After just a few minutes with Pete Ford, Vivobarefoot’s Born To Run running coach, he’s diagnosed my problem. It would appear I’m part of a new breed of injury-prone runner – the Born To Run cult – who have embraced forefoot running without learning the basics.
Like many, I’d read Born To Run, got overly excited about the benefits of barefoot running, and blindlessly thrown myself into it, thinking I was the next Zola Budd.
Excited by the idea that I could get rid of my clunky stability trainers with orthotics insoles, run in something a bit lighter, and finally get rid of my dreaded shin splints, I set out on my mission to become one of the Tarahumara tribe. I decided that, from now on, heel-striking was the devil. I would strike on my forefoot, get calves of steel and never feel any pain again. And this is how it went (sort of), until I started marathon training, upped the miles and the dreaded shin pain returned – with an added set of painful calves.
After a coaching session with Pete, I soon discovered that transitioning to a more natural way of movement is less about how your foot is striking, but where and how your body is moving in its entirety.
The diagnosis: Posture, rhythm, relaxation
Skilled running, Pete told me, all comes down to your posture, rhythm and relaxation. And once I had all three nailed, a new proficient way of moving and loading should (hopefully) result in reduced lower limb pain and also better performance. As Pete got talking, I realised that, ironically, after focusing so closely on where my foot had been striking off the ground, I hadn’t thought about any of these three things, which soon became very apparent.
The session began with a run on the treadmill at two different speeds, with Pete recording me. We then looked at the footage to analyse my posture, rhythm and relaxation.
The biggest surprise about my posture, for me, was the amount I threw my shoulders forward when I ran, and also that I was over striding. As Pete slowed down the video, he pointed out that the two elements are linked. In addition to this, I also wasn’t allowing my heels to then make contact with the floor. This was putting a huge amount of pressure on my calves – hence all the pain.
We then began to look at rhythm. A runner’s cadence (the amount of steps taken per minute), is key to achieving good running form. My slow cadence was allowing for a longer foot contact time with the ground and, along with the over-striding action, was not allowing me to benefit from the body’s natural usage of elastic energy.
Finally, Pete pointed out that my, quite frankly, shoddy form (my words, not Pete’s!) was further exacerbated by how tense I was when I ran. “A tense body sabotages fluid rhythmic movements, contributing to a less skilful form.” However, he assured me that developing a good posture and rhythm will lead to a more relaxed movement pattern, once the new skills have become subconscious actions.
So what did I need to change? First of all, I needed to improve my posture. Pete told me to focus on holding an upright segmentally aligned position, which I could work on by carrying out a series of drills at home.
We tested out my natural stability through a series of single-leg standing exercises, initially with my eyes open and then with my eyes closed. I noticed that I was very unstable upon closing my eyes, and Pete advised I practise single-leg standing exercises each day at home to improve this, focusing on rooting the big toe firmly on the ground to assist this skill.
Good running form, Pete told me, is built on a good posture alignment, which all begins with your stance. Pete demonstrated this by having me stand on a pressure pad to check my weight distribution, and to show what it felt like to stand with a stable posture. I noticed that with just a slight change in the way I held my shoulders, my weight distributed much more evenly and I felt better aligned. Pete told me to continually practise standing with a stable posture to improve my posture alignment, and therefore my running form.
Next we practised my ability to sit in a deep squat position (hunter gatherer squat). This not only develops the skill of maintaining the body’s centre of mass over the ball of the foot, but helps to build strength and range of movement in the ankles, knees, hips and spine. This, again, was something I needed to practice. “The importance of this skill is often overlooked and also misunderstood but forms a key component of the Born To Run running philosophy,” explains Pete.
To develop the functional elasticity of the lower leg and foot, Pete advised that I practise jumping on the spot, gradually building up to jumping for 5 x 2 minutes each day, initially on two feet and then advancing to single-leg jumping, holding a bar over my head. When the jumps are carried out at the stipulated rhythm, the body uses a lower percentage of muscle action and a greater percentage of functional elasticity. By practising this motion it would develop my functional elasticity, and therefore help me to reduce foot contact time with the ground.
Pete recommends running at 170-185bpm – quite a step up from the cadence I was used to running at. To quicken by cadence/jumping frequency, we used a metronome to help me to jump and eventually run in time to the beat.
Being able to relax is most definitely easier said than done when you’ve got so many new skills to think that about. This is why such a focus is placed on practising the component skill drills. Pete told me that, with correct practice, these skills should eventually become subconscious actions.
Putting it into practice
After going through the above, it was time to return to the treadmill. Initially, I carried out a self-correcting posture drill, by carrying out a series of jumps on the treadmill (while it was moving!). Already I was practicing posture and rhythm! As soon as I could carry out this skill correctly while moving, the focus switched to starting to use the hamstrings correctly when I ran. To do this, I carried out a drill where I quickly pulled my heel towards my bum, while maintaining good posture and rhythm. This had the effect that I could now feel my foot landing underneath my hip, and I was no long over-striding. This was the light bulb moment for me. Yes I might have been trying and failing to forefoot strike, but this was irrelevant; if my foot was landing in front of me, my whole form was compromised.
After leaving many physio sessions being told I’m a flat-footed over-pronator, in need of weighty stability shoes and a pair of orthotic insoles, it was refreshing to leave the session with something constructive to work on, rather than being told to buy something to “correct” me. Yes, re-learning to run and re-programming my body to move differently was going to take lots of time and patience, but correcting my movement pattern made so much more sense than putting on a pair of “corrective” shoes. And although attempting “barefoot running” does have all the benefits the acclaimed book tells us, it would appear there’s a lot more to it than where your foot is striking off the ground. It’s all about changing your movement pattern, focusing on posture, rhythm and relaxation.
Time to get practising before my next session with Pete. Fingers crossed for pain-free running and perhaps a new PB!
To learn more about the Born To Run running philosophy visit, visit the Born To Run website, where a free ebook can be downloaded. To have your running form checked out by Pete Ford, you can book a coaching session via the Vivobarefoot website.
Read Jenny’s follow up blog, documenting her second coaching session with Peter.