foot-shaped toe box

Running Philosophy: How to be a Better, Healthier Runner

Healthy Running Philosophy: How to be a Better Runner & Run Injury Free

One of the most common questions runners ask me is how they can improve and at the same time stay healthy.  Although there is no proven way to do this, I feel that I’ve learned a lot through the years that can be passed on.  I spent my years in college studying running injuries & running technique, and I also worked in a running store for nearly 2 decades where learning to help people not hurt was the name of the game.  Through my studies and hands on experience, I’ve come to believe there are four major causes of running injuries:

  1. Repetitive Stress & Muscle Imbalances (Mostly caused by man-made surfaces)
  2. Poor Running Technique
  3. Poor Foot & Body Function & Strength
  4. Over-training

As a result, there are possible solutions for each one:

  1. Repetitive Stress & Muscle Imbalances
    World renowned Exercise Scientist & 1984 Olympic Trials Marathon Champion Pete Pfitzinger wrote “Most running injuries occur because of the repetitive nature of the running stride…You can address…by correcting muscle imbalances…and by adjusting your running surface…”(1) Our bodies were not created to run repetitively on a uniform surface such as a road, track, or treadmill.  Therefore, it is imperative that runners search out and run on variable, uneven surfaces such as trails, cobblestones, and grass as much as possible. This allows more intrinsic and stabilizing muscles to get involved, thereby balancing the muscle structure. A soft surface like a track will not reduce injury.  In fact, track running actually encourages more injury because it is so extremely consistent.  The more different each step is and the more the whole body gets involved, the more effective the surface is at preventing injury.   My studies in college showed that trail runners were far less injured than road runners, but that most runners could reduce injury by running one-third of their mileage on variable terrain.  The book Anatomy for Runners by Jay Dicharry is the comprehensive source on why muscle balance matters and how to avoid injury.
  2. Poor Running Technique
    Since most runners have never been trained on HOW to run efficiently with low impact, most of them over-stride and run with inefficient, high impact running technique.  Unfortunately, most shoes literally teach bad form as well, because most running shoes have elevated heels that are twice as heavy and twice as thick as the forefoot of the shoe.  In any other sport, there is focus on performing the tasks of the sport correctly to reduce injury and improve performance—running should be no different.  Become a student of good running form to learn how to protect your body.  I highly recommend filming yourself as most people don’t run the way they think they run! Additionally, getting a pair of Zero Drop shoes—shoes without an elevated heel—will make it much easier to run with good technique.  Any heel elevation, even 4mm, will cause a weight and height imbalance that will encourage an early, unnatural foot-strike. Although there is no ideal running form, there are a few things that nearly all elite runners and non-injured runners have in common:

    1) Proud, Forward Momentum Posture: Hips & Chest are pushed forward without bending at the waist.
    2) Compact Arms: Elbows shouldn’t swing forward past the hips unless sprinting—this will keep the body in proper position and prevent over-striding.
    3) Soft Landing Under a Bent Knee: Don’t think about foot-strike, as it will take care of itself if the other points are done correctly. Most people will naturally land somewhere between a slight heel strike and the middle of the foot.  Excessive heel striking or forefoot/toe striking is discouraged.
    4) High Cadence: Nearly all elites have been observed to have around 180+ steps per minute.  For most people, ultimately shooting for at least 170 steps per minute will drastically improve form, improve foot-strike, and reduce impact.
    See www.AltraRunBetter.com for more detail.  I also recommend reading Programmed to Run by Dr. Tom Miller.

  3. Poor Foot Strength & Function
    To improve performance and avoid injury from the ground up, both the foot and the core of the body need to be strong and in their natural position.  The foot is the foundation of the body and it is therefore critical that the foot be strong & be allowed to function naturally—yet most Americans have weak feet that are inhibited by shoes that move their feet out of natural position and function by raising their heels and crowding their toes with pointy toe-boxes.
    Keep your body in its natural position whenever possible. Your running shoes are important, but what you wear the rest of the day is equally important.  If your shoes aren’t the same shape as your spread out foot in a sock, get new shoes.  Shoes that will put your feet in their most natural, powerful position will not include tapered toe-boxes, elevated heels, or excessive “arch support”.

    Tapered toe-boxes don’t allow the foot & toes to naturally absorb impact, stabilize the body, and push off the ground the way they are meant to.  They also contribute to bunions, neuromas, Plantar Fasciosis, and other foot maladies.
    Elevated heels shorten the calves and Achilles tendon and make the body column compensate, causing extra pressure on the lower back, hips, & knees.  Therefore shoes should be flat, flexible, and shaped like healthy feet.  Wearing footwear like this will allow your feet to function properly and become strong and dynamic.  The stress on the feet from hard, consistent, man-mad surfaces can be reduced by having some cushioning in the shoe.
    Excessive “arch support” and/or orthotics weaken the feet and create a vicious addiction cycle until the feet are strengthened and learn how to work without them again.  Those addicted to supposed “arch support” need to strengthen their feet and slowly phase the orthotics or arch supports out over a period of a few months as their feet get stronger and become the support.

    Additionally, most Americans sit all day at work and have weak core muscles.  If you sit at work, consider using an exercise ball as a chair some of the time.  Take walks at least every hour if possible. It is also critical to strengthen core muscles through Strength Training, Yoga, Pilates, Climbing, or other Cross Training Activities.

  4. Over-training
    Combating over-training is one of the hardest things for a runner to do
    .  For most of us, it is in our nature to push it.  We get excited about a race or how our training is going and then we push it too hard.   Unfortunately, the best solution to this one seems to be to stop being a runner! In all seriousness though, just remember that training smarter is better than training harder.  It is proven that you will get improve more from running a Lactate Threshold workout at 15k to Half Marathon pace and NOT by going faster.  It is also proven that your v02Max workouts will give your body benefit at your 3k to 5k pace and you will get more benefit at that pace than by running harder.  I recommend reading “Road Racing for Serious Runners” to better understand how to get faster by training smarter and not harder.
    It is almost inevitable that a runner will get sick, experience a life event that disrupts running, or get injured in some form during training—often this will be non-running related.  For this reason, I highly recommend planning a couple weeks of down time in to each training season.  If and when you have to use this time, it doesn’t affect you as negatively because you’ve planned on it.  If you don’t have to use it, you’re just that much further ahead.

There are probably a thousand other items that could be added in, but these are some of the big ones!  At the end of the day, most runners can avoid injury by avoiding over-training, becoming a student of their running form, running on natural, variable surfaces, and by putting their body in its natural, most powerful state.

(1) Road Racing for Serious Runners, Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas, pg. 70.

I’m a newer runner, what should I look for in a shoe?

Running Shoes for Newer Runners

“What should my first pair of real running shoes be?”

During the nearly twenty years I spent working and managing a running store, I often heard the same question quite often: “What shoes should I get if I’ve never really had running shoes before?”  It was always a tough question, because  each individual is so different and has different needs when it comes to how much cushion or support they could benefit from.  With that said—with any sport, there is always a universal need to learn HOW to do the sport properly and have the right equipment that encourages proper technique.   In fact, in some sports, beginners are often given pieces of equipment that are training tools that over-emphasize proper form or expedite the learning process.

Unfortunately, the running world hasn’t seemed to have caught on to this yet.  In fact, running is probably the only sport we spend virtually no time teaching new-comers how to properly do the sport and just tell them to “go run”.  No wonder the injury rate is so high! This is equivalent to taking a kid and throwing him in the pool and just saying “go swim”, or giving a kid a basketball and saying “go shoot!”  Sure, you’ll get better over time, but it will be slow and painful, you’ll likely get injured over time, and you’ll most likely have to unlearn some bad habits as you progress.

Additionally, running is probably the only sport where our equipment typically works against us and encourages less than ideal technique.  Indeed, most running shoes encourage beginning runners—and all runners—to run WRONG! The vast majority of running shoes contain cushioning that is twice as heavy and twice as thick in the heel as it is in the front of the shoe.  This additional weight and height in the heel of the shoe causes a runner to land more out in front of their body, and more on their heels.   Simply put, most traditional running shoes encourage a runner to run with higher impact, inefficient form than they otherwise would.

If you are having a hard time believing this, simply film yourself running for 5 minutes in traditional running shoes, and then film yourself for 5 minutes running barefoot or in a shoe that is very thin or perfectly flat.  Watch the last minute of each video.  The changes in landing (foot strike), knee angle, overall posture, and stride rate (cadence) are incredible! With that said, I’m not advocating barefoot for beginners—unless they are VERY patient people and want to start barefoot—for a variety of reasons.  More on this later.

Running is also likely the only sport where our main piece of equipment puts our body in a less than ideal position for balance, stability, and power.   The ability of the foot to naturally spread out on landing, stabilize the body further by engaging the big toe, and powerfully push off from this position is a critical piece of being able to run efficiently and injury free.  Simply put, the foot should be able to spread out upon landing and therefore 1) absorb impact, 2) naturally stabilize, and 3) push off the ground efficiently.  As the foot hits the ground and spreads out into its widest position, it is naturally more powerful and more stable.  Think of the wide, low stance of a sports car or trying to do push-ups with your fingers together versus spread apart.

Unfortunately, although feet are naturally widest at the toes, most running shoes feature tapered toe boxes that are shaped more like torpedoes than they are like healthy human feet.   X-ray images show that tapered toe boxes cause significantly more bone stress in the feet, which is a precursor to stress fractures. This tapered shape inhibits the body’s ability to naturally spread out the foot to absorb impact, stabilize, and push off the ground powerfully.  To drive the point home, the majority of people buy shoes too narrow for their feet. In fact, the width of the average female shoe sold is nearly 2 sizes narrower than the average female foot. No wonder 73% of Americans report foot pain as compared to only a 3% incidence in non-shoe wearing populations! Take a look at your foot in a non-constricting sock and compare that shape to the shape of your shoe and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.  If you’ve been wearing shoes that are too narrow for many years, your feet may be starting to look more like the shoes you wear than actual feet, which is a precursor to many foot problems, and only gets worse with age.  If this is you, I recommend something called Correct Toes to help get your feet back to a naturally functioning & healthy shape.

Now ultimately, a beginning runner can also benefit from some degree of cushioning and support to protect the feet from man-made surfaces and allow them to progress faster than they would otherwise.

So ultimately, in my opinion, and the opinion of the American College of Sports Medicine, the ideal running shoe for a beginning runner would not contain the heavy, elevated heel that teaches poor, high impact technique.  The ideal running shoe for a newer runner would also not feature a traditional tapered toe box which ultimately inhibits impact absorption and is responsible for so many common foot maladies.  A great running shoe for a beginner would also have just enough cushioning to allow them to be comfortable and allow them to progress and add mileage on a variety of surfaces.   An important consideration should be made that some newer runners may have weak feet, and could benefit from using a very soft, lightweight arch support until their feet become strong enough to go without it.

For these reasons, I believe newer runners are best off in a shoe that is cushioned but Zero Drop, and shaped like a healthy human foot.  These things will allow the foot to function properly and the body to run with efficient, low impact running technique.  In short, a cushioned, Zero Drop, Foot-shaped shoe like Altra will help a beginning runner learn good habits from the start and possibly reduce many injuries instead of the status quo. As with all things, I recommend trying things out first to make sure it works for you, as each of us is an individual with unique needs.  Happy Running!

-K. Golden Harper

Golden graduated with a degree in Exercise Science and did his collegiate studies on running technique & running injuries. He grew up working in his family’s running store and holds a world-best for a 12-year old in the marathon at 2:45:34.