Want to get faster at ultras? Train for a 5km

It’s been said that if you took all the runners at an ultra and had them run a 1mi race, the finishing order would look pretty much the same for both races. It’s not just that Nick, Ian, Rory and Ellie are fast in ultras, they are fast runners. If you watch them run, they look different, smoother and more efficient.

In 2004, I was able to watch Matt Carpenter (CR at Leadville, 15:42) run up the back side of Hope Pass as I was running down. His stride was light and quick as he seemed to float, almost effortlessly, up the incredibly steep climb.

Far too many ultra runners spend far too much time doing long, slow, plodding miles. While you may become somewhat better at the highly inefficient ultra shuffle at 15, 20 min/mi pace, you need to include some fast running to become more efficient and stronger, which will make you faster in ultras. Fast ultra runners learn how to run fast short before they learn how to run fast long.

Benefits of Speed Training

Training for speed will make your stride more biomechanically efficient, increase your cardiac output, and increase your leg strength. These improvements will carry over to ultra running.

Stride: When you run fast (properly), your stride rate is faster. Namely, your foot spends less time on the ground with each stride. That means that more of your momentum from each stride is carried forward to the next one. More momentum means less energy is needed to generate and maintain speed.

The ultra shuffle – where your feet barely get off the ground, your foot slides forward when it hits the trail, making that sandpaper sound, and spends a long time on the ground – is very inefficient. First, when your foot hits the ground sliding forward, much of your forward momentum is lost. This actually puts the brakes on your forward momentum. If your foot hits the ground pulling back (paw back), it’s much easier to propel yourself forward. Also, when you strike pulling back, your foot spends less time on the ground, thus losing less forward momentum. Second, it takes more energy to swing a low foot forward than a high one, one that’s closer to the pivot point. You should be lifting your foot using muscles in your hip area, rather than driving it up from below. These lifting muscles are much less prone to fatigue than the leg muscles. Paw back, leg lift, and time on the ground work together to make an efficient your stride.

Cardiac output: When you stress your body (within limits), your body responds by getting stronger to adapt to that stress. When you stress your cardio system, your heart responds by getting stronger, allowing it to pump more blood volume with each stroke; your lung capacity increases, allowing your blood to capture more oxygen; and your blood vessels adapt, allowing the blood to pass through more easily. Short, high effort, VO2Max (zone 5) type intervals (in measured amounts) give a greater stimulus to increase cardio efficiency than long, slow, ultra miles.

Leg strength: A determining factor in how long your stride is, is how strong and how much of your muscle fibers you use with each stride. A stronger stride will help you power along the trail faster. Like with cardio, faster running provides a greater stimulus to increase leg strength than long, slow, ultra miles. The VO2Max type intervals as well as hill sprints are good for leg strength.

Speed before Distance

Isn’t that contrary to everything you’ve ever heard about training? No. I don’t mean you should do your speed work before you build your base. What I mean is that you should develop speed at shorter distances before you increase the distances you are running and racing.

When you first start running, you should run slow and easy. Develop a base level of aerobic fitness and muscle conditioning before you work on speed. Your heart, lungs and muscles need to be able to handle easy running before you increase the stress.

Once you develop a basic level of fitness, a base, you can start to work on speed. The first step in that is working on form; i.e., teaching your body how to run fast. That means doing drills and striders before doing hard intervals. Then start doing some hard speed training, such as intervals, specific to the distances you are running and racing. Take some time to build your speed at shorter distances before moving up.

As you move up, from 5km, to 10km, to ½-marathon, to full marathon, to beyond, repeat the process of building a base at the longer distance, then adding speed. As you build a bigger base, back off on doing speed training, the hard speed work, but continue to do drills and striders to maintain that fast running stride. Then, as you add speed training specific for the longer distances, maintain an element of 5km speed training.

If you’ve already been doing ultras, this might seem like starting over from the beginning. It is to an extent. However, since you already have a big endurance base, you can compress the time it takes to step up through the distances. I do recommend taking time off from ultra training for a while. Take an entire year off from ultra racing and training if you are able (that’s largely a psychological question that you need to answer for yourself). At the very least, take a good part of the off and early season to focus on speed. A 2-hour run is OK, but longer, slower runs plodding up and down the sides of mountains are likely to hinder your progress. Do some 5km races (I hate them too, but sometimes you need to do what you hate to get better), or a little longer.

5km Training

5km training includes both drills and workouts designed to teach you how to run fast. While this is not about how to train for a 5km, here are examples of the types of training to include.


  • High Knees – With a quick stride, while moving forward slowly to moderately, exaggerate your knee lift, like in a marching band. It’s the stepping that’s quick, not the forward movement. Exaggerate the pumping of your arms (back) to help drive the knees up. A variation of this is skipping. High knees will help with leg lift, and skipping will help with quick feet.
  • Stairs. Run up stairs, and walk down. Keep your stride short and quick, taking only one stair step per stride, even if you can take more.
  • Butt Kickers – With a quick stride, while moving forward slowly to moderately, exaggerate your heel lift in back bringing it up to literally kick your butt.
  • Striders – Gradually build your speed for 20-30 strides, then maintain the speed for another 20-30 strides. Jog slowly to recover for a minute or so. Often this is done on the track, striding the straight, then jogging the curve. However, by counting strides, it can be done anywhere. Very important – DO NOT REACH OUT WITH YOUR STRIDE! Keep your stride under you (it should feel like you’re falling forward), a bit uncomfortably short and quick. Imagine that you’re running on hot coals. Striders are about how fast you step, not how fast you run.
  • Embedded Striders – On your longer runs, embed series of striders to help keep you from falling into the ultra shuffle. After a good warm-up, every 30 min, do 5 sets of 30 sec striders, 1 min jog.

Speed & Power:

  • VO2Max (zone 5) – Approx. 2.5-5 min long, at ~10 sec/mi faster than 5km pace/effort, with rest/jog ~50% of the hard effort time. For example, if you run a 5km at 8:00/mi, do 800m or ½mi hard intervals in 3:55, with ~2min rest. You want to keep the rest fairly short so that you can get back up into the zone more quickly and spend more time there. I prefer rest by time rather than distance because it keeps you honest; it’s too easy to get lazy and rest too long if by distance.
  • Uphill Striders – Do your striders uphill, on a grade that’s moderately steep (hard, but not so hard that simply running is a struggle), and on a road or not that technical trail. Focus on a quick stride and good uphill form.
  • Hill Sprints – If you haven’t done these before, start by doing uphill striders. For hill sprints, use a steep, but still run-able hill. Take several strides to build speed, sometimes I skip into them (don’t go hard from a standstill), then go hard for 5-10 seconds. Take a full recovery in between. Start with 5 or 6, at the end or middle of an easy to moderate effort, short to medium length run 2-3 times/week. 5-6 may seem easy, but if you haven’t done them before, you’re likely to be sore the first few times, or at least need some time for your muscles to adapt. Gradually increase to 10-12 sprints over several weeks. After a few weeks at 10-12 sets, change to sprinting for 20-40 seconds, on a slightly less steep hill. After a build up to full speed, run hard until your stride rate starts to slow and your legs tighten up

A few notes of caution about speed training. First, if you haven’t done speed work before, or not for a long time, ease into such workouts slowly, just one short interval workout per week. No matter how good you feel and how easy the first workout may feel, the soreness may come a day or two later. It takes time to adapt to something new. Too much, too soon, risks injury. Second, always make sure you are well warmed up before starting the intervals. Third, keep your stride short and quick, like with striders. DON’T REACH! Fourth, higher efforts put greater stress on your endochrine and immune systems. Thus, limit how much and how often you do speed training.

Running fast and efficiently is a learned skill. You need to practice to develop and maintain that ability. This takes time, especially if you haven’t done speed work (or not for a long time). Take a good part of the off and early season, to learn how to run fast. I’d even recommend taking a whole season away from ultra running to work on speed and do shorter races. Then, watch how your ultra running becomes more efficient and faster.

Have fun. Train smart. See you on the trails.


Building Strong Feet

Your feet are your foundation for your entire body when you run. How your foot strikes the ground affects how the stresses of the impact are felt in your muscles and joints up through your body, and how much of your momentum, the energy from each stride, is carried forward to the next stride or lost.

Strengthening your feet and improving your balance are important for all runners, whether your feet are healthy or (and especially) are recovering from a foot/ankle injury; whether you wear orthotics or (especially) if you plan to go barefoot; whether you run primarily roads or (especially) trails. This article will show you ways to strengthen your feet and improve your balance, and how that can improve your stride and reduce injuries.

Sensing the ground

Walk barefoot, around your house as often as possible, and even for short walks outside. This will help teach your feet to better sense the ground. Along with strength and balance, sensing the ground will make your feet better able to automatically adjust to changes in the surface and your stride, making your stride more efficient.

 Muscles under the foot

The muscles on the bottom of your foot support your arch, and provide a spring-like effect. These muscles undergo a lot of stress from pounding, stretching and contracting. If they are not up to the task, they will cause excessive energy to be transmitted up through the body leading to injury in the leg muscles and joints, and can be damaged themselves (e.g., plantar fasciatis).

Toe Curls: Lay a wash cloth, bandana, rag, t-shirt, or something similar, flat on a hard floor. Stand with the ball of your foot just on or off the edge of the fabric. Grab the fabric with your toes, curling them in a raking fashion, to pull the far end of the fabric towards you. A couple of variations of this include picking up a pencil with your toes, or standing with your toes dangling over the edge of a stair step, and grabbing the edge with your toes.

Arch: Place something small, like a pencil or marble, on the ground. Stand with the arch of your foot over the object, and try to pick it up with your arch. You can’t actually pick it up with your arch – at least I don’t know anyone who can – but just squeezing your arch – trying to move the ball of your foot closer to your heel – works those muscles that support your arch. This uses different muscles than the toe curls, so it should feel different. It may be hard to figure this one out, so work at it for a while.

Alternating toes: With your foot on the ground, raise your big toe while pressing the other four toes down to the ground. Then switch, raising the four smaller toes while pressing the big toe down.


Your ability to balance as you land affects how hard your foot has to work, as well as your risk of sprains. While we almost can balance, this is a skill that can be improved, lost if injured, and regained.

Stand on one foot: This may sound simple, yet it is a very powerful exercise. Notice that your foot will wobble. This is the natural process of starting to lose, then regaining your balance. Training this reflex will help keep your feet stable when they land, reducing the risk of injury, and making a more efficient stride. It is especially important for trail running, where every step can be on uneven ground. If you’ve sprained your ankle, you may have lost this reflex and need to regain it. I’ve had numerous sprains and three surgeries on my right ankle (the last in 1994), and have lost and regained this reflex several times. Despite this, my ankles are more stable now than before the first sprain (1981), and I am confident, aggressive and fast on technical down hills

Depending on how good your balance is, you might need to start with just 20 seconds or so on each foot, several times/day. If you’re very unsteady at first, especially if you’re  recovering from a foot or ankle injury, you might need to start by standing in a doorway and lightly touching the sides to help you balance (not a bad idea for elderly people with balance problems). Gradually wean yourself away from support. You’ll probably notice that your balance is better on one foot than the other (if you’re right handed/footed, it’s usually your left foot that has better balance because that is the foot that you plant on when kicking). Spend more time on the less stable foot.

Start on a flat, even surface. As you progress, there are numerous ways to add more difficulty while standing on one foot:

  • Stand on towels, foam, a trampoline, or something else that’s not quite so stable a surface. You don’t need to buy a wobble board.
  • Close your eyes.
  • 1-legged squats.
  • Forward bends, like warrior pose in yoga
  • Cross bends. For example, stand on your right foot, twist and bring your left elbow down to your right knee, then come back upright. Then, bring your right elbow down and left knee up to meet in the middle.
  • Get up on the ball of your foot. First just try standing on the ball of your foot without movement. Later, you can add some of the above technicques while on the ball of your foot.


Dynamic Motion

As you get more advanced, add motion to the exercises. Motion better simulates the demands of running.

  • Skipping.
  • 1-legged hops.
  • Lydiard/Nordic bounding. Forcefully drive knee up and out, and drive same arm back, as if elbowing someone behind you in the gut. Both should be exaggerated over a normal running stride. Driving the arm back will help generate a more forceful forward leg drive. As you go forward, try to hang in the air, unlike a running stride. Go slow, don’t rush, don’t race To start, pause when you land. If you have to put your other foot down to balance, practice the non-moving exercises more. As your balance improves, bound forward with the other leg as soon as you land (spend as little time on the ground as possible). First do this on flat ground. Add more difficulty by bounding up increasingly steeper hills. If you have good balance, you can also try this downhill. In addition to balance, bounding also builds leg strength. Below are a couple of videos demonstrating bounding:

Slow motion bounding on flats – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHYLRBRi8d8

Hill bounding – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1EvhPf6DPg

  • Jumping rope, first with both feet, then just one. If you’re worried about the coordination with a rope, simulate the foot and arm motions without a rope.

Transitioning to Less Supportive Shoes

Transitioning to less supportive shoes takes time. You’re not going to go from wearing orthotics to running barefoot overnight. It takes time for your muscles to strengthen and your stride to adapt. The less you run in your old shoes your old way, the quicker you can make the transition. Unless you are willing to sacrifice almost all of your training for a while, it might take several months to over a year to transition to running barefoot/minimalist full, or most of the time. Running with less supportive shoes too much or too soon can lead to injury. Be patient, be realistic, be conservative.

Remove the insoles from your running shoes. The insole provides both cushioning and arch support. As the muscles in your feet become stronger, you can try running without the insole support. Start gradually, just short runs, one day/week. This doesn’t work with all shoes. It depends on how much, where and how rough the stitching is under the insole.

Get a somewhat less supportive shoe. Look for a shoe that’s not highly engineered, without a lot of bells and whistles – easy to flex longitudinally, hold the heel and push up from under the toe, and easy to twist, at least easier than your current shoes. They’ve been making shoes like this for decades, well before the term “minimalist” came along – they’re called racing flats and lightweight trainers. Don’t go from a highly supportive shoe straight to a minimalist shoe. Gradually work your way down through less supportive, neutral cushioned trainer, neutral lightweight trainer, before moving to a racing/minimalist shoe.

Run barefoot: You don’t need to spend $70 or more on so-called barefoot shoes. Start slowly and be conservatively. Run inside on carpet or a nice grass field (no rocks, garbage, etc.). A treadmill is a great place to start. Your first few runs may only be for 15-30 seconds. It takes time for your calf muscles to handle the strain of forefoot running, and the bottom of your feet to handle the foot strike without a cover.


Having strong, balanced and quick feet is essential to an efficient and injury free stride. For a long time, runners just used to run without working on form. This is different from most other endurance sports: swimming, cycling, Nordic skiing, etc. The popularity of books like Chi Running and, especially, Born to Run, have gotten mainstream runners to start thinking about and working on form. These exercised don’t have to take a lot of time. Many of them can be done at home, in your spare time. The dynamic motion exercises can be done at the end of easy to moderate runs, a few minutes, a few days/week. Change doesn’t happen overnight. However, with consistency, your stride will improve and your risk of injury will decrease.

Have fun. Train smart. See you on the trails.

Fall 2013 Races: GG Cancelled, 10-Spot On

The Bear Creek 10-Spot and Little Fiver races will be Sunday, October 27. Registration and web site info will come soon.

The Golden Gate Canyon Trail 1/2-Marathon is cancelled again. With my twins born last fall, I didn’t have time to work on the race earlier in the year. The race has some logistical challenges, including communications around mountains in in canyons, safety and parking. These are things I needed to have worked out months ago, but I didn’t have time. I appreciate that some of you have offered to help, but this is the stuff I need to do myself, and quite a while ago. I’ll do my best to bring it back next year.

In the meantime, you can run it for free with the Denver Trail Runners, on Sept 29. More info at:

Thanks for your patience.

Carbon Cancelled

The Mt. Carbon Trail 1/2-Marathon and North Park Trail 5km races are cancelled for 2013.

My current family situation does not afford me the time to organize the races. I have 4 month old twins plus a 5 year old. It’s been a struggle to find any significant free time, let alone time to work on races.

The fall races – Golden Gate and Bear Creek 10-Spot – are still in the works. By then, everyone will be older, sleeping and eating more predictably, etc.

Thanks for your understanding. See you in the fall.

When in doubt, run uphill!

10-Spot and Little Fiver races Postponed

Due to muddy trails, I’ve decided to postpone the Bear Creek 10-Spot and Little Fiver trail races to Nov 4, 2012.

Bear Creek Lake Park (BCLP) does not allow races on muddy trails. For those who did the 2009 version of this race, it was a few days after a snow storm, and the trails were soft and muddy in spots. After the race, the park got a lot of complaints about the condition of the trails. Thus, they’ve modified their rules on trail races, foot or bike, to protect the trails. The permit states that they may cancel a trail event if it’s muddy, even the morning of the event.

As of Friday evening, the trails were way too muddy. They should dry out a lot on Saturday, but chances are they will still be muddy on Sunday. Even if they do end up being dry enough on Sunday morning, I can’t wait until the last minute to make a decision

I respect the park’s decision to protect the trails. Colorado trails are vulnerable to erosion. Use when they’re wet speeds erosion. BCLP has done a lot of work over the last few years to realign and rebuild damaged trails. BCLP is one of the easier trail venues to work with. That’s why there has been a tremendous increase in the number of events there over the last several years. They need to balance the demand for events with protecting park resources, and public use of the facilities.

The other option I considered was to make it a road race instead. I do have a course, using paved park roads and bike paths, that would be a little short of 10mi for the 10-Spot, and a little long of 5km for the Little Fiver. However, planning and setting up those courses is more difficult and time consuming. I have four week old twins, so I have much less time available. Also, I didn’t advertise that an alternate road course would be used if the trails were muddy, like I have with my spring Mt. Carbon race. So, while some of you may have preferred racing on pavement on the 28th, I think most are in it for the dirt and trails.

There is no way to please everyone. I apologize if you are unable to make it on Nov 4th.

For those who can’t race on Nov 4th, I will offer you either a refund, credit towards one of my races next year in the amount of what you paid +$5, or you can transfer your entry to a friend for no additional fee. Either way, I must hear from you by Nov 1.

Get more info on refunds, transfers and credits at http://www.runuphillracing.com/race/BCLPReschedule12.html

Thanks for your understanding. I hope to see you next weekend.

US Marathoning

If you’re a fan of running, like me, you were excited to watch the marathon trials last weekend. While I think the future looks bright for American distant running, we still have a ways to go before we can compete consistently on the world stage.

I think the women are a lot closer to the top than the men, and do have a legitimate shot at a medal, any of the 3 qualifiers. The winning time of 2:25 is a world class time, especially considering how slow and tactical it was early (opening mile of 6:11).

This was only the 2nd marathon for Trials winner Shalane Flanagan. She’s won medals on the international stage: bronze in the 10k at the ’08 Olympics, bronze at the ’11 world x-c championships. She has the US records in 3k, 5k & 10k. Among other things, that means that

2nd place finisher Desi Davila ran 2:22 in finishing 2nd at Boston last year. I think it might take a low 2:20s time to win or medal at London.

Kara Goucher, the final qualifier, is still coming back from the birth of her child 9 months ago, and is only going to get faster. She’s shown

On the men’s side, the winning time of 2:09 is not up to what the top marathoners in the world are running. The good news is that they, lead by Ryan Hall, took it out fast, running 4:50 for the first several miles. Ryan Hall said (and I completely agree) that Americans need to get used to going fast from the gun if they’re going to compete with the rest of the world, and I agree. And, this is the first time ever that four Americans have broken 2:10 in the same race. The last time three had done that was 1983 at Boston. However, go beyond the top, and it’s telling that the 17th fastest qualifier going into the trials had the same time as the 40th fastest qualifier in 1984. In a sense, we’re no better than we were three decades ago. At least the depth of talent behind Meb and Ryan is growing, and that can only help to push the Americans forward.

Trials winner Meb Keflezighi has shown he can win – silver at the 2004 Olympic marathon, win at 2009 NY marathon – but hasn’t run faster than 2:09. After Sammy Wanjiru ran a 2:06:32 at the hot and humid Beijing games in 2008, I think this year’s London is more likely to be a fast race rather than slow and tactical.

Although second place finisher Ryan Hall has run 2:06 at London, and 2:04:58 at last year’s wind aided Boston, he seems more interested in time than place (5th at London and 4th at Boston. He hasn’t won a big, international race.

Third place finisher Abdi Abdirahman has made three prior US Olympic teams in track, but has yet to medal in international competition.

I’m looking forward to the Olympics this summer. The Women’s race is Aug. 5, the men’s Aug. 12. I hope I am wrong about the US men’s chances, but will cheer them on anyway.

Barefooting Part 1 – Were we really born to run … barefoot?

The book Born To Run, by Christopher McDougall, has had an immense impact on the running world and beyond. The hardcover was on the best seller list for most of 2010, the paperback for much of 2011, and there’s a movie in the works. It is largely responsible for the boom in barefoot running and minimal shoes. It has spawned great interest in ultra running, especially the Leadville 100 (the 2011 race sold out months earlier than ever before).

While I highly recommend the book – it’s entertaining, informative, and inspiring – I’m skeptical about barefoot running. I think it’s good that this has gotten runners to think about their form (I’ve been teaching running form since 2003, using the same principles found in Chi, Pose and almost every other running form system and minimalist). Despite the evangelical zeal of barefoot runners, it’s not the magical cure for all running injuries and running shoes are not evil; the science doesn’t show either.

In part 1 I’m going to briefly review the book and critically evaluate barefoot running. In the part 2, I’ll look at ways to strengthen your feet and improve your form. This should be valuable to you whether or not you are thinking of going barefoot or minimal (I will use these terms almost interchangeably throughout), and absolutely essential if you do.

Born To Run: At its core, the book is a wonderful tale of adventure travel. Beyond the adventure, McDougall weaves in everything from the evolution of ultra running, Tarahumara history and culture, an analysis of the running shoe industry, to cultural anthropology (i.e., were we born to run?). That’s where the book hits its mark.

The adventure took place in 2006, when a group of Americans travelled down to Copper Canyon, in Mexico, for a 50 mile race with the Tarahumara. The cast of characters including 6-time Western States 100 winner Scott Jurek, a guy named Barefoot Ted, a 20-something party animal who would stay up all night drinking and then win a race the next day (subsequently, she has gotten serious and has run sub-15 for 100miles), and the author. They were travelling down to meet up with Caballo Blanco (his true name and background are revealed at the end of the book), perhaps the biggest character of them all, an American who had been living with the Tarahumara. The story of how the race came about, traveling to Copper Canyon, and the race itself is quite entertaining.

The book has one of the best histories of ultra-running, and the most detailed account I’ve read of the much heralded 1994 Leadville 100mi run battle between Ann Trason and the Tarahumara. In that race, Tarahumara runner Juan Herrera held back early on, while Ann Trason led for much of the race. When he finally let go, he flew by Ann, averaging 2 min/mi faster, to shatter the course record and win by 34 minutes. His winning time of 17:30 stood as the record for 8 years (who knows how much faster he would’ve run if he hadn’t held back). Ann Trason’s 2nd place finishing time of 18:06 is still the women’s record, over 1.5 hours faster than any other woman has run at Leadville.

Were we born to run … barefoot?

The part that created all the buzz in the running community (and beyond), and made the barefoot movement take off is the claim that we, humans, were born to run, and run barefoot. The argument combines both bio-mechanics (the heel is important for balance when standing and walking, but not necessary for running) and evolutionary biology.

The evolutionary biology theory of barefoot running (i.e., born to run) is that our ability to run long gave us an advantage over our prey. Even the fastest humans are a lot slower than four-legged animals (and we didn’t have the weapons to kill them from afar), but we could run them to death (almost literally) over time. Humans keep cool through sweating. Other animals don’t sweat. They dissipate heat through breathing. So, while they can easily out sprint us, they quickly begin to overheat, have to switch much of their breathing from energy to cooling. Quickly they slow, and if forced to continue, they overheat, and stumble and collapse, making them easy to kill.

There are several problems with the claim that since our ancestors ran barefoot successfully, we should too.

1) It’s unlikely that all of our ancestors were good runners and hunters. It’s likely that only the few good runners were the ones who hunted. In other words, we weren’t all born to run.

2) Ancient humans grew up without shoes and developed strong and tough feet. They also were physically active – climbing trees, building shelters, etc., – developing strong core and stabilizing muscles. In contrast, we sit behind a desk, in front of a TV, drive cars, etc.

3) While some of us may have been born to run, I don’t know that we were born to race, and to do so for 26 miles on pavement.

Are shoes to blame?

McDougall’s book includes a near indictment of the running shoe industry claiming that cushioned shoes enable heel striking (which leads to injury). Barefoot advocates state that injury rates haven’t changed since the introduction of cushioned and motion control running shoes – 70% in the 70s, and 70% today – and that if shoes were better, they would have declined. However, there are several problems with this argument. And, there’s no scientific evidence that shoes either hurt or help runners.

Before the first running boom, when shoes were strips of thin rubber attached to a leather upper, most runners were built like me (I did my first race in 1971) – wispy, thin, efficient (i.e., born to run). As the number of runners has grown immensely, so has the variety of body types. On average, runners today or slower (and probably heavier) than before the modern running shoe – median marathon times in 1980 were 3:32 for men and 4:03 for women; in 2008 they were 4:16 & 4:43. A lot of newer runners may not have been born to run. In fact, cushioned and control shoes may be preventing them from getting more injured, and may have been necessary to enable them to get into and continue running.

Even with efficient runners, it could be that modern shoes have allowed runners to train more and harder before they become injured. In other words, injury rates may remain a constant regardless of whether or what kind or shoes runners wear, because runners will tend to push themselves in training to the point they get injured.

Rather, the problem with shoes may be that it restricts your foot from functioning naturally. Your foot is supposed to pronate, the arch collapse, toes splay out, flex at the mid-foot. This is all part of dissipating some of the impact, and gathering energy in a spring-like fashion to return to your push off. If you wear shoes that restrict those motions, you don’t allow the muscles to strengthen and learn to operate efficiently.

Even for those who have an efficient stride in shorter runs/races, it’s not clear that’s sustainable over a longer race (i.e., ½-marathon and longer). High speed video analysis of runners towards the latter half of longer races show that even the majority of elite runners land on their heels (although, I’m not sure whether such analysis is really able to distinguish between where it appears the foot strikes and where the major impact is). So, as your foot fatigues, you may need some heel cushioning. And, cushioning may forestall the fatigue that, among other things, makes you more susceptible to injury.

I don’t have much to say about zero and low heel drop shoes because they are so new onto the market, and there hasn’t been time to study them. I read one report that implied that the amount of heel cushioning didn’t matter, but whether there was cushioning or not did. However, that was a very small and not very scientific study.

Is forefoot better?

The science does not show that barefoot running or forefoot (for purposes here, I use forefoot and midfoot interchangeably) striking reduces injury. Harvard evolutionary biologists Daniel E. Lieberman, who’s work is widely cited in the book and by barefoot advocates, states on his website, “Please note that we present no data on how people should run, whether shoes cause some injuries, or whether barefoot running causes other kinds of injuries. We believe there is a strong need for controlled, prospective studies on these issues.”

Dr. Lieberman’s most widely cited study shows how loading rates are significantly higher with heel strikers vs. forefoot strikers. There are several problems with this analysis. Force exerted down onto a strike plate doesn’t equate to force transferred up through a cushioned shoe. More loading doesn’t necessarily mean excessive; no one has showed how much is too much. Loading rates, rather than indicating excessive stress on the body, may simply indicate inefficiency. In fact, there’s a theory that the higher loading stresses the bones, making them stronger. Also, it’s not been shown that such measures in a lab represent what’s happening in the real world.

Another theory says that your body adapts to the stresses it encounters and automatically adjusts your stride (you automatically adjust your stride when you change from concrete, to dirt, to mud or sand). In other words, if heel striking hurt, you wouldn’t.

It’s not clear that forefoot striking reduces injuries. For one, landing off your heels means your muscles absorb more of the impact. Those who don’t take the time to properly adapt to fore/midfoot striking are prone to more soft tissue injuries. Even after properly adapting, on longer runs and races, muscles fatigue (bones don’t), becoming less efficient, less able to stabilize and support, which can lead to greater injury. Other studies have shown that higher frequency (hertz) forces, associated with heel striking, travel through bones, while lower frequency forces, associated with forefoot striking, travel through the muscles. So, changing to mid/forefoot striking may be trading off one set of injuries for another.

More than forefoot

Forefoot striking alone is not sufficient, and may not even be necessary for an efficient stride. For example, the University of Virginia’s Center For Endurance Sport has done analyses that indicate that where your foot lands relative to your body – your foot should land under the center of gravity (COG) – is more important. While they say that most people who land under their COG do strike forefoot, they can show you heel strikers who land under their COG and forefoot strikers who land in front. Regardless of what part of the foot you land on or what kind of shoe you are wearing, landing under your COG produces less impact than landing in front. It’s also more efficient.

Let’s add two more important characteristics of an efficient foot strike – the direction your foot is moving, and your stride rate.

When your foot hits the ground, it should be pulling back. This “paw back” motion (like a cat scratching) means that you are using the existing inertia of your body’s forward motion over the ground (or the ground’s/treadmill’s backwards motion under you) to help propel you forward. When you land flat, or with your feet moving forward relative to the ground (sounds like sandpaper), not only is the impact greater, but you stop your forward momentum (actually slowing yourself down), and require that much more energy to generate the forward momentum. Another way of thinking of this is when you have to move a heavy object (e.g., a large box), it’s easier to move it if you get a running start. Combine the paw back with landing under your COG, and it takes less energy to produce a more powerful stride than how a lot of runners land. It’s easier to push something away from your body than pull it towards you.

A faster stride (most non-elite runners can benefit from a faster stride) is more efficient, has less impact, and leads to faster running. Stride rate is much more a factor of how much time your foot is on the ground, than how much time it’s in the air. When you land, the muscles and tendons in your foot and leg collect energy and then return it, like a spring. That return of energy can happen very quickly. The longer your foot is on the ground, the more energy is absorbed, and the less is returned to propelling you forward. A faster stride means you don’t have to propel yourself as far in the air meaning less energy and less impact.

And that’s just foot strike. Other factors to consider include pelvic tilt, arm swing, shoulders and head tilt.

Can we adapt?

Even if it turns out that barefoot and/or forefoot running is better for runners, it’s not clear how easily, or even whether we can adapt to it after a lifetime of wearing shoes. Analysis of runners at barefoot/minimalist races (done after the start when runners have settled into their stride) has shown that the majority of runners still land on their heels.

Anecdotally, having watched a lot of runners, and through my own experience, it’s not clear that it’s the cushioning that causes people to run on their heels. Rather, it may be that people have different, natural running styles, perhaps altered by lack of ankle flexion from years of little or misuse (e.g., high heeled shoes). I know runners whose heels never seem to touch the ground regardless of what kind of shoe they’re wearing, and others who can’t get off their heels. Personally, I’m able to consciously alter my foot strike in whatever kind of shoe I’m wearing. For me, at least, it’s not the shoe that dictates my foot strike, but how my muscles are conditioned to fire.

Bottom line

Before you rush out and buy a pair of barefoot shoes (contradictory terms), consider whether you need to change. If you have recurring injuries – not just in your foot, but radiating up to your hips and lower back – then you might benefit from a change. However, the irony is that those who can benefit from it the most can afford it the least. I’ve always had a fairly efficient stride and good feet, and have never worn supportive shoes. I can, and have run a few miles barefoot with no build-up. However, for those who don’t have good feet and have been wearing supportive shoes, you may only be able to run a few seconds barefoot without risking injury, and it may take months of build up before you can do any substantial barefoot running.

There is a lot of benefit in working on your running form, even for efficient and injury free runners. Athletes in every other endurance sport – e.g., cycling, swimming, x-c skiing – work on their form. Whatever the reasons, most non-elite runners don’t; they just run.  Becoming more efficient will make you faster, less likely to get injured, and less tired. You will be able to wear lighter (which should also make you faster), less supportive shoes, and thus less expensive shoes, that will last longer.

In the next part I will talk about how to strengthen your feet, how to transition to less supportive shoes, and more about who should consider going barefoot.


NY Times article 6/8/11 – http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/08/are-we-built-to-run-barefoot/

Barefoot lab at Harvard – http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/

RW interview with biomechanics expert Benno Nigg, 1/9/11 – http://peakperformance.runnersworld.com/2011/01/jan-9-veteran-biomechanics-expert-benno-nigg-doubts-that-barefootin-forefootin-or-pronation-control-will-change-injury-rates.html

Science of Sports blog on barefoot running, 6/6/11 – http://www.sportsscientists.com/2011/06/barefoot-running-shoes-and-born-to-run.html

UVA Center for Endurance Sports – http://uvaendurosport.wordpress.com/ or http://uvaendurosport.com/