Running form is something that really intrigues me because of my background as a PT.
As a physical therapist, you begin your training in formal PT school and on nearly the first day (at least at my university, and I’m sure this was the case elsewhere) instruction began on gait training and assessing how people walk / move.
Gait assessment was drilled into you right from the beginning. And consequently, you begin to practice this new and developing skill everywhere. At the grocery store. On the way to the train. When you’re out to dinner. Always looking at how individuals walk and making some judgments on why they might have certain deviations.
“That person has a painful right knee”
“That one has a weak left hip abductor”
“They have tight heel cords”
I’m sure this plays no small role in why I began my career as a bike fitter. As an avid cyclist, I was naturally doing the same thing — trying to figure out why someone was moving a certain way on the bike. Now after doing bike fittings for over 15 years, it again has become something I do a bit unconsciously even in my daily life.
“They need to raise their saddle”
“That rider has poor core strength”
“Their hip is dropping off the side of the saddle because….”
I get asked quite often about running form, and only in recent years has interest piqued in the mainstream running culture about it.
Numerous books have come out in the last decade or so, each with their own take on what is ideal form.
Which begs the question, is there such a thing as ideal running form?
My answer to this is that there are some basic and very flexible characteristics that are hallmarks of “good form”. But I would put a special emphasis on “flexible” because I think that there are too many individual differences to just try and cram every runner into some narrow description of what it means to have good form.
The fact is that some people can run very efficiently with form that looks not only less than ideal, but sometimes downright painful. Just watch video of Paula Radcliffe, a fantastic marathoner, and you’ll see she doesn’t have a symmetrical smooth running gait.
Each of us has physical differences that may force hips and knees to swing out of plane, or perhaps our upper body rotates more to one side and I believe we can always work on these imbalances, but at some point obsessive work on them is counter-productive. Sometimes we just need to run!
I recently switched to a new pair of running shoes, and immediately felt a difference in my stride. I was intrigued. I was running in a pair of Altra Lone Peak trail shoes and switched to a pair of Altra Olympus trail shoes. I know it doesn’t sound like a big stretch coming from the same shoe company and all, but these two shoes are much different.
The older Lone Peaks have a lower profile sole on them — roughly 12-13 mm. The newer Olympus’ are 36 mm.
Both are zero drop, meaning the sole is the same thickness from the front of the shoe to the back. But this isn’t entirely accurate because they both taper down from the ball of the foot forward to help with the transition to toe off during the running gait cycle. This is much more pronounced on the Olympus’ because the thicker sole tapers aggressively from the ball of the foot forward. This is immediately noticeable when you put the shoes on and especially so when you walk in them. You move so quickly from mid stance to toe-off that at first it can be disconcerting.
I quickly got over it because almost immediately it felt really good. I couldn’t say for sure why, but it felt like I was landing with my feet more underneath me and I was rolling forward more using my momentum more efficiently. From a subjective standpoint, that’s about all I could say at that point.
I wanted to see what if anything was going on. Was it all in my head? The euphoria of a new pair of shoes?
So I did what any normal person would do.
I contacted my friends at the human performance lab at Colorado Mesa University to run tests and shoot some high speed video to break down what was going on between the two pairs of shoes.
Here’s a short clip of raw footage of each pair. First the old (yellow) Lone Peaks, and below that the new (orange) Olympus’. (No making fun of my non-runner-like legs — I always joke that my ancestors likely pushed and pulled things for a living):
I performed all the video trials at the same speed. I chose to use my slow easy jog pace since I spend a lot of time at this speed, and I wanted to see what things I might improve and focus on when I’m on my nice relaxed runs.
So I’ll get right to it. Here’s a few of these things we found.
First, I wanted to know where my feet were landing relative to my center of mass. I wanted to know if I was over-striding and reaching out in front of myself too much, which can cause excessive braking and increase loading on the joints of the lower extremity.
I used Dartfish software to analyze and measure things. I’m using the greater trochanter of the hip (the bump you feel at the side of your hip) as an approximation for the position of my center of mass in the sagittal plane. While my stride length is slightly shorter in the new shoes (on the right), it was only by a few millimeters, which I would consider to be margin of error for the software.
So I’m landing with my feet in pretty much the same spot in front of me.
Next I wanted to see how my lead or swing leg was addressing the ground. For this I measured the amount of knee flexion I have in my swing leg as the opposite leg is just about to execute toe off:
As you can see from the pictures, I was about 5 degrees further into knee extension in the old shoes. This is where it gets a little complicated, because just from looking at these two pictures, one might assume that I end up landing with my foot more underneath me in the new shoes (on the right), but we’ve already determined that that’s likely not the case.
I think this variation in knee flexion stems from the quick transition in sole thickness from the ball of the foot forward in the new shoes. This moves me from mid stance to toe off quicker (which was what I originally feeling when I put put on the new shoes) and gets me to toe off sooner when that swing leg is earlier in it’s course, and thus the knee is flexed, or bent, a little more.
I think this is an excellent benefit for me with the new shoes. Even though right now I’m still landing with my foot roughly the same amount out in front of me, if I can work on that and shorten that distance even slightly, I should be able to further decrease the amount of “braking” I do (slowing down between strides that occurs through shock absorption done by the legs), take advantage of my momentum more, and be able to increase my speed more efficiently with small changes in cadence.
Next is heel lift, or how high I kick my foot up behind me just after toe off. The faster we run, the higher we tend to kick the heel up and flex the knee. The benefit to flexing that knee is that it shortens the overall length of that lever (our leg) we’re swinging forward. It may not be feasible to lift our heel to our butt when we’re running 10 minute-miles, but it’s also not efficient to keep the knees straight and shuffle our way along.
The green “x’s” were the path that my left heel followed. If you watch the videos above, you can see that my heel lift isn’t identical to these two on every single stride, but they are pretty representative.
I clearly have more heel lift with the new shoes, so my next question is, do I have more knee flexion in the new shoes? I would assume that I do, given that my heel rises a few inches further, but I want to see if the amount of knee flexion is more as well. If not then I may be gaining this heel lift through a change in motion at the hip.
Knee Flexion in Swing
First I looked at how much knee flexion there is when the foot hits it’s apex vertically. If you look back at the previous pictures showing the path of the heel you’ll notice that the heel rises in a steady arc and it tops out and begins to drop again. I wanted to measure the knee just as the heel hit the apex.
So I do have a bit more knee flexion at the apex, but I knew this wasn’t likely to be the maximum flexion, which I figured would occur just a little further into the swing phase as I begin to flex the hip.
Again, just a tad more maximum knee flexion in the swing phase in the new shoes.
Knee Flexion in Stance
Now I’d like to see what knee flexion is in mid stance. This will tell part of the story in how much vertical energy absorption is happening.
As you can see I’m bending or flexing the knee about 3 degrees more in the old shoes. This may have something to do with the cushioning in each shoe. The softer the surface we run on, the more firm and rigid we’ll hold our leg as we hit the ground. When we run in sand, we tend to land with a more rigid leg because the sand is softening the impact with the ground. Alternatively, if we’re running barefoot on concrete we’ll land with a more supple leg to absorb the forces of landing.
Shoes are considered part of the surface when we run, so the bigger cushioning in the new shoes may be contributing to the straighter/stiffer stance leg.
How much up and down is my body going through? I used the hip as a reference since it was the closest landmark to the center of mass.
These two measurements are again within the margin of error. If there is a difference in favor of the new shoes, it may be quite small.
I’ve realized something else I need to investigate. As I look at these pictures more, one small thing stands out…in the new shoes my torso tends to be more upright in nearly all the pictures. I may be more flexed at the hip and leaning forward in the old shoes. I’m not sure if that’s going to be a function of the cushioning again, or is the quicker transition to toe off requiring less effort and allowing me to relax my posture and straighten up? I’m not sure yet.
Conclusions? If any….
I do think that I run better in the new shoes. I think they’re a perfect match for my feet and running style. Furthermore I think they facilitate better form in me.
The quick taper in sole height at the fore of the shoe makes for an easier toe off which leads me to get more heel lift. In these pictures I can’t measure how much extension I get in the big toe (how much it bends as I progress toward toe off), but with the quick taper at the front of the shoe, this could take the place of this toe extension (called great toe extension) which may allow for knee flexion to be initiated sooner and with more force. This is just a wild guess on my part based largely on what I’m feeling as I run in these shoes.
It should be noted that I have a small amount of arthritis in my right big toe, which often becomes mildly irritable when I run. In these new shoes I have had no discomfort at all. Again, I think the quick taper of the sole produces an effect similar to a rocker-bottom shoe (which were meant to help normalize gait for people who have limited ankle range of motion). But the rocker bottom isn’t in the middle of the shoe and doesn’t benefit the ankle — it’s at the front of the shoe and benefits the toes. I think I’m likely having to bend toes less during my running cycle.
The thicker soles and more cushioning provide the right amount of energy absorption and stability which helps my leg address the ground with my knees, hips and torso aligned and relaxed.
But I think that’s it for now. I’m fried from watching myself and taking apart my form. The more I look at it, the more I see things I’d like to change. But I’ll have to take the advice I usually give to others: Start small with just one or two things to work on. Trying to take on too much will only serve to make you crazy, wreck your form, and could very likely make you slower. It can certainly make you enjoy running less, and that’s very much contrary to the point of the whole process.
I wanted to give a special thanks to the Monfort Family Human Performance Lab at Colorado Mesa University and especially to Brent Alumbaugh, MS and Dr. Gerry Smith for always being willing to help to entertain my obsessive side.
He lives with his wife and two kids and runs multiple businesses in Grand Junction, Colorado.