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Running Form Isn’t Black and White

Posted by on Aug 31, 2012 | 10 Comments

I’ve had a little extra free time lately (Pure Michigan…), so I’ve spent some time on the barefoot forums. As has been the case since they first came into being, there’s a mix of regulars with tons of experience and a few newbies. The conversations with the newbies are interesting. There’s a strong tendency to do the following:

1. Ignore advice from experienced barefoot runners.

2. Begin giving advice based on their limited experience.

3. Promote one particular method without really having the experience to fully weigh the pros and cons and how a given method generalizes to a wider audience outside themselves.

Over the last year or two, I’d like to think we’ve made incredible strides toward assessing the complexity of running gait and correctly identifying some elements that matter and some that don’t. I think Pete Larson and Bill Katovsky’s book ‘Tread Lightly’ perfectly exemplifies the progress we’ve made.

[Sidebar- if you haven't read it, order it today. It is a MUST READ for all runners, minimalist or otherwise.]

In essence, I think many of us that have maintained a degree of skepticism about running gait would agree- there are no easy answers. Most would probably agree there is such thing as better running form and worse running form. Most seem to agree that severe over-or-under-striding is not good. Most also agree that the arms shouldn’t cross the center line of the body.

Beyond that, there’s little agreement on the details. Pretty much anyone and everyone that conducts research, coaches, conducts clinics, or has a “method” of teaching better running form has different ideas. Here’s the key-

All of the ideas will work for some of the people some of the time, but none of the ideas will work for all of the people all of the time.

For example, there seems to be a renewed interest in cadence. Specifically, there seems to be a growing movement that supports the idea of cadence being fixed at precisely 180 steps per minute.There’s little or no empirical research that supports this, and there’s a slew of anecdotal evidence that refutes it. Yet it’s still being discussed.

The problem, of course, is 180 steps per minute IS the ideal cadence… for some of the people some of the time. That results in a confirmation bias of sorts. If 180 works for you, a filtering process happens. You seek out evidence that supports it and filter incoming evidence that refutes it, thus giving you unreasonable confidence in your belief.

What does this mean in practical terms?

  • If our goal is to improve our own running, we need to study multiple methods and experiment to find which is most effective for us as individuals.
  • If our goal is to engage in theoretical discussions, we need to research the pros and cons of the methods we’re discussing and recognize none can be generalized to the entire running population.
  • If our goal is to teach others, we need to study multiple methods to be able to match our teaching methods with the needs of our clients.
  • Above all, we have to understand that running form is NOT fully understood.

Running gait is unbelievably complex and we’re not close to understanding all the variables. There are no easy black and white answers… only shades of gray. If we’re going to continue to progress, we need to recognize that none of us have all the answers. We need to be more ope-minded. We need to question our own beliefs. We also need to seriously question those that claim to have all the answers.

That’s all.

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10 Comments

  1. Dan
    September 2, 2012

    Thanks again, Jason, for PML&BK’s MUST READ — enjoying, along with Ken Bob Saxton. Looking forward to yours, too! Cheers

  2. Mark
    August 31, 2012

    I have read several of the books on this “new style” of running. I agree that personal body mechanics play a role in how one should run. Is 180 cadence the end goal? I doubt it, but it gives a “ballpark” for which to shoot. I have found that I have run “heavy” when my cadence drops below 174, and feels much crisper at 182. Anywhere in between is comfortable. Bending the knees? How much is enough? I do not know, but I do know I tend to land heavier on my right foot if I do not consciously bend my knee a few extra degrees. I have to also focus on relaxing everything below the ankle, again, especially on the right foot. No book can tell me why I have this issue — what is it that my body is doing to cause this problem — but they all remind of the same thing — relax, relax, relax. I had my first barefoot run today, only 3.4 miles, that did not have a hotspot. I am getting better. All the books have helped me gain greater insight into gait, and for what type of gait I should be striving. But none of the books can help my body get there, because it is not automatic eyes-brain-legs-feet. Lots of unlearning and long forgotten traumas to overcome. I still ask myself, “Why am I not getting this right yet?”

  3. Bare Lee
    August 31, 2012

    For me, the key to beginning to understand running form/economy was to stop seeking knowledge from barefoot runners, and to start reading what elite trainers, runners, and academic researchers have to say. Because there is no such thing as barefoot running form. There is only good running form. So it’s best to read up on those who have been at it a long, long time, not just since 2009. That said, I agree completely with your analysis of the complexity of getting different people from different sports/fitness/age backgrounds to learn what good running form means for them, and how best to achieve it.

    • Jason
      August 31, 2012

      I agree. Most barefoot runners are exceptionally good at analyzing their own gait, but fail at helping others. That’s especially true if the people they’re helping aren’t actually running barefoot.

      There are some gems. Ken Bob has some awesome analogies that would help anyone learn to run better, but that’s more of an exception than a rule.

      While I like studying all different perspectives, I really appreciate those that acknowledge the variability in running gait.

      • Bare Lee
        August 31, 2012

        Yah, I really need to read my Ken Bob book, and yours, which just came Tuesday! I like the BRS forum cuz you learn a lot about the specifics of barefoot running, especially from the vets, and of course the camaraderie, but for general running info (biomechanics, training protocols, etc.), I don’t think it or any other specifically barefoot running site provides any advantage over a shoddie site, and sometimes it seems like there is a greater propensity for silly arguments over folk notions like knee bending, 180 cadence, and so on. Your site holds an advantage over all other sites I’ve seen because you’re uniquely qualified to comment on all the different elements involved, and are open to many different perspectives. And it’s always nice when you contribute to a thread on a forum and introduce some common sense and experience to the discussion. Like you said recently on the RW forum, you’re continued input is quite valuable, and appreciated.

        • Jason
          August 31, 2012

          I doubt your own running would benefit from reading either book, but both could be useful in regards to picking up new ways to describe familiar concepts to reach different people.

          Regarding the forums- there was a cohort that more or less started this journey together. Lots of different opinions; lots of different personality types. Over the course of a year or so, many of us came to realize we didn’t have all the answers. Most started seeking out other sources. It’s no surprise those that were open to listening to others have been the most successful. I just try to bring that same attitude to the blog.

          It helps having an open-minded readership, though. You guys teach me far more than I teach you. ;-)

          • Bare Lee
            August 31, 2012

            I dunno. I’ve seen you say a few things in the last few months on form and pace and fartleks that took me some time to arrive at on my own. I wonder how many other insights I could find in your book and save myself some time and trouble, or never find elsewhere.
            And yah, I forgot to mention your readership as another draw to your blog. I always enjoy reading the comments, and learn a lot from them. The thing I like best about the BRS forum is the interactive/dialogic aspect. I’ve thought about visiting the RW forum more, but there’s just a few too many cabbleaddict types there. I must say, though, you do a good job of setting them straight.

      • Lomad
        August 31, 2012

        That’s the tough part though, right? We’ve all found something revalatory in barefoot running and can’t wait for the opportunity to help others see it. The lack of wide experience makes our advice anything from mildly beneficial to cripplingly bad for those to whom we dole it out. It’s such a hard thing to hold back when you want to ‘help.’

        I think the sharing of experience is good and can be informative/helpful; it just has to be viewed as ‘this worked for some guy, but doesn’t mean I have to live it/love it/apply it. It is worth banging around my braincase for a bit though…’ type experience sharing.

        • Lomad
          August 31, 2012

          Oh, and seriously; when are you coming back by Portland? I could use a clinic!

  4. Gary Conway
    August 31, 2012

    Totally agree on being open-minded. Test and experiment until you find your own personal sweet spot. Thanks for the book recommendation – will pick that up.