The Next Best Thing to Bicycling Part I

No doubt you are reading this because you saw the title and you are wondering “What is the next best thing to bicycling?” No I’m not talking about sex. After bicycling, the next best form of transportation is running, pure and simple. When I’m not biking I like to run or walk briskly to my destination, and I also like to run just for fun.

Like bicycling, running has fallen out of favor as a valid means of utilitarian transportation and is nowadays considered exclusively an athletic pursuit. Runners these days also suffer from an unexpected handicap: the shoe. That’s right the shoe. And in particular the running shoe.

No doubt you are now thinking “How could the very item designed to facilitate running be bad for runners?” Don’t take my word for it. Just ask the growing number of runners who are eschewing traditional running shoes for “barefoot running shoes” or even actually running barefoot.

It’s not that shoes are intrinsically bad. The problem is that they encourage us to land on our heels. This may be fine for walking. Or for carrying a heavy load. But when you run you need to land on the front of your feet. When you run you need to land on the front of your feet. Yes I repeated that last sentence because it’s important. I’ve learned from experience that the most comfortable way for me to run long distances is to lean back, take smaller faster steps, swing my arms side-to-side, and carefully place my feet flat on the ground over and over again. To go a little faster I can lean a bit forward and land more on the front of my feet. This is what I call the front-landing style of running.

That’s what I discovered works for me anyway. For a long time I didn’t understand why I rarely came across others who run the way I do. At my first marathon a few years ago I scrutinized thousands of my fellow runners as I ran. I saw only half a dozen or so that ran like I did. Was I doing it wrong? Or was this another case of me being right and almost everyone else on the planet being wrong? 🙂

I am by no means an athlete. But I am very good at analyzing bodies in motion. When I see how someone moves I can copy their motion and come to understand it. (This ability comes from my modern dance background.) When I started running seriously a few years ago I tried copying the heel striking running style that I saw others doing. It was a disaster. I got pains in my shins that took months to heal. My feet felt beat-up. I retreated back to the front-landing running style that I had developed. I made up a few exercises to help me (which I’ll go over in Part II of this post). I paid attention to my front-landing running style and I found there were many advantages:

  • It is easier to run uphill. Try landing on your heel when going uphill–it’s awkward.
  • I have more control running downhill. Heel-striking causes you to lean forward when running downhill and it takes a lot of effort to slow down. But front-striking allows you to lean back to slow down, or lean forward to speed up as you desire. It’s like your whole body is a big gas pedal.
  • I enjoy a continuous range of speeds from walking to running. With heel-striking I find I can either walk briskly or engage my thighs to run, but there is not a smooth transition between the two. With front-landing I am much more nimble speed-wise.
  • I have more muscle-use options. I find heel-striking tends to use only my thighs and knees. With front-landing I can shift to my thighs/knees for sprinting and shift back to my calves/ankles for distance. For a short burst of speed I can lean way back and engage my gluteus maximus (a.k.a. butt muscle). They don’t call it maximus for nothing!
  • With front-landing I can better negotiate rough terrain. Try jumping between boulders and you’ll see what I mean. First of all you can’t begin a jump from your heel. Secondly if you land on your heel it’s easy to slip. If you land flat-footed you are more secure.
  • With front-landing I can breath more deeply while running. Do a big yawn right now. (The power of suggestion is powerful isn’t it?) Let your arms do what they want. Did your elbows come up to shoulder height and did you push back your shoulders? This is the posture that’s possible when you’re front-landing, leaning back, and inhaling. Now exhale. Notice how you rock forward. This rocking motion between inhaling and exhaling is not possible when you’re heel-striking because it’s difficult to lean back.
  • I have less injuries. I find the loping gait of a heel-striking running style forces me to put my legs way out in front of me. This lets gravity pull sideways on my ankles, knees, and hips. The quick short gait of a front-landing running style keeps these joints aligned below me. And the springiness of my calf muscle protects me from injury better than the cushioning of a running shoe can.
  • I suspect that front-landing is a more efficient running style. When I run this way I don’t bob up and down as much as other runners I see who are heel-striking. The next time you are out running look at a runner who is in front of you. Can you see the bottoms of their feet? If so they are wasting a lot of energy by picking up their feet so high. Another reason I suspect front-landing is more efficient is that it can be very quiet. Do your feet make a slapping or thumping noise when you run or walk? That’s a sign of inefficiency.

That is certainly a long list of advantages that I discovered. Why couldn’t I find others who had also made these discoveries? Then a couple of years ago I heard about Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. My friends told me that I might like it. I rushed to the bookstore, bought a copy, and read it cover-to-cover. The book describes how we are creatures designed for long-distance running. That is our special skill in the animal kingdom. We used to use this skill for persistence hunting: running down large game until it fell over from heat exhaustion. Why then does long-distance running seem so difficult? The book further describes how in the 1970’s running shoes came to have heavily padded heels. Coincidentally with the introduction of this type of shoe came a dramatic increase in the number of running injuries. The book describes how the author, after suffering from injuries, adopted the front-landing running style. He describes how this is the same running style used by the race-winning Tarahumara Indians. As a finale the author and his friends join the Tarahumara Indians in a joyous ultra marathon.

Since Born to Run came out I have seen an explosion of interest in the front-landing running style. It is gratifying to see I’m not alone in the way I run. However, it is disturbing to see how the movement is unfolding. For one, people seem to be focusing on the barefoot aspect rather than the front-landing vs. heel-striking aspect. When I first saw the  FiveFingers toe shoes made by Vibram I thought “It’s not about the toes, it’s about the heel! Tell them about not landing on their heels!” The shoe companies have the difficult job of diverting our attention from the fact that they have been selling us injury-causing shoes for the last 40 years. And they are in another awkward bind: how do they stand to profit if runners all decide to run barefoot? They are tripping up all over themselves with innovative marketing schemes. This is their chance to capture a new growing niche market. They have the difficult task of applauding the barefoot movement and discouraging it at the same time. They accomplish this by pushing what they oxymoronically call “barefoot running shoes”. I sense that people are buying into their marketing but not changing the way they run. I am shocked to see people wearing these shoes who apparently have no clue about how to land on the front of their feet when they run. I’m concerned.

My own contribution to the front-landing movement (which I’ll deliver in Part II of this post) will be to describe the training exercises I came up with. I’ll also describe my thoughts about breathing and about running shoes. In the meantime, imagine this “cargo running” scenario: you have a nearby errand to run and you don’t have much to carry. You definitely don’t need a car. You don’t feeling like biking. And you don’t even really feel like wearing shoes. Start running. Not because you’re in a hurry. Not because you’re trying to lose weight or train for an athletic event. But because you need to get somewhere and it feels good to get there by running.