I conducted a clinic this weekend in conjunction with Dr. Mark Cucuzzella at Two Rivers Treads, his minimalist shoe store in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I like events like this because it gives me the opportunity to learn along with teaching. In this case, I got to see many of Mark’s awesome drills and explanations in person.
We also had a few good discussions on various elements of running form. In particular, someone asked about lifting their feet. Back in the day I used to teach people to lift their feet as a means of softening their foot strikes. It proved to be effective.
However, I abandoned it last year as part of the simplified methods I started using when conducting Merrell Bareform clinics. It was an unnecessary step that just added one more thing for new barefoot runners to think about. I’d occasionally toss it out again if I encountered someone that forcefully drove their feet into the ground, but otherwise the learning cue fell by the wayside.
I briefly discussed the foot lift as part of my “don’t waste energy” post a few weeks ago, but didn’t give it much thought until someone asked Mark why he didn’t teach it. His response, which is paraphrased, was:
“When I teach running form to Air Force personnel, they actually have to get faster for PT tests.”
In essence, if you propel yourself forward by lifting your foot, you’re thwarting the biomechanical processes that allow you to run faster.
Is this really the case?
I tend to listen to Mark’s advice given his medical background, collaboration with some of the most brilliant running gait analysts alive, and the fact that he’s ridiculously fast. On top of his opinion, my own observations seem to confirm this. I have a handful of really fast friend that either run barefoot or use a natural gait- Jesse Scott, Jeremiah Cataldo, James Webber, Patrick Sweeney… and a few others. Their gait is decidedly different than others that use more of a shuffle and focus heavily on lifting their feet.
[Edit- quote added to give a description of technique as requested by comments]
Steve Magness has a good description of what occurs during the part of the gait cycle where your foot leaves the ground:
With the combination of the stretch reflex and the basic passive mechanical properties of the lower leg, the recovery cycle of the leg will happen automatically. The lower leg will lift off the ground and fold so that it comes close to your buttocks (how close depends on the speed you are running) then pass under your hips with the knee leading. Once the knee has led through, the lower leg will unfold and it is then the runner’s job to put it down underneath them. Ideal landing is close to the center of your body and directly underneath the knee.
Trying to actively move the leg through the recovery phase is another common mistake and will only result in wasted energy and the a slower cycling of the leg through the recovery phase. Two other common mistakes are to try and lift the knees at the end of the recovery cycle and to kick the lower leg to the butt at the beginning of the recovery cycle. Neither idea is sound, as they are essentially like trying to push the sling shot forward in our analogy instead of just letting it go. Active lifting of the knee lengthens the recovery cycle with no added stride length benefits. Instead, the knee should be allowed to cycle through and lift on its own. It should not be forced upwards because that cycle through of the knee is a result of the stretch reflex. Similarly, pulling the lower leg to the butt simply wastes energy as the hamstrings have to be put to work in doing this action. Instead, the folding up of the leg should be thought of as a passive activity. How close the lower leg comes to the butt depends on the amount of hip extension.
This phenomenon may seem strange and is sometimes a hard concept to grasp. After all, who has the patience to not do anything during the recovery phase? But research has demonstrated that both muscle activity during the recovery phase and energy use (the recovery phase only uses 15% of the whole strides energy) show that the leg is largely cycling through entirely because of reflex like phenomenon and passive mechanics.
Barefoot runners are often criticized because we tend to be pretty slow. I’m certainly guilty of this. I suspect the “slowness” may be more of a function of our teaching methods rather than the limitations of our bare feet, and the tendency to teach new runners to lift their feet. I’m certainly guilty of this, too. I’m pretty sure I was wrong.
What are your thoughts?