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Friday, October 30, 2009

"Mid-Foot" running form and Newton Running Shoes

Here at The Bicycle Studio we are known for our bikes and bike fitting. As a physical therapist, I treat all manner of athletes and in addition to cycling I run quite a bit (most weeks more than I bike), and I have been doing Ironman triathlons for about 10 years, and marathons for about 15 years.

Today I am going to discuss running. I have been studying running mechanics and research related to running form for about 15 years now. There is a lot of information out there, not all of it good, but here I will specifically go into running shoes.

I began running for fun and competition almost 25 years ago so as far as running shoes go, I began smack dab in the middle of the running shoe revolution. Shoe companies competing for the most cushioning, or motion-controlling, or energy-returning device available. A lot of gimmicks out there and hindsight being what it is, we are beginning to see that it was solving a problem that didn't exist. In fact, the research is bearing out that these shoes may be the reason for a number of common running injuries, like plantar fasciitis, achilles tendinitis, and generalized knee pain.

The issue with cushioning running shoes is that they alter running mechanics in a profound way. Simply, they make it easier to land on your heels, and in fact with most of these shoes they make it nearly impossible to land anywhere else. I won't get too far into this as there is a lot written about this topic already -- read Born to Run, Chi Running, Programmed to Run, and Lore of Running.

The basic idea behind the mid-foot running revolution is that landing on your heel makes you land with your foot in front of you. In order to progress to the next stride your quads have to eccentrically absorb that impact as your center of gravity then passess over your planted foot and then the quads, hip extensors, and calf muscles must push off in order to propel you forward. When that heel hits the ground in front of you, you have to decelerate first and then accelerate again. It's almost as if that heel out on front of you is STOP sign, repetitively slowing you down and requiring you to expend energy to speed back up every stride. There are a lot of impact forces associated with this running style.

When you land on your mid-foot, you have to land with your foot near or exactly underneath you, so your body/center of mass naturally carries over the planted foot on the momentum you have already generated. Your legs muscles do not have to eccentrically absorb each impact because the foot is planted already far enough behind you that this momentum is enough and less knee flexion/extension occurs. Running in this way, while foreign at first, will feel like you are taking smaller steps (which you are) and has a lighter more nimble feel to it. There is a break-in period where you have to keep re-training your body to stick with this new form. Some calf muscle soreness is normal, but with consistent work it becomes more natural. I can say from personal experience you will have less overall leg soreness and fewer injuries because you have significantly reduced the jarring effect of your stride. I have been a proponent of this running form for almost ten years, and now with the book Chi Running becoming so popular, it has really become more mainstream (there was a book released years before Chi Running called Programmed to Run which touched very nicely on the issue)

The Newton running shoes embrace this "mid-foot strike" running stride in a ground-up design of their shoe to make landing on your heel less likely. It has a lower profile heel and pronounced knobs on the front of the shoe (underneath the metatarsals). When I first laced these up, I noticed they make it nearly impossible to land on your heels, which is the idea, I guess. I did a number of runs on them and I would say they accomplish this task admirably.

But I didn't like 'em.

I think because I have been working on and using this form for years may have made my transition to these shoes less revelatory. In my experience, I found when I changed to shoes with less heel cushioning (lower profile overall) my form cleaned up very nicely and I was able to pitter patter my way around the trails much lighter and easier (and with much more enjoyment). The lugs on the forefoot of the Newtons

felt intrusive, and while they likely made a mid-foot strike more likely for a newbie to this way of running, they seemed to get in the way, or at least seem superfluous. I actually developed some 4th metatarsal soreness after using them on a number of very moderate duration runs.

And then there's the cost. The ones I used were $175. I know that running shoes are quickly working there way up there in price, but these were still in the deep end of the price pool. When I made the transition to lower profile, less cushioning shoes
Idea behind the shoe, one of the added benefits of these was the low cost. I run in the throw-back Saucony Jazz Low Pro

which you can get for under $50, so the jump to a Newton was quite a leap.

All in all, I think that Newton has the right idea -- running with more mid-foot form is better, but I don't know that the shoe is entirely necessary. It does solve the problem of heel striking, but I don't think it is the only way (nor the cheapest way) to go about it.

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