The 50 Shades of Grey Approach to Answering Your Running Questions

by Jason Fitzgerald

I love questions that have a clear answer, like:

What’s on Jason’s running playlist? Taylor Swift, obviously.

How long is that marathon? 26.2 miles – c’mon Nana, all marathons are the same distance!Running Questions

Is running the best sport ever? No doubt.

But often, there aren’t clear answers to questions about running. There are shades of grey (maybe even 50 of them…), caveats, and murky answers.

Recently Jay Johnson posted about his dislike of tweeting running tips on Twitter. The 140 character limit prevents real discussion, analysis, and the depth of answers that are usually needed for a really informative response.

He had posted on Twitter: “Unless you’re an elite athlete, you shouldn’t be running a moderate pace on your easy days. Easy on your easy days.”

After some criticism, he elaborated:

In 140 characters I said something that I thought would be helpful. For the elite athletes the answer is a Both, And as some days I’ve seen athletes go extremely easy, yet there are some elites that crush it on their second runs and easy days. To me, this is a function of training age and the higher your training age the better the chance that you can do a harder recovery run.

But again, I don’t thinks it’s an Either, Or, but rather a Both, And for the elite athletes. Some days you run ridiculously easy on your second run or on your recovery day, other days you feel good and you go a little faster…and you still recover at that faster pace.

Jay’s point is complex training questions – even seemingly simple ones like How fast should I run on my easy days? - usually need more complex answers.

And I find that many runners often believe in certain “truths” – when there are really many shades of grey.

Instead of something being 100% true, the reality is that it’s true sometimes. Depending on the situation, the runner, and the goal it may be untrue.

Today I want to explain several topics that many beginner runners think are absolute but instead are subjective depending on a bunch of outside factors.

Let’s dive in!

“Minimalist running shoes prevent injuries”

The claim is this: minimalist shoes like the Skora Phase prevent injuries by:

  • promoting a midfoot strike and reducing heel-striking
  • developing foot and lower leg strength
  • reinforcing a faster turnover (cadence)

This is all true! But with an enormous caveat: minimalist shoes also dramatically increase the stress experienced by your feet and lower legs, particularly the Achilles tendon. Running in minimalist shoes can easily predispose you to Achilles tendinopathy and a host of other injuries.

The statement should be changed to “Minimalist running shoes can prevent injuries when used properly as a training tool.

Over-relying on shoes with low or zero-drop, minimal cushioning, and a low profile will reduce the amount you’re able to run (at first) and spike your risk of foot and lower leg injuries. Instead of using them all the time like I see many runners do, it’s best to use them like a training tool.

Just like long runs. Or dead lifts. Or hill sprints. Or tempo runs.

Each are incredibly valuable – but you wouldn’t do them every day, would you? Of course not. So why would you run in minimalist shoes every day?

Successful training demands variety and well-rounded fitness built with many different types of training stresses. Relying on any single stress will magnify that stress – often resulting in injury.

So keep each part of your training exactly that: just one part of the entire program. Runners who have used a SR custom training plan understand how many of these pieces fit together.

“Land on your forefoot to reduce stress on the knee”

Running Form Foot Strike

I recently read this comment about foot strike:

If you land on your heel it’s bad for your knees. So I land on the balls of my feet because it strengthens instead of kills my knees. It really seems to help.

First of all, forefoot striking won’t strengthen your knees. Not even a little bit.

My answer will also help answer another comment I saw:

Never heel strike! There are negative effects of heel striking. The initial shock travels from the heel, up the shin, and through the knees. To avoid this, one should land on the ball of their foot.

Shock is inevitable – you can’t avoid impact shocks. But you can change them depending on how you land.

It’s true that aggressive heel-striking increases stress on the knee. But forefoot striking increases stress on the ankle and Achilles! So if you resolve one problem, you create another.

I’ve exhaustively covered running form, but I want to highlight what really matters when it comes to foot strike.

Instead of focusing on how your foot impacts the ground (forefoot vs. midfoot vs. heel) it’s more beneficial to think about where your foot impacts the ground in relation to the rest of your body.

Many runners “reach out” in front of their body, landing in front of their center of mass and over-striding. This is a common cause of heel-striking.

Landing underneath the hips is the preferred way of landing while running. Just this one form change accomplishes so many benefits:

  • it reduces aggressive heel-striking
  • it reduces over-striding and “reaching out” with the foot
  • it reduces landing with a locked knee

It should be mentioned that it’s probably impossible to actually land underneath your center of mass. But that cue is helpful even if what is actually happening is a landing slightly in front of your body.

Practicing this one cue – rather than worrying about foot strike – is a better use of your time. Hell, even elites have wide variation in foot strike, so there really is no one “best” way to land.

“To prevent injuries altogether, your shoes need to fit properly”

Shoe fit is indeed important. But will it prevent injuries “altogether?” Absolutely not!

The mistake here is to assume any one thing is the fix for injuries. Many runners mistakenly believe that you need minimalist running shoes… or better fitting shoes… or strength exercises… or the 10% Rule to stay healthy.

And this singular focus is why most runners are always hurt, jumping from one injury to another, in a perpetual cycle. It’s difficult to run fast – and even just feel good - when you’re always taking time off because of injuries.

Just imagine what it would feel like to NOT be in that cycle. To be able to run healthy, for as long or hard as you want, without feeling like your legs are going to break. You can do that with a better approach – one that isn’t so singularly focused on one thing.

That’s because injury prevention is multi-faceted. Staying healthy requires focusing on many things at once, like:

  • Strength exercises that are runner-specific (not exercise classes at the gym…)
  • Progression with both mileage and workouts
  • Dynamic flexibility (static stretching is out!)
  • Variety with shoes, training surfaces, workouts, paces, races… and more
  • A training program specifically focused on injury prevention
  • Patience and smart recovery techniques

It sounds like a lot, but when it’s built directly into your training you don’t have to think about these things every day. You do it automatically because it just happens to be what your workout is for that day.

This multi-pronged approach is what I use with the runners that I coach – like Sarah and Deb – and is the foundational system that forms the backbone of the Injury Prevention for Runners program.

Instead of having oneitis for any type of training tool, it’s far more effective to use a well-rounded program that helps you get stronger and run smarter with far fewer injuries. My challenge to you today is to forget this over-reliance on single training strategies.

Focus on a well-rounded program. Choose variety. Be an athlete – not just a runner.

To learn even more about injury prevention, you can sign up now for two free presentations here. I’ll show you what specific mistakes to avoid – plus explain when you’re most likely to get hurt.

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