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“Run on Your Toes” and Four Other Dumb-Ass Bits of Advice Given to New Barefoot or Minimal Shoe Runners

Posted by on Apr 29, 2012 | 30 Comments

1. Run on your toes. This may be the most damaging advice I hear. New barefoot or minimalist shoe runners (BFR/MR) are told to “get up on their toes.” This idiotic advice is simply wrong. By not allowing your heels to touch the ground, excessive stress is placed on the Achilles tendon and calf muscles. This stress causes Achilles tendonitis, muscle or tendon tears, plantar fasciitis symptoms, and a host of other problems. If you like like a prancing princess, you’re doing it wrong.

If your calf hurts, it’s probably a result of not allowing a brief unloading of the calf muscles by keeping your heel off the ground. The solution- let your heel touch.

The lone exception is sprinting. When running as fast as you can, your heel will not touch the ground.

2. Start on grass (or sand). This seems reasonable. After all, grass and sand are soft. Soft stuff will make it easier. Or will it?

WRONG!

Soft surfaces hide bad running form. It’s better to start on a hard, smooth surface. I recommend sidewalks, asphalt roads, or tracks. If you can drive your heel into the ground and it feels good, you’re running in the wrong place.

3. Lean forward. Ah, the forward lean. Thanks to Pose and ChiRunning, the forward lean has become an apparent staple of learning better running form. And I think that’s a HUGE mistake.

First, the need for the lean is often described as capturing the power of gravity to pull you forward. That’s just bad science. If take a vertical object and push it over, the force exerted on the bottom of the object move it in the opposite direction as it falls. Gravity does not provide “free energy” as I’ve heard some morons people for whom I disagree that are of obvious inferior intellectual ability and/or blinded by unverifiable pseudo-scientific statements haphazardly posted on anonymous Internet forums confidently state.

Second, it confuses new runners. When you explain the lean, new runners bend at the waist. This throws off their posture and causes all sorts of problems- overstriding, strained back muscles, shin splints, etc.

The solution- don’t teach people to lean. The body will automatically lean as we run. The faster we run, the more we lean. If we’re shortening our stride and our feet are landing under our center of gravity, the lean will take care of itself.

4. Run through the pain. Pain is the body’s alert system. It tells us to stop what we’re doing. Listen to your body. When something hurts, you’re probably either doing it wrong or doing too much of it. Some soreness is expected, but it will be more of the “I just started weight lifting” pain. Save the ‘no pain no gain” philosophy for your tattoos.

The “just ignore the pain” advice is about as dumb as placing your hand on a hot stove and holding it there as the superheated iron sears your flesh. Don’t ignore your body.

5. You need to focus on W, X, Y, and Z. People love giving advice. They also like making things overly complex. It’s not uncommon to find new barefoot runners trying to focus on five or six different variables at the same time. For a new runner trying to learn the basics of good form, this makes the process far more difficult than it should be. I recommend one singular focus point- take shorter, faster steps. If you’re barefoot, everything else will fall in place. Simple is better.

If you need more help, seek out a qualified coach (like Jesse Scott), check out some of the great barefoot books like Ken Bob’s or my own (The Barefoot Running Book), or check out the resources I helped develop with Merrell.

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30 Comments

  1. Robert
    April 30, 2012

    Jason,
    Interesting perspective.

    But is the name calling really necessary? Those are some strong words to use which may make you feel better but dilutes the maturity of your message.

    Specifically related to #3 and the topic of gravity, can we all assume such a strong *opinion* was verified by your own physics analysis you can present in your own words? With a complete free body diagram for every phase of the running stride? With your assumptions stated?

    If you can’t personally do and describe this analysis, are you really in a position to be name calling? And even then so, name calling … really? Hmm, let’s see … take a opinion and then name-call anyone who does not agree with you … now that is a *university* level skill.

    Now I assume your response back will be to refer to this or that reference, mostly more opinion without the actual analysis … but that would suggest you are a follower (sheep) and not a leader. Which one do you want to be known by?

    Waiting patiently for *your* complete analysis in your own words. You can start by fully explaining all the forces in the *university* level (by your standards) diagram you provided in this post along with your assumptions; and the physics principles that result in *your* conclusion. My guess is you either can’t produce it or you won’t once you actually do the analysis.

    • Dave
      May 1, 2012

      I agree with Robert. I’ve been a fan of this blog for a while but the name calling is a big put off for me.

      Especially considering your outright false claim –

      “Gravity does not provide “free energy” as I’ve heard some morons confidently state.”

      Gravity does indeed provide free energy when running downhill. This is not even disputed. Top physicists don’t dispute it, runners don’t dispute it, and barefoot ted’s google group does not dispute it. So yes, Gravity DOES provide free energy…when running downhill.

      The role gravity plays on flat and uphill running is less clear. The point is, the statement quoted above is completely false, which tends to happen when one makes huge, sweeping generalizations with no mention of even the most simple nuances such as uphill/downhill etc…

      Of course, this post most likely isn’t to provide accurate information and help people run better. This post is to ruffle the feathers of the pose community, get a heated discussion going here at the university, and increase traffic to the website.

      • Jason
        May 1, 2012

        Actually, I was hoping to antagonize my friend Jeremy into starting a discussion about the role of gravity in running gait, which usually results in some pretty significant mutual understanding on both sides.

        You guys are taking me wayyyy to seriously. I run in short shorts, drink beer during runs, and list “magician” as a job skill on my resume. What more do I have to do?!?

        ;-)

        • Jason
          May 1, 2012

          Snarky correction made. ;-)

    • Jason
      May 1, 2012

      Robert- I’m assuming you’re not a regular follower. Here’s how BRU works:

      1. A topic is introduced.
      2. I incite debate using conjecture, name-calling, or other dumbassedness.
      3. People on both sides open up intelligent debate.
      4. We all leave happier and more knowledgeable.

      BRU is more like Animal House than Harvard. We have fun here. That involves juvenile hijinks like name-calling and crude references to all things offensive. Yes, we do things a little differently.

      As far as leader or follower, I don’t consider myself either. I’m more of a facilitator. And antagonism is my favorite tool. ;-)

      • Robert
        May 3, 2012

        That’s it? That’s all you got?

        Seriously, this is how you educate people? You facilitate a debate by tossing out conjecture, confuse people with opinion stated as fact and attempt to goat people into educating you – all in the name of “fun”? So are you the student or the *university* professor? Are the participants in your clinics expected to educate you also?

        Not sure what the folks at Merrell were thinking or how they get stuck with the bill. I certainly won’t be wearing or recommending Merrell as long as this is the representation they seek.

        And still waiting for you to explain all the forces in your diagram, so you can hold up your side of the “intelligent debate” you suggest exists here …

        • Jason
          May 3, 2012

          [sigh] You miss the point. I don’t claim to be an expert in all things related to running, biomechanics, or physics. However, I DO have readers that are experts in those particular niche topics. Those same readers also understand the tone of this blog. Sure, I may toss out occasional name-calling, but I’m also just as willing to call myself the same names. If people call me a moron, so be it. I laugh it off. I’m not measuring my self-worth by something as silly as being called a juvenile name.

          A top-down “expert” meritocracy where a few talking heads dispense knowledge to the “ignorant” masses is an outdated concept. In the age of the Internet, the real power of knowledge rests in the masses.

          If you’re looking for a blog that dispenses knowledge in an all-knowing fashion, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. There are plenty of people out there that claim to have all the answers; it should be pretty easy to seek them out.

          If you’re looking for a light-hearted approach to discussing complex topics in an open-minded atmosphere, then stick around. Check out a few of my friends’ blogs in the blogroll, too.

          Regarding the question of me being the student or the professor- if you understood my original point, there would be no need to ask the question. Each and every person plays both roles, including myself. I have a ton of knowledge to share. So do all of my readers. I think it would be a travesty to not leverage the collective knowledge that allows all of us to grow.

        • Jason
          May 3, 2012

          And to address the lean issue; there’s two parts to my point.

          First, there’s the practical issue of teaching runners to actively lean forward while running. I used to do this until I realized most runners butcher the concept and it negatively affects their gait. If it’s not taught, runners always seem to do the lean correctly. Teaching by omission works better than presenting a complex idea. The exception- runners receiving coaching can get the necessary feedback (see the discussion with Ken below).

          Second, there’s the academic debate about the role of gravity in running gait. In short, there’s no consensus. Peruse the literature… it’s not discussed.

          From a logical perspective, gravity pulls us down, which requires energy to keep us from collapsing. That energy expenditure negates the “free energy” argument. We’re not propelled forward by something that pulls us down.

          Of course, our understanding of this idea is incomplete at best. Anyone that claims to know exactly how this works is stating opinion, not replicable peer-reviewed research that has earned a widespread consensus. How do we come to a consensus?

          Debate. Research. More debate. More research.

          I’m clearly not qualified to conduct said research, but I can incite debates that may lead to research.

  2. Brian G
    April 30, 2012

    I always try to break complicated topics down to the most simple concepts, and I’ve been giving the topic of teaching proper running form a bit of thought lately.

    I’m starting to focus on forgetting about forward lean, thinking about foot strike patterns, and all that. The one concept I’m focusing on when providing advice is this: No matter what, make sure your foot hits the ground to as close to under your center of mass as possible, and concentrate on only that. Period.

    I think that if someone follows that one bit of guidance then most everything else (except perhaps good posture) falls into place on its own. It’s almost impossible to over stride, heel strike, run with a slow cadence, etc. When teaching you do however have to point out to the student where the line from their center of mass to the ground is as some people can be way off.

  3. Brian G
    April 30, 2012

    Running only on your toes prevents the foot’s arch from performing its primary function. Both end points of an arch (here, the fore foot and heel) must take about equal amounts of compressive load in order for the arch to provide any value. Otherwise, you don’t need an arch, you need an I-beam.

    • Jason
      May 1, 2012

      Excellent point, Brian!

  4. Mark E P
    April 30, 2012

    Train dont strain

  5. Ken
    April 30, 2012

    Jason,

    Thanks for your reply. I certainly have no qualms with your teaching methods clearly you are quite successful.

    I have followed the google group you mentioned, and unfortunately it was so full of bad physics and misrepresentations of Pose theory and technique that I just stopped wasting my time with it. Ultimately this argument will only be solved in the lab, and not via internet discussions between people with questionable background in science.

    As for the article you quoted, all I can say is, “OUCH that one really hurt!” It is unfortunately wrong in terms of Pose theory, or, at the very least, it is misleading about the source of energy used for running. Gravity can only be a source of potential energy due to position. The runner must first expend energy to get into a position from which he can fall.

    Clearly this article gives you and others the right to question Pose theory base on its contents. I’ll be sure to point that out to Dr. R. It should be corrected.

    In any case, a better resource would be the scientific journals in which Dr. R. states that gravity is not a source of energy.

    • Jason
      April 30, 2012

      I think Pose is a great method and Romanov’s idea of the ideal “pose” is revolutionary. His explanations of how forward propulsion is accomplished is confusing and not supported by the wider biomechanics community. I’d prefer to see Pose stop attempting to explain the “how” and focus on the “why.” Pose results in more efficiency. It probably reduces injuries. That’s all the justification needed.

      I stand by my original assertion, though. The forward lean shouldn’t be taught. Attempts to teach it does far more damage than good. The lone exception- if a runner is working with a qualified coach, the lean may be introduced as an advanced topic.

      • Ken S.
        April 30, 2012

        I agree with your view on teaching the lean for the majority of students. I also agree that focusing on technique is more important than the physics behind it. Most people don’t care about the theory, they just want to run faster and without injuries. Refocusing would probably be more productive.

        • Jason
          May 1, 2012

          The theory talk interests me, but you’re right. It is of little practical value when actually coaching someone on technique.

  6. Rick
    April 29, 2012

    I completely agree with not running on the toes Jason. The heel has to touch down in order for the entire foot to utilize the natural/normal ground reaction forces. With no heel for the foot and the entire chain to contend with, the posterior calf musculature can lengthen in all three planes of motion for more elastic energy (and recoil). In order to avoid the injuries that you mentioned, the forefoot has to pronate (unlock) at the same time that the rearfoot is supinating or locking up. The motion of the forefoot and the motion of the rearfoot have to occur at the right time, in the right plane, and at the right joint. In other words, the entire foot has to be in contact with the ground prior to heel lift, and for better propulsion. When the foot is in an environment that allows for all of this, the athlete will have less energy leaks, and more efficiency throughout the entire chain.

  7. Ken
    April 29, 2012

    If this comes across as an angry diatribe, I apologize, but I’m really tired of hearing completely inaccurate information about what Pose theory states. I don’t mind if you disagree with the theory, but please at least represent it accurately or not at all.

    To start with, I’ll admit that the whole “leaning” thing is confusing to many people. I will also admit that it this concept has not been well communicated. Also, it is not something that has to even be taught to most people. However, not everyone automatically leans appropriately, and for those people, not leaning, does slow them down.

    Now for the hard part, and again, I don’t mean to come across as a bitter jerk, but to quote you, “Gravity does not provide “free energy” as I’ve heard some morons confidently state.”

    Yes you are correct, but this is not what Pose theory states. Dr. Romanov has been very clear that gravity does not add any “free” energy, and has stated this many times in peer reviewed scientific journals. With every step the runner must exert a great deal of energy getting in position to fall.

    I’m disappointed that you, of all people, are perpetuating this incorrect notion of Pose theory. I’m also disappointed that your explanation of what “really” happens also leaves out some very basic and important concepts of physics. It’s not wrong, but it not complete.

    I’ll get off my soap box now. Again, I apologize if I was too much of a jerk about this.

    • Jason
      April 29, 2012

      Hey Ken, in my experience, there’s a HUGE difference in people that receive Pose or Chi coaching and those that read the books. The latter simply don’t understand the lean. I’m just as guilty, it’s part of my book.

      As far as the ‘free energy’ thing, I hear that repeatedly, including sources that aren’t talking about Pose or Chi.

      According to the Pose site (It can’t be absolutely neutral, there should be some ways to tap into this powerful source of energy and use it to our advantage and maybe incorporate it into running mechanics as a propulsive force as well., http://www.posetech.com/training/archives/000220.html), Pose does make a claim that gravity propels us forward.

      That’s simply wrong. The Minimalist Runner Google Group has discussed this topic ad nauseum, and I think their explanations perfectly sum up the argument: (http://groups.google.com/group/huaraches/search?group=huaraches&q=pose+forward+lean&qt_g=Search+this+group).

      I stopped teaching it last year and found every runner (hundreds) is able to do it without using it as a teaching cue. It happens naturally, hence my aversion to actively teaching it in the absence of a qualified coach.

      I like Pose a lot, but I found teaching the forward lean isn’t necessary in the vast majority of cases. It just adds unnecessary complexity. Furthermore, I believe the logic that gravity is harnessed as a propulsive force is flawed.

      • Bare Lee
        April 30, 2012

        Gravity CAN be effectively harnessed as a dormitive force however. It is key to proper sleeping form.

  8. Bob
    April 29, 2012

    This is great, I was just talking to someone about this the other day, good timing as always.

  9. Wiglaf
    April 29, 2012

    The faster Michael Johnson runs, the less he leans forward:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jv6_sQWKyZw

    • HK
      April 30, 2012

      True. The faster you ACCELERATE, the more you lean forward. When running at constant speed, runners lean much less regardless of the speed. Some of the best runners in the world have a very upright posture at high speeds, like Michael Johnson.

      I also naturally run upright, and forcing even a slight a forward lean makes me slower and less relaxed. We have tried it with my coach, it just doesn’t work. Of course I lean when I accelerate, but not after achieving constant speed.

  10. Bare Lee
    April 29, 2012

    I wish I would’ve read this when I first got back into barefoot running. I definitely overdid the forefoot landing.

    How do you feel about Dr. Mark’s tip to drive the knee forward? I found when I do that I naturally take shorter, quicker steps, but it also ups my speed.

    I just bought a BRU bumper sticker and hoodie by the way. Will my support be enough for an honorary degree?

  11. JVK
    April 29, 2012

    totally agree on the lean forward thing… i attended a good form running clinic and i have to say it was the best thing i did when i started running. I would not have realized the all important things like cadence and posture. how ever the one thing that never made sense and was hard to do was the lean forward thing. i started out running slow and basically just ignored the lean forward step. it wasn’t until months later when i did my first track workout running hard 200 and 400′s that i realized how leaning forward comes into play. like you stated, the faster you go the more you will lean forward. there is not much control over this step like there is with cadence and posture.

    as for the “run on your toes”, i like how you state that touching your heel to the ground unloads the calf muscles. never heard it put this way and it makes total sense.

    Thanks for Posting Jason!

  12. mark
    April 29, 2012

    And even when Usain’s heel doesn’t hit, his achilles is still being stretched which is the point

  13. Curb Ivanic
    April 29, 2012

    Great advice Jason, esp. the forward lean. Wish some of these form gurus would understand basic physics.

    #5 is spot-on. If coaching someone, provide some brief instruction and then let them figure it out with practice under supervision. Give minimal cues as needed but as you said, don’t over-cue and make it more complex than needed. Also, when coaching movement external cues (i.e. look straight ahead) are much better than internal cues (i.e. feel your glutes).

    Keep up with the great advice!

  14. Wiglaf
    April 29, 2012

    I don’t know how many articles I’ve read with bad advice per #1 and #2. It’s excessive.

    I’d contend that even sprinters land on their heels some of the time. It’s very close to making contact even when it doesn’t unlike the guy I saw at the 5/3 riverbank run running like a ballerina in vibrams – heels never touching. Here’s Usain Bolt in slow motion and a fair amount of the time his heel does make contact:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QrlPmK4B94

    • Wiglaf
      April 29, 2012

      This is a mesmerizing video to watch. Fourth guy from the inside touches the heel to the ground every step. Yes, a world class athlete even. I remember in high school being told that sprinting means you run on your toes. So much for that.

      • Mark Esteban Protheroe
        April 30, 2012

        Heel will touch/kiss or just fall shy to load achilles tendon(32%)and the planter with 17% energy
        In the Usian Bolt slow motion video notice all the runners are landing in front of their COG.