Does “Good” Running Form Even Exist? How to Tread Lightly

Overuse injuries are a reality for hundreds of thousands of runners every year. Is it even possible to prevent running injuries?

Bare Foot

That’s the question that Dr. Peter Larson and his coauthor Bill Katovsky explored in their book Tread Lightly: Form, Footwear, and the Quest for Injury-Free Running.

I firmly believe that humans are physiologically designed to run due to the adaptations we have:

  • An enormous achilles tendon that absorbs energy to release during the running stride (it’s virtually non-existent in chimps)
  • A (mostly) hairless body and highly evolved sweat system to run in the heat – perfect for persistence hunting
  • A huge butt! Humans’ gluteus maximus is “a running muscle” according to Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman
  • A nuchal ligament that attaches the upper vertebrae to the skull (it keeps our head from rolling around as we run)

But if we’re so adapted to distance running, why do so many runners always get hurt?

The answer may be because of two issues:

  1. Our running form is poor
  2. Our running shoes further promote sloppy form

Larson and Katovsky explore these two issues in their book Tread Lightly. Today I want to highlight just a few lessons and ideas that they researched – and how you can use this book to become a healthier runner.

Motion Control for Over-Pronators?

There are literally hundreds of injury prevention suggestions in Tread Lightly that were fascinating to me. I can’t list all of them so I’m going to highlight one that stood out from the rest because many runners get it wrong.

Motion control shoes cause injuries! There are nuances to every “rule” but in general, motion control shoes don’t protect you from injury. One cited study showed a “greater number of injured runners” who wore motion control shoes than neutral or stability shoes.

Further, every runner in the “highly pronated” group who wore motion control shoes reported an injury. Yes…you read that right. Straight from the book:

All runners (yes, all of them…100 percent!) who were supposed to be wearing a motion control shoe based on their degree of pronation got injured… In fact, highly pronated runners actually fared better in neutral shoes! …Motion control shoes offered little benefit to the runners in the study, and in fact were more likely to cause pain and injury than any of the other shoe types. The authors themselves conclude, ‘This study is unable to provide support for the convention that highly pronated runners should wear motion control shoes.'”

As someone who once wore ASICS Kayano’s (and had achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis), my personal anecdote supports this conclusion. The current system of assigning a shoe type based on the degree of pronation is woefully outdated. If you want to read more about this specific study, Peter Larson has a post on his blog about the pronation control paradigm.

Most runners will fare best in either neutral or stability shoes from an injury perspective. Experiment with several shoe types (I run in several good options listed on my running resources page) to find what works best for you and is most comfortable when you run.

Instead of relying on bulky running shoes to stabilize your foot and leg while running, your own musculature should be doing the job. Even if you have a flat arch or “floppy” feet, you don’t need a lot of support if you can stabilize yourself with your foot and leg muscles while you run.

Tread Lightly offers several suggestions for strengthening your feet and developing good balance, both crucial to injury-prevention (not motion control shoes):

  • Practice standing on one leg
  • Use a balance board
  • Skateboard (My view: be cautious… there are better alternatives)
Other options include foot strengthening exercises like picking up marbles with your feet, scrunching a towel with your toes, spending time barefoot in your home, and ensuring your casual shoes don’t have an excessive heel.

Does “Good” Running Form Even Exist?

The authors have three chapters dedicated to running form, focusing on pronation, foot-strike, and “the running stride.” Below is just a fraction of the helpful advice contained in the book.

Running form is variable! You don’t have to label yourself a forefoot, midfoot, or heel striker. You can be all three depending on your shoes (or lack thereof), the terrain, and your speed.

Many runners try to change their form for one reason or another when it’s not even necessary. If you’re running well and you don’t have frequent injuries, there’s no need to alter what’s already working. Doing so could create issues where they didn’t exist before.

There are, however, a few key ways to upgrade your form if you think it needs improving:

  • Prevent over-striding by increasing your step-rate (the number of steps you take per minute) by 5-10% from your baseline step rate.  This usually solves most cases of over-striding.
  • Avoid aggressive heel-striking – the “extended leg, nearly locked knee, toes pointing to the sky at contact kind of gait.” Heel striking isn’t necessarily all bad, but the heel smashing variety can certainly do some damage.
  • Shoes affect your form but that’s not a bad thing. Choose shoes that are comfortable to run in (not just stand in) and don’t be afraid to experiment with what works for you.

Always be gradual, progressive, and cautious when making changes to your running form. It takes your body time to adapt to any new stress – typically longer than you think.

A Fresh Look at Injury Prevention

Instead of touting the 10% rule of increasing mileage or the “easy-hard-easy” pattern of training (which, of course, have some value), Tread Lightly offers more valuable injury prevention suggestions that you can implement in your own training immediately.

These are strategies that I’ve learned over my 14+ years of training – many times the hard way – and many of them have helped me stay injury-free for over three years.

  • Rotate several pairs of shoes to allow your feet and legs to experience different stresses. Using a mix of shoes (like a distance, trail, and minimalist shoe) might help reduce overuse injuries
  • Run more trails. Trail running puts you on uneven terrain and makes your legs work in different ways – breaking the repetitive stress cycle. It can also make your legs stronger and more resilient to overuse injuries.Tread Lightly
  • Plan variety in your training! Avoid running the same route, over the same distance, at the same pace, in the same shoes on ever run. As your runs get more repetitive, you’ll experience the same repetitive stresses and likely more injuries.
  • Low-impact cross training helps.  Cycling, pool running, or a gym workout save your body from the repetitive impact of running and can further boost your fitness.
  • Rest when you need it. I know, this isn’t a novel idea. But most runners stick to their plan even though they shouldn’t – rest is sometimes the best “workout” for your body. Learn to tell the difference between soreness, pain, fatigue, and an injury.

It’s important to understand that injuries do happen. Since they’re caused by repetitive stress it’s a natural result from competitive running. If your goal is to set a new PR or qualify for Boston, you’ll have to subject your body to a lot of repetitive stress. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – just be cautious and heed the advice in Tread Lightly.

Smart training and knowing your limits are probably your two best injury prevention tools. To better understand the biomechanics of injuries – or if you just want to know more about the relationship between shoes, form, and injuries – you have to read the whole book. I highly recommend it – you can check it out on Amazon here.

I’ll end with some advice from the authors that I found simple and refreshing:

Running should be enjoyed, not painfully endured. Running is in all of our DNA. So listen to your body, respect its needs, and treat it well. In turn, your body will ensure that running is the gift that keeps on giving.

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Comments

  1. Timely article and the book definitely looks interesting. I know that nothing is carved in stone and there may be variations not only in form, but also in approaches to running and injury prevention in general that suit some people better than others. But like so many topics, there is such a market place of competing and often conflicting information that it’s likely many people get “analysis paralysis.” A major running website just this week released a video from their resident doctor advising sufferers of shin splints to get motion control shoes and / or orthotics. Can’t we move past that already?

  2. There are probably many tweaks you can make to improve performance, efficiency, and effectiveness. But the one that has helped me the most with avoiding injury is the shoes (a close second is listening to my body). I run in Kinvaras most of the time, have a trail shoes for off-road, and some other “cheapies” to mix in (sorry, not into spending hundreds on sneakers, an idea I got from Born To Run). My feet no longer hurt, my low back no longer hurts, and I’ve generally stayed healthy. Unfortunately, I can’t get the rest of the family to buy in…

  3. “Running should be enjoyed, not painfully endured.” I’m seeing so many runners talk about something hurting then running right through it. I think some of that is the time of year as many people are peaking for fall marathons, but STOP. PLEASE. If it hurts, stop. I’m guilty for having run through pain before, but I’ve learned those lessons and wish everyone could just take an extra day or two off when something hurts.

  4. I couldn’t agree more about the motion controlled shoes. I wore them for years because that’s what the guy at the running store told me to do. I finally switched (by default, the neutral shoe was much cheaper!) and was amazed at how much better by shins and feet felt. In fact, my plantar fasciitis disappeared. Great review!

  5. Thanks for the review Jason, you hit on the points I also think are most important. Much appreciated!

  6. Patience. Gaining fitness is a war of attrition; it is, if you pardon the obvious metaphor, a marathon, not a sprint. Steady progress is made by months piled on months, turned in to years piled on years. Take the long view, cultivate your fitness, and enjoy it.

  7. 100% of motion control wearers got injured?!? That is amazing, however I can see it. The many times I tried to take running back up after years of inactivity, I was always in Kayanos as well. I never made it to being a healthy runner until I got away from those shoes. I figured it was me educating myself and improving weight, form, strength etc. I can now, however, consider that the shoes that were so promoted to prevent my injury were certainly not helping me. Good stuff Fitz!

  8. Another great post. I have a lot of time for Pete Larson and his advice. I have just pointed people towards it and made it one of my posts of the week at http://www.barefootbeginner.com/2012/09/21/pick-of-the-posts-no-10-the-best-5-barefoot-posts-to-see-you-through-the-weekend-are/
    Chris

  9. I know this is an older old post Jason, so I hope you don’t mind me asking a question. I actually changed my running form to a mid foot striker (because that’s what a guy told me I should do at a running store). That was a year ago and I’ve had many aches and pains since! Should I try and switch back to my old style? I was a slight heel striker. I feel so dumb for listening : (. Although – I do feel lighter on my feet and I run much quieter. I sit here shaking my head….

  10. Jason, have you (or anyone else here) ever had any experience with a torn hip labrum/hip impingement? I got the injury snowboarding in February & still have pain when I push my running past a couple easy miles. The ortho said surgery isn’t mandatory & I could live with. But it won’t “heal” on its own, and so far nothing has eliminated the pain, although I have got it somewhat under control. I’ve read a bunch of running forums and see a wide range of experiences. Would love to hear your feedback, if any.

    • Kris B, not Jason but, speaking as a layperson who has dealt with hip problems: first, of course consult a professional. Second, based on my experience, if you’ve got a hip injury, walk before you run–walking is what heals hip injuries, along with exercising your core muscles (also very important). Maybe interperse some power walking between your running. Don’t push a run if you’re feeling pain. If you re-injure your hips, those are where a lot of ambulatory muscles live and you could stubborn yourself into having difficulty both walking and running for life (and forget about snowboarding). Take it easy, core muscles, walk. Eventually you should get strong enough the running should be fine (and will strengthen the hips AFTER they are healed, but the pain is telling you they can’t deal with that yet).

Trackbacks

  1. […] Good review on Tread Lightly.  This review has more info than most books! […]

  2. […] Good review on Tread Lightly.  This review has more info than most books! […]

  3. […] Different shoes stress your foot and legs in slightly different ways. Subtly altering that stress by trying new shoes and rotating through 2-3 pairs of different models helps prevent excess repetitive stress and overuse injuries. It’s an important lesson I learned from Peter Larson’s book Tread Lightly. […]