What have I been doing all these years?!

August 11, 2012
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(This article was first published on James Keirstead » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

So the London Olympics have been pretty exciting, right? All those rare sports a person only seems to watch once every four years, right alongside familiar favourites being performed at the absolute top level. To top it all off, watching this year’s Games have made me realize that I’ve been making big mistakes in my running technique for years.

A bit of backstory first. Growing up, my main sport was downhill skiing with a bit of running and golf on the side. The running was rarely competitive but after moving to the UK, the skiing and golf dropped of the radar pretty quickly and I started running in earnest. I’ve now run a few 10k races and two half-marathons with decent times in the 40 minute and 1:35 range for each event respectively. Unfortunately settling into my first year of lecturing took a big chunk out of my schedule and I’m only now getting back on the road after a year-long hiatus.

Which brings us to the Olympics. I was blown away by both Mo Farah‘s 10km victory and David Rudisha‘s world record in the 800m, and soon found myself looking up running technique videos on YouTube. This one in particular was a real eye-opener.

Having never been filmed running before, I had no idea whether I was heel-striking or not. My gut feeling was that I probably was but I headed out this afternoon for a short run to find out for sure.

After doing about a kilometer I was pretty confident that, although it wasn’t too extreme, I probably did have a heel strike. The picture below shows the difference between the two and once you’re aware of the distinction, you become attuned to the way your foot hits the ground quite quickly.

Forefoot strike (left) versus heel strike (right)

Forefoot strike (left) versus heel strike (right)

There were several good tips on the web for how to encourage forefoot striking, including hopping in place (like jumping rope) and using a slight body lean (from the ankles, not hips) while running to encourage the foot to land under your hips, rather than way out in front. So, after pausing for stretch, I tentatively leaned forward and absolutely took off.

I cannot believe the difference this made to my running – it feels like you’re flying along. That horrible braking sensation of jarring down on the leading leg is gone and you are propelled down the street with a spring in your step. Marvellous! Obviously it’s only one run, and I need to gradually build up the mileage with this new technique to ensure that I don’t hurt any previously untested muscles. What’s more, controlling pace is a bit tricky and you have to get used to the faster cadence.

But, for today’s short run, the results speak for themselves. The chart below compares the distribution of all the runs I’ve done between 3.3 and 4 km over the past three years, including a period where I was recovering from injury. These aren’t pace runs or anything, just normal daily runs, and if anything a bit slow, as I usually use this distance either early in a training cycle or as recovery runs. Still, I wouldn’t say that today’s effort wasn’t particularly different from these previous runs and the extra pace of the forefoot strike is obvious. I’ll just keep practicing and see how things go!

Comparison of heel strike and forefoot strike on short runs

Comparison of heel strike and forefoot strike on short runs

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