Is it possible to correct your running form without a coach? Without knowing anything about running mechanics? YES!!! This is not going to be a heel-strike vs. forefoot strike argument because there have been waaaay too numerous successful heel-strike runners out there. However, every sprinter out there and a lot of the recent marathon winners have been forefoot strikers, and I personally happen to think it is superior. Since we’re all about athletic performance around this bizzy, we’re gonna talk aboot forefoot striking. I received this question from a reader and thought I’d share it with the rest of you.
So I’ve been trying to improve my mile run time, and I have a bit, but I’ve hit something of a snag. About 3/4 of the way into my mile, the muscles below my knees tense up and I can barely pull off anything other than a slow walk. Stretching seems to help a “little” bit, but not much, and I normally run into this problem before I run out of breath. Have any ideas?
You mean the muscle opposite of your shin bone, in front, right? What it sounds like to me is a nice case of Shin Splints. I try to not get too technical around these parts, but in order to see what causes shin splints, we’re gonna have to look at some mechanics first.
Shin splints occur, for the most part, because your heel is striking the ground first instead of your forefoot. In order for your heel to hit the ground first, that means your foot is in dorsiflexion (toes pointed up and ankle bent up towards your shin), and your tibialis anterior (that’s the real name for “muscles below your knee”) is contracted as hard as possible, probably subconsciously. This is known as “the braking effect”. Once your heel touches the running surface, your toes “slap” against the ground, and then you continue to propel yourself forward with your hips and hamstrings (the simplified version). At the time your toes are fully extended (calves fully contracted), there is a fairly intense stretch in your tibialis anterior (now called “TA”). This stretch causes the muscle spindles in your TA to forcefully contract as soon as your foot leaves the running surface again.
**Side note: Can you tell I just took a test with a scientific portion in it? lolololol**
So, you’re going from a 100% contraction of the TA, to a pretty strong stretch of the TA, which in turns causes another 100% contraction. Think of it as doing bicep curls for the entire time you would be running the mile. Don’t you think your biceps would get fatigued and some righteous DOMS as well? Which leads me to the next point….
The TA is an even smaller muscle than the bicep. So another theory of shin splints is that it is just too small and too weak. Even if you were to continue to heel strike, eventually this muscle would adapt and the effects of shin splints would subside (but maybe never go away completely….maybe).
All in all, shin splints are kind of an unknown. We know how to reduce the effects by proper running form, and we know that ice and anti-inflamitories (read: Advil) will help dull the pain. Anyone can throw some ice on their leg and pop some pills so let’s look at how YOU can correct your running form without a coach there in person…
First off, I would start by doing more joint mobility to make sure you’re all properly limbered up and can move your joints through their full range of motion. Which, by the way, could be why you’re experiencing this to begin with if there’s something “wrong” with your ankle and your brain shuts it down as well as your glute.
Next, the balls of your feet should be the first thing that impacts the ground, not your heel. Your foot should hit directly under your center of gravity while in motion. This ensures that you are “pulling” yourself along the running surface.
Another big issue is leaning forward and flailing your arms from side to side. First off, your torso should be straight up and down, not forward. If you can’t do this for very long, you may have a weakness in your core. Next up is the flailing. Again, not to get all scientificky on you, but any motion you introduce that is in any other plane of motion other than straight forward will slow you down. If I had time, I could draw you some wicked awesome 3D vector force diagrams. Oh! Speaking of vector force diagrams, up and down motion is no good either. Perfect running is running straight forward. So if your arms are going left and right, across your body, or you are “hopping” on your toes as you run (up and down), you are doing nothing but making yourself work harder and be less efficient.
The next progression is doing timed runs, barefoot on grass. It is virtually impossible to heel strike while running barefoot, it’s just not natural. Start out doing a certain distance, 100yds or so, less if you fatigue earlier than that, obv. Run it at your normal mile running pace and take a break to catch your breath and let your muscles recover (that’s one rep). Then turn around and come back (for those of you counting, that’d be 2 reps). Do that as many times as possible before you can no longer complete 100yds (or whatever distance you chose) with perfect form. (Eventually you will fatigue and some other part of your form will go to shit, not just heel strike.) Take a watch and time how long it takes until you to fatigue. Write down how many reps you did and how long it took. It will probaby take some time to get used to this way of running and build up the muscles that have previously been unused due to heel strike, mainly your hamstrings, hip flexors and core.
The next time you go out to do this, repeat the same process, but try to either increase the number of reps you do (volume) or decrease the amount of time it takes you to do the same number of reps as before (density). Again, stop when fatigue sets in.
Once you feel like you can run back and forth non-stop, with perfect form for an entire mile, throw your shoes back on and hit the track or hard surface. Even though you have shoes on, maintain your perfect forefoot striking form. If you feel like you’re fatiguing, STOP. We want nothing but PERFECTION, ALL of the time. Teach your body to move properly and efficiently, not shittily (I think I made that word up).
Lastly, if barefoot running grows on you, which it should, don’t be afraid to pick up some Vibram Five Finger shoes. They’re saucem!