The Next Best Thing to Bicycling Part II

In Part I of this post I extolled the virtues of running, which in my opinion is the next best form of personal transportation after bicycling. I described how I experimentally determined the best running style for me, which I call the front-landing style, or what is coming to be known as the barefoot running style. I describe the advantages of landing on the front of my foot rather than my heel: it’s easier to run uphill, run downhill, vary my speed, run on rough terrain, breath more deeply, and most importantly it helps me avoid repetitive stress injuries. Advocates portray the barefoot running style as more natural. That’s not particularly important to me. Speed is also not important to me. With a barefoot running style I can run marathon distances at a moderate speed. I can do it in any shoes or even barefoot. And I can do it gracefully and enjoyably. Like riding a bicycle.

No doubt you were convinced by Part I of this post to try the front-landing running style yourself. You are wondering “How is it done? Do I need special shoes? Is it dangerous? Will people make fun of me?” Let’s answer each of these questions one-by-one.

How is it done?

No one showed me how to run using the front-landing running style. In fact it was frustrating to read the book Born to Run, which promotes the front-landing style, and nowhere in the book does the author explain how to run this way! The reason, I think, is that your body already knows how it’s done. You just have to let it show you. Try this simple method: take off your shoes and run a bit. Lean back and take small steps as you run. Now put your shoes back on and run the same way. Continue to refine your running style. It’s that simple.

This is not rocket science people. It’s not about forcing your body to conform to a pre-conceived notion of how to run. It’s about experimenting, paying attention to what your body is telling you, and making tiny adjustments. For long-distance running even tiny adjustments can make a big difference. When you’re out running ask yourself:

  • What part of my foot am I landing on? Try landing different ways. What’s most comfortable for long distances?
  • How much am I leaning forward or backward? What’s most comfortable for long distances?
  • What are my arms doing? Try swinging your arms side-to-side versus front-to-back.
  • What’s my stride and pace? Compare short quick steps to long slow steps.
  • How can I maximize each breath? What posture best facilitates breathing?
  • What’s the rhythm of my breathing? That is, how many steps do I take when inhaling and how many when exhaling? How does that rhythm change when I am exercising more strenuously such as going uphill or downhill?

After conducting all of these experiments I came to the following conclusions. When running long distances my body likes to lean slightly backwards, land with my feet flat on the ground, swing my arms side-to-side, and take short quick steps. I throw my shoulders back when I inhale, then lean slightly forward when I exhale. I like to breath in for four or five steps, then exhale somewhat explosively for two steps. When going uphill I sometimes need to switch to three steps inhaling and two steps exhaling. Should you run this way? No, probably not exactly like this. But you should be able to say as explicitly as this how you run. If not, work on it.

So the first step to adopting a front-landing style of running is simply to pay attention to how your body moves. Here are some exercises designed to help you pay attention:

  • As you go about your daily business pay attention to how you walk. Can you walk by landing on the front of your foot? Does leaning back help? Does taking short quick steps help?
  • Run up and down stairs mindfully. Notice that stairs force you to stand upright and front-land.
  • Try running as quietly as possible. It’s no accident that tip-toeing is a form of front-landing.
  • Try running a couple of miles with a cup of water in your hand without spilling the water. This exercise really shows you how to run smoothly and efficiently.

The second step to adopting a front-landing style of running is to run a lot. As soon as you finish reading this post get up and go for a run. Run to work. Run to school.

Do I need special shoes?

No. You can use the shoes you already have but use your feet differently. When you run with a front-landing style you don’t rely on your shoe’s padding, so you can use the same running shoes for years and years. However, when your running shoes do wear out you might consider replacing them with shoes that don’t have a thick heel. It used to be difficult to find such shoes, but more and more are coming on the market even as I write this.

Here’s my experience finding shoes. Last year barefoot running shoes didn’t yet exist, so I tried running in flat sandals. The straps caused terrible blisters so I reverted back to my beat-up wedge-heel running shoes. This year there are plenty of barefoot running shoes available. I bought a water shoe that has a thin sole and no heel. I’ve been very happy with it.

I find a front-landing running style allows me to run in any shoes. I think most heel-striking runners would hesitate to run on a moment’s notice if they were not wearing their proper shoes. I can just start running on a whim. I find that with front-landing I can run comfortably even in my boots. That’s because it’s the springiness of my calves that’s providing the cushioning, not the padding in the heel of my shoe.

And do we really need running shoes at all, especially in warm weather? I’ve begun experimenting with barefoot running and I really like it so far.

Is the front-landing running style dangerous?

No. In fact it is dangerous not to run with the front-landing running style. The only discomfort you’ll feel at first is that your calf muscles will be sore. That’s a good sign—it shows that they are cushioning your feet properly.

Will people make fun of me?

Yes, for now. If you are the sort of person who obsesses about what other people think then front-landing is not for you. But I think most of the readers of this blog do not fall into that category. And I think it is just a matter of time before heel-strikers feel self-conscious about how they run instead. People used to think the Earth was flat. People used to think smoking was good for you. Times change.