we find whatever it is that we’re trying to outrun constantly nipping at our heels. That is a losing battle.

Continue reading The importance of a “Vision.”

Reflections on the Systems Thinking/Leadership workshop at MIT Sloan.

As part of my recent trip to Boston, I attended a Leadership/systems thinking workshop at MIT taught by Peter Senge. The goal of that workshop was to pair teams of Leadership Lab (or “L-lab”) students with various organizations of different sizes and scopes. Among the organizations represented were Caterpillar, West Elm, and OCP. This arrangement had a dual purpose: to assist these organizations in developing their sustainability initiatives through systems thinking, and to provide real-life learning opportunities and challenges for the students of L-lab.

I went as a part of NOS (Noroeste Sustentable), a small NGO based in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. My role as an attendee was primarily to provide support to Alejandro Robles, the organization’s director. This was, of course, an amazing opportunity to learn about systems thinking from Peter Senge. But I also went with “half an eye”—as I told one of the instructors—towards learning about the Leadership MBA they offer at MIT Sloan (and PhD opportunities, as well).

Systems thinking is a framework for thought and leadership developed from the multidisciplinary approach to engineering provided by systems dynamics. Systems dynamics quantitatively and qualitatively studies the components of physical systems, their interactions, and tries to model and predict otherwise unpredictable behaviors that occur from the complexity of the interactions involved. Systems thinking takes this discipline and and focuses on teaching people how to view the world in terms of a complex set of interactions, which are predominantly hidden and inaccessible to our firsthand experience.

Continue reading Reflections on the Systems Thinking/Leadership workshop at MIT Sloan.

A systems view on dieting and losing weight.

Most of us suspect that diets just don’t work. Despite the fact that every six months or so, a new diet comes along touting a new and amazing way to lose weight, there’s a good chance that for a large chunk of the population, it won’t be effective. As usual, it comes down to the individual’s “strength of will” or “mental ability” to constrain themselves and only eat particular foods, or particular quantities of foods.

I prefer a different approach.

Why not, instead of sitting there dreaming about what we could eat that we’re holding ourselves back from eating, we learn how to stack the deck in our favor? Why not set up the dominoes of our life so that we find ourselves eating what we should be eating, without having to drive ourselves with an iron fist? By the way, that’s totally possible.

The principles of systems thinking (and the specifics of the body), allow us to explore systemic changes that we can make, so that it doesn’t come down to “strength of will”—whatever that means.

Continue reading A systems view on dieting and losing weight.