I've been running about a year. After reading that a midfoot strike is faster and better form than a heel strike, I gave it a try on a 5-mile run. I felt okay on the run, then YIKES! My calves were like fists for five days. Was it just too much change too fast, or should I forget about it and heel-toe it forever?
If it makes a difference, I have big, flat flipper feet. My shoes correct the over-pronation, but I don't know if they affect my form. Thanks!
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This is a great question and very timely! With all the press about running form, gait, foot strike, barefoot running and minimalist running shoes, many runners are experimenting with changing their running style.
Simply put, yes, trying out a different foot strike for a 5-mile run was way too much change all at once! Altering your foot strike seems like a small change, especially when said change is supposed to be a positive one. However, as you found out, even seemingly small changes have huge consequences. Keep in mind that any and all changes to our running should be made in small, gradual increments. We need to remember to apply the same training principles we used when we began running to making changes as well.
For example, the training principles of Specificity and Progressive Overload should be applied when making training changes.
The principle of Specificity reminds us that training is very specific. Once we have established a foundation, we often forget to apply this principle thereafter. Training is specific to the specific fibers of the specific muscles recruited for specific movements. Only the recruited muscle fibers become conditioned. When we change movement patterns, we change which muscles fibers are recruited. Different fibers will not have the same conditioning that the previously used muscle fibers developed. Changing your foot strike changes the movement pattern, and therefore, it's like starting all over again.
The principle of Progressive Overload teaches us that the body adapts to stress (physical exercise) and becomes stronger when stress (running) is delivered in gradual, incremental doses. When we overload the body too much, too soon, without adequate recovery time, it breaks down. The result of too much, too soon can range from muscle soreness, like you experienced, to serious injuries.
Running 5 miles, using a different foot strike, is much like asking a non-runner to go out and run 5 miles for their very first run, non-stop. While we would recognize right away that 5 miles for a first run is not a good idea, we don't recognize that making a change in our running is the same thing. Always introduce changes in a gradual, incremental manner.
Research seems to indicate that the overall amount of mechanical load to the body stays the same regardless of foot strike; however, changing the foot strike appears to change where this load is delivered, so changing your foot strike will require time and patience to allow conditioning to occur. A general rule of thumb when making changes to training, whether increasing mileage or changing your routine, is to use the 10 percent guideline. For example, on your 5-mile run, practice using the mid-foot strike for 1/2 mile. Increase this distance gradually based on how you feel after your run, noting whether or not you experienced any fatigue, muscle soreness, or other aches or pains.
Our individual run patterns are determined by many factors. Our running style or pattern is uniquely individual, much like our fingerprints. Skeletal structure and alignment, muscular strength and flexibility, as well as run pace, are just a few of the components that affect our running style. The body will take the path of least resistance and develop its own economy and efficiency based on the interaction of all of these components.
Be aware that when you change one component, it will most likely affect another one, so be attuned to how your body feels all over when making changes. For overall improvement, work on balancing opposing muscle groups and improving muscular strength and flexibility. Performing running drills such as high knees, butt kicks, skipping, running strides, and counting leg turnover rate can also help improve running economy.
All the best! Susan S. Paul, MS
Susan Paul has coached more than 2,000 runners and is an exercise physiologist and program director for the Orlando Track Shack Foundation. For more information, visit www.trackshack.com.