Learning from Other Sports: CC Skiing:

Learning from Other Sports: CC Skiing:

If you’ve been watching the Olympics at all, and since you are reading this blog and presumably have an interest in training, I bet the question of “I wonder how they train” has crossed your mind. It certainly has mine. To help scratch this interest, I’m going to start a regular feature here on the blog entitled: Learning from other Sports.

My plan is to look at other sports and see what they do better or worse than us runners to see if maybe we can learn anything from them. I’ve always tried to look outside the box when looking at training so I have a good background of how other sports train. In no way am I an expert on the other sports, so if any of you readers want to chime in and through your two cents in, feel free. Also, if you are reading this blog and are an expert at some other sport that might not be mainstream feel free to e-mail me and I’d love to have some guest posts.

What qualifies me to write such posts? I assure you that each post on other sports training will be well researched. I feel relatively comfortable with the sports I will cover because I have read at least a book or two on training plus many more research articles on each. My initial plan will be to cover sports such as swimming, rowing, weight lifting, baseball, Cross Country skiing, cycling and a few others. Beyond that, I might be out of my comfort zone a bit. I hope you enjoy this new feature. This won’t be a one after another feature, but rather spread out between other posts. Without further ado, What we can learn from CC skiing:

CC skiing

If you’ve watched the Olympics, you quickly notice how intense the CC skiing is. It’s an incredibly demanding event requiring both incredible endurance and power endurance. In particular the sprint events remind me of the middle distance events on the track, except they have to race 3 times during the day before the final!

We’ve all probably heard of how CC skiers have the highest VO2max values, but who cares about that, VO2max is overrated, how do they actually train to compete in such grueling competitions?


Not surprisingly, CC skiers perform massive volumes of work. The average world class CC skier does 700-800hrs of training per year. For a point of comparison, world class marathoner Ingrid Kristiansen did around 550 hrs per year of training (Seiler & Tonnesson, 2009). You’ll notice in almost every endurance sport, high volumes of training are a must. This goes against the common physiologist view that high volumes of training are overrated.

For sprint CC skiers, the volume is slightly lower but still high. As I said earlier sprint CC skiing can be thought of as comparable to middle distance running as they are similar in energetic demands. Sprint CC skiers generally do 600-650hrs per year of training.


Thankfully there is a lot of data out there on the training distribution of their training. Not surprisingly, it seems very similar to runners.

                  XC Skiers -1  XC skiers-2     Moses Mosop     Kenyan runners
Low intensity         71%          83%                  80%                      80%
Medium                7%              7%                  11%                       10%
High Intensity        22%           4.6%                  9%                       10%

The training comparison isn’t exact because all of the athletes are training for slightly different events, but the interesting thing to note is that despite the differences in total volume, the training distribution is pretty similar among all groups. One group of XC skiers did slightly more high intensity work. My guess is that they can handle slightly higher volumes of training work at that intensity due to the nature of the sport. Running at high intensities seems like it may require longer recovery than for other sports. This is likely due to the impact factor and the fact that running requires a lot of eccentric work.

Not surprisingly, the specifics of XC skier’s workouts look very similar to runners. A couple interesting points I saw were that the coach of U.S. Olympian Kikkan Randall focused their periodization on not just a season to season or year to year approach but looking long term to the Olympics. In addition, they made two crucial points which runners should take note of:

-work on all fibers year round.

-Increase specificity of training as the athlete develops.

Lastly, the Sprint XC skiers switched from a traditional VO2/LT/etc. classification of training to a velocity based system. Most of the time you see that the “minor” sports tend to focus more on traditional physiological variables, while sports with more participation such as running or swimming might also use speed or velocity based classification systems. Just my opinion, but I think a velocity based system makes a lot more sense.

World Class vs. National Class

The difference between world class and national class skiers is another topic that’s been investigated that might be of interest to other sports training. In particular it was found that world class skiers spent about 100 hours more training per 6 months, and of that the world class skiers spent more time skiing easy, medium, and pure speed work, while national class skiers spent more time doing high intensity work. In fact, despite doing 100hrs less work during the period of time, they did the same total amount of training in the high intensity category.

Additionally, the lactate dynamics were slightly different. Following a short all out bout of exercise, peak lactate values were very similar, but the world class athletes lactate recovery was significantly faster than the national class athletes. This shows that the world class athletes most likely had a better ability to take up and use lactate, or in other words there lactate shuttle mechanisms were working better.

Organizational Approach:

The Norwegian approach featured some interesting organization approaches. First, they seem to integrate the coach, athlete, and sports scientist much better than most. In addition, their sports system is set up to provide coaches for the coach too.
The sports science work seems like they do work that is more practical and beneficial to the athletes, instead of being bogged down in the physiology. Or instance, Stephen Seiler, one of the top researchers who does a lot of work with CC skiers, has stated the following:
“Observing the training methods of the world's best endurance athletes represent a more valid picture of “best practice” than we can develop from short-term laboratory studies of untrained or moderately trained subjects.”
“ Training ideas that sound good but don't work in practice will fade away. Given these conditions, we argue that any consistent pattern of training intensity distribution emerging across sport disciplines is likely to be a result of a successful self-organization (evolution) towards a “population optimum.” High performance training is an individualized process for sure, but by population optimum, we mean an approach to training organization that results in most athletes staying healthy, making good progress, and performing well in their most important events. “
These words are the opposite of what you’ll hear from a lot of research based physiologists who continue to fall in love with the high intensity training model.

Skiing has an interesting development program. If you look at several different models (U.S., Norway, Sweden) they all seem to have a long term plan in place of how to train athletes from their young developing years to the top level.

Another interesting thing is the development of U.S. Ski schools for High Schoolers. Basically, it’s a HS built for top CC skiers. It allows skiers to get their HS work in and train at a pretty high level. While it may seem extreme from the running perspective it’s a pretty intriguing idea. You have a top notch coach take the athletes from the junior levels to as high as they are going to go. Or at least you have a top notch coach shape an athlete during his formative years.

The top HS junior athletes also put in a large volume of training. One group mentioned that their 17yr old skier’s spent 550hrs per week of training.

Takeaway message:
Not surprisingly, XC skiers focus heavily on aerobic development.  However, there training does not just consist of long steady training.  As pointed out by Kikkan Randall's coaches and what can be seen from other presentations, the focus is on keeping in touch with many different intensities.  If you look at the training that the best Norwegian CC skiers do, yes they spend a lot of time at easy intensities, but they also spend significant time at moderate, high intensity, speed training, and strength training.  Creating a nice diverse amount of training that seems to hit all the muscle fibers and all the energy systems.

Secondly, I think we could learn a lot from the long term development plan that skiers tend to take.  Also, the integration of sports science and training would be nice in running.  It seems like the sports scientists know their role is to assist athletes and coaches, not to tell them how to do their job.  Reading through many articles, you didn't see researchers making comments on how the skiers should switch to high intensity training, instead it was quiet the opposite.  Of course, there were a few who stuck with the typical sports scientist decree of all High intensity, all day, but at least to me it seemed like there was less of that then with runners.


Non-Specific Lactate work: Why you need it!

n the last post, I discussed the use of intervals in training and how intervals have been misconstrued to mean "anaerobic" training, no matter what.  That is not the case as it obviously depends on the manipulation of the interval workout.  The take away message was that you could manipulate at an interval workout to be anything from a pure easy aerobic workout to a pure sprint workout.

But what about the idea of peaking too early because of interval training? 

In a recent article by Greg McMillan he mentioned that in 2008, his track athletes peaked too early because they had to start specific track workout early in order to hit the times needed.  By the end of the season, they were starting to tail off.  That's the conundrum that track athletes are in.  They need to run fast early to hit the qualifying times or get into the later meets, yet they also need to be in peak fitness when championship season arrives.  McMillan's solution was to use more hills early for the intense workouts.  This would allow them to get in some quality sessions, but delay the peak.

This is a common solution, but how does that make sense?  A lot of times people use hill workouts that are just as intense as track sessions.  How come the hill workouts don't cause premature peaking as frequently as early intense track workout (hills still can cause early peaking, but don't seem to as much)?

The answer is the concept of Nonspecific lactate work.

NonSpecific Lactate Work

          Non specific lactate work is a type of workout where you do relatively high intensity workouts that often have high lactate levels, but they don't seem to have the deteriorating effect on the aerobic system of specific lactate work.

The battle between aerobic and anaerobic adaptations within the muscle is generally what happens when athletes peak early.  By doing too much anaerobic work, the ability of that muscle to work aerobically deteriorates.  We get around this battle by doing nonspecific work.

Nonspecific work is work that uses different muscle fibers, muscle recruitment patterns, or different muscles all together.  The degree of specificity depends on what's done.  You can make it entirely general or you can make it very close to specific.  By working different muscles you allow for those muscle fibers to produce higher amounts of lactate.  Since these fibers are often not the ones directly used in running or are used in a different way in running, the fact that they produce high lactate values isn't a big concern and won't impact our aerobic ability to a high degree. The high lactate values will help the body centrally deal it, while also enhancing the Slow Twitch fibers ability to use lactate.

Below is a spectrum of Nonspecific lactate work from very general to specific:
-Strength/lifting circuit
-Strength training alternated with running on treadmill (i.e. do bench/leg press, then hop on treadmill)
-Uphill strength endurance circuit
-Flat strength endurance circuit
-Steep Hill repeats
-gradual hill repeats

Real World Example

Above is a lactate graph that I did to test the idea out. (As you can see I'm a junkie for testing stuff on myself, if only I had more gadgets and $ to use them, I'd be set!).

The tests consisted of running mile repeats w/ short rest while pricking myself after each mile to get lactate readings.  Following the mile repeats, an all out 400m was done to get a maximum lactate value that gave me an idea of anaerobic capacity. (For more on this click here).

Test 1- Was done during the base period and gives us a baseline to look at.  Around this time period I ran a sub 30 10k on an XC course.

The nonspecific test- Was taken next following a period of training where I did nonspecific track workout once per week (mostly hill circuits and hills of various types).  The thing to note is that the lactate curve is almost exactly the same as the first test.  Which would traditionally show that the aerobic system/lactate threshold was maintained.  However, if we look at what happened to the max lactate value, it increased dramatically.  Because this shows that lactate production is increased, this means that my anaerobic abilities have significantly increased.  This increase in max lactate generally shifts the curve upwards (i.e. more lactate at each speed).  Given this info, if the lactate curve is the same, and my anaerobic abilities improved, my aerobic abilities had to improve to the same extent. 
Bottom line: Nonspecific lactate work improved anaerobic abilities and most likely improved aerobic abilities or at least maintained them.  This was followed by a 3:47 1500m, a seasons best, and a tactical 800m that resulted in a PR of 1:52.12

The Specific Lactate test- This test shows a big deterioration in aerobic abilities.  Lactate levels were much higher at every level.  This test was done at the end of the track season after doing a lot (too much) of high intensity lactate work.  While this is an extreme shift, most of the time, you get a smaller shift upwards to higher lactate.  This is typical to what occurs for most people when they include a high intensity/anaerobic/speed work period. 
Bottom line: Lots of high intensity training shifts the balance of aerobic/anaerobic towards anaerobic.  This isn't necessarily bad depending on the race or the time of the season and the degree to which the shift occurs.  Not surprisingly, before this test, I was running out of gas in the end of the mile. I ran a 4:06mile before this test, which consisted of dieing in.

Conclusion: Nonspecific work allows for high intensity/lactate training without the negative affect of killing the aerobic system.

What to do?
Introduce some nonspecific lactate work after you've established your base.  Use it as a transition to your specific track workouts.  I've had great success using nonspecific lactate work with the HS athletes I train. Of course, I tried out on myself first, as I think every coach should!

For more information on strength endurance circuits go here: (LINK) or watch an example video here: (LINK)

Interval training-Why it's misunderstood and what you can learn from the Igloi method

First, I'd like to point out that I've added a feature to the site.  It's a collection of links to the best training articles and presentations, as well as relevant research related to running.  Dr. Richard Hansen has helped with the collection and I hope that you will too.  The site allows anyone to add relavent links, rank the articles, and comment on any of them.  The goal is to build a collection of relavent articles in one place that allows for easy access and an ability to search for what you're looking for.  So, feel free to join in and help us out! The link is:

        One of the biggest fears coaches have is high lactate work or high intesnity interval training.  If done too much or too early this generally leads to early peaking and a dramatic drop in performance as time passes.  At every level of the sport, there is a fear of doing interval work too early.  Arthur Lydiard was one of the first to put forth this idea.

      While the idea that too hard too early does lead to a premature peak is correct, the idea has grown to mean that any interval training or intense training done early causes this premature peak.  That's simply not the case.  There are two problems with this idea that have developed over the years

1. Interval training does NOT equal high lactate work/high intensity/high acidosis.
2. We've ignored the idea of specificity of the high lactate/intensity work.

Interval training does NOT equal Anaerobic training
       For many reasons, any interval training done has been associated with anaerobic training, to use lydiard like times.  It's assumed that you do longer runs, steady runs, threshold runs to improve aerobically and then you start doing intervals to improve "anaerobically" or "VO2max" or basically "high intensity fatigue resistance."

       There is a problem with this line of thinking.  It's not true!  We've associated interval training with anaerobic training so much that we've forgotten that the way the intervals are modulated is what matters.  It does not matter whether you call something a tempo run, an interval workout, or a fartlek.  What matters is what the run/workout is actually accomplishing, and what is going on physiologically.  By manipulating the length of the intervals, the intensity, and the rest periods you can make an interval workout that accomplishes anything from pure speed to pure endurance.

So it is not whether you are doing interval training or not that causes you to peak early or cease progression at the end of the season, it is how those intervals are done.  You can do intervals year round and be fine, it's all about how it is manipulated.

Misunderstanding the Igloi method:
    Mihaly Igloi was a coach who had enormous success as a distance coach in the 50's-70's, including Olympic 5k champ Bob Schul and mile WR holder Lazlo Tabori.  Some of his coaching protege's include the coaches of the Santa Monica Track Club.  Despite the success of the training system both in the past with Igloi and by athletes whose times would still compete today (think Johnny Gray, Khadevis Robinson, David Mack- i.e. a bunch of 1:42-3 800m runners), little is known about the system and there are a lot of misconceptions about it. For a system that produced some of the best milers in the world (Tabori, Beatty, etc.) in the 60's, produced several 1:43 or better 800m runners in the 80's-90's, and has worked on some of our best athletes in present day (Khadevis Robinson) it seems worthwhile to investigate. 
        The Igloi system of training is misunderstood because it was portrayed as the complete opposite of the Lydiard approach.  Lydiard was simplified to all aerobic long running, while Igloi was simplified as the all interval approach.  Because Lydiard's approach gained so much popularity and people started to make the connection of intervals=anaerobic conditioning, the Igloi method got seen as a high intensity "anaerobic" training system.

The key to the Igloi method of training is not in looking at intervals vs. distance, it's looking at what the actual workouts accomplished.  As mentioned above, people make the connection of intervals=anaerobic.  Igloi's system however was not like the HS systems you here about where they run 400's in 65 all year long.  Igloi manipulated the intervals to create both aerobic and anaerobic adaptations.

The basis of the system is running by feel and progression.  The system is based on running at different levels of effort (easy, fresh, good, fast good, hard, very hard).  The athletes run each rep/run at given effort levels.  By doing this, the emphasis is on running by feel and this creates a built in natural progression as the athlete develops.  This means at the beginning of the season 200m good speed might be 30 for some athlete, but by the end it's 26-7.

In addition to the various effort levels, there are also two different ways of running (or as he called them, swings). Basically, the belief is that altering how you ran would slightly change the muscle fibers used, thus delaying fatigue.  It is a very interesting idea that has not recieved any attention.  Think of it like switching gears in biking.  The two basic ways to run were a short swing and a long swing.  These basically amount to a style with a shorter stride with quick turnover and a longer stride with reduced turnover.  The idea was to be able to change from one style to another within runs, races, and workouts.

There are many variations in how the intervals are done, but typically modern Igloi users have gone to a system that uses interval training and easy/steady running.  In Igloi's day there was a more heavy emphasis on interval training, with most of it being shorter intervals.  The reason for the use of short intervals is partly due to the idea that it minimizes lactate build up at similar speeds.  Run 100m repeats seperated by 50m jogs at 800m pace and you'll produce much less lactate than if you did 200 or even 300m repeats at that pace, and it would take longer to clear that lactate.  In addition, the longer intervals were thought to take too much out of athletes, and thus used sparingly.

If you look at what Igloi's training actually accomplished instead of getting infatuated with the fact that it is interval training, you can see that early on his intervals are no different than aerobic training or threshold type work.  You can do 100m repeats at moderate paces with short rest and have it be a similar stimulus to running a 5mi threshold run.  Sometimes people get caught up in the volume of interval training they were doing at times, but the key is it wasn't that different from similar mileage levels for other athletes.  Yes, the stress of running intervals on a grass loop or track is intesne mentally, but from a purely physiological standpoint doing 6mi worth of 100-400m repeats at fresh to good intensities was very similar to do a 6mi progression/threshold run.  One thing to remember is that Igloi's athletes weren't low mileage runners.

One other thing to take into account is the vast modulation in the workouts themselves.  Instead of doing most of the repeats at similar paces like in most modern training programs, the speed of the reps varied greatly throughout the workout.  The workouts themselves seem to have different phases within them so that there will be hard, moderate, and easy parts of an entire workout.  For example, instead of doing 10x400 at 60 like in a traditional program, the Igloi method might include 3x400 (fresh, good, good), 3x400 (good, good, fast good), 4x150m w/ 50m jog at fresh speed, then repeat some more 400's at various efforts.

Instead of taking a long break between sets, the 4x150m functions in that way.  It's an interesting way to enhance recovery while still getting some work in and keeping the Heart Rate up.  The 150's are easy and would serve to enhance lactate clearance.  This method of an "active break" is an interesting one that needs some consideration.

Let's look at some example workouts:
Early workout for 800m:
6x150m good speed w/ 50m walk,  2x(5x200 good speed) w/ 100m jog b/t reps, 400m b/t sets, 1 lap jog, 6x150m (2 fresh, 1 good) w/ 50m walk

A late season example for 800m runner:
4x200m (good speed, 25-26) w/ 100m jog, 1 lap easy, 2x300m (35) w/ 400m jog, 2-3 laps easy, 3x200m (1 fresh, 1 good, 1 hard) w/ 100m jog, 2-3 laps easy, 10x100m easy

The best way to think of Igloi's system is in terms of swimming.  Swimmers train both aerobically and anaerobically, yet they do it all through interval training.  This is essentially what Igloi did.  The genious of Igloi's system and what you should take away from it is he created a type of training that allowed for athletes to run at or near specific paces, using specific biomechanics, while keeping the internal stress low enough that he could build up massive volume of this type of work. 

The downfall to Igloi's system was the fact that they did a lot of work on the track and in spikes.  Mentally this could be very tough and stressful mechanically on the body.  It seems like a better way to do it would be to incorporate some of the ideas of the shorter intervals in a type of natural fartlek system.

A modern take on the Igloi system of short intervals with short recoveries can be seen in the Kenyan's use of diaganols.

Looking at it Physiologically:
What does this massive amount of interval training potentially do (that could take several hours to complete the whole workout)?
-The variation in pace/effort intersperced with period of 1-3 lap jogs is likely to recruit a lot of different muscle fibers.
-It's likely that it enhances the endurance/fatigue resistance of FT fibers because of the large volume, and the mixing of paces with longer easy recoveries.
-The Heart Rate is kept elevated for a prolonged time and likely varies between 140-180-90bpm a lot.  Because of the short nature of the intervals and short recoveries it's likely that you don't go up to max even on faster work and then you don't go down a whole lot during the recovery.
-One has to wonder about time spent at VO2max?  No long traditional VO2max intervals leads me to believe that once again, VO2max as a system to stress is not important.
-Lactate levels are likely lower then comparable volumes of work in traditional training because of the short intervals.  This likelyt results in training to use lactate as a fuel.

What intervals should you do?

What's the takeaway message?

It matters how you manipulate the training, not what someone calls or classifies it.
Remember, that just because it is interval training does not mean it's hard training.  Since the focus is on early season interval training, here's what I recommend.

Aerobic Development that is more specific:
One way that I like to use interval training early is a way to get in aerobic development that is more specific in pace.  This means that you get good aerobic development in similar fibers that are going to be used in the race, using similar biomechanics.  In particular, this works well for middle distance runners (especially 800m runners) and FT orientated athletes.

What you do is use very short repeats at faster paces with a good volume of work during the set, but long breaks between sets to bring everything back down.  Doing it this way, you can get in running as fast as 800-1mile pace with lactate levels similar to those seen during a steady threshold run.

An example for an 800m runner(racing 1:52, 14sec per 100m):
3x10x100m at 16 w/ 20-25sec b/t reps, 6min b/t sets
3x 400m of 60m at 800m pace, 40m easy w/ 6min rest b/t sets
2x5x150m at 15sec pace w/ 50m jog in 30sec b/t reps, 5-6min b/t sets

For a 5k runner:
-Easy run w/ 30sec pickups in the middle
-9mi easy w/ 8x45sec at 10k down to 5k pace with 2:15 east after
-8x200 at 3k pace w/ 200m easy
-8x100, 8x200 w/ 100s at 1500 pace and 20sec rest, 200s at 5k down to 3k pace w/ 200m easy

Specific Endurance
Another good way to use early interval training is to use it as a foundation for specific endurance.  Essentially the goal is to include short interval training at goal race pace.  This early work sets a foundation on which to develop specific endurance.  So start off with very short intervals at specific pace and increase the distance of the reps, increase the volume of the workout and/or manipulate the rest between.

For an 800m runner, a specific endurance progression might look like this:
sets of 8x100m w/ 45sec rest at date 800m pace
sets of 8x100m w/ 35sec rest at goal 800m pace
sets of 4x200m w/ 40sec rest at 800m pace
sets of 300,500m
sets of 400,400
sets of 500/300

For a 5k runner, you might start with 200m repeats at goal pace (12x200 at 5k w/ 200m jog), and progress to sets of 400s (4x4x400m at 5k pace w/ 45sec rest, 4min b/t sets) and progress onwards.

Muscle Fiber recruitment:
In addition, using short intervals in the middle or at the end of a long run is a good way to stimulate the recruitment of muscle fibers when fatigued.  Including 4x30sec, 4x45sec of moderate pickup in the closing miles of a long run would accomplish this goal.

Intervals for recovery/lactate use:
      Another use for short aerobic intervals is to teach lactate use as fuel and enhance recovery.  As most of you know, lactate is not some horrible substance that causes fatigue.  Lactate can be used as an energy source through the lactate shuttle.  One goal of training is to teach your body how to use lactate as a fuel at higher intensities.  The best way to do this is through alternation work, but another option is by using aerobic interval work in the middle of a more intense interval session.

Besides promoting lactate use/clearance, it also aids in recovery.  If you see a runner struggling during an intense workout and you still want him to get more volume of training in, a good way is to insert a couple of short aerobic intervals.  The short aerobic intervals keep the athlete getting some work in, which helps him mentally, and aids in recovery.

An example of this would be if during 6x800m at 5k down to 3k pace the athlete is struggling hard after 4, insert 3x200m at 10k-LT w/ easy 200m.  Then give him 2min rest and finish with the last 2x800. 

Use relaxed 100s, 150s, 200s, 300s, etc. at 3k to threshold type paces in the middle of workouts, or in between sets, such as 2x5x400 at mile pace w/ 60sec recovery.  After set, 2min rest, 4x150m at 10k w/ 150m easy, then start the next set of 400's.

Some great sources for Igloi training info are below:

Next, we'll look at non-specific lactate work.

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How to go from heel striking/orthotics wearing to forefoot strike/ barefoot running

Should you train barefoot?

This concluding post on the barefoot vs. shoe debate will look at some of the practical applications to all the research that we've discussed. In part 1, I questioned whether cushioning or pronation even mattered. In part 2, I looked at the new study by Lieberman on barefoot running and footstrike, and finally in part 3 I discussed foot strike in relation to performance. With all of this information at your disposal, what do you do? Let's look at some relevant conclusions that were established in the other parts of this series:

-Cushioning may not matter for injury prevention as the body adjusts using feeback.
-Pronation may not be relevant for injury prevention.
-Your body has a complex system of adjusting for whatever surface you land on and whatever is on your foot.
-Footstrike matters for performance.
-Footstrike, not necessarily barefoot running, affects impact forces and energy storage.
-footstrike is more important than barefoot vs. shod in a number of conditions. In other words, it does little good to run barefoot if your footstrike does not also change.

Lastly, a new study yet to be published by Storen et al. (here) found that peak forces were inversely related to running economy.  Meaning, the better running economy, the lower peak forces.  In their paper, one of the key suggestions was to minimize horizontal braking forces.  How do you do that?  Forefoot striking.

Given these conclusions, what should you actually do with your own running?

Goal #1: Change Footstrike
The Lieberman studies demonstrated an important point. Barefoot runners can still hit heel first and when they do, their ground reaction force graph looks remarkably similar to if you had a 1 pound stability shoe on your foot. Thus, it doesn't do us a lot of good to go run barefoot without changing the foot strike. Do not run barefoot hoping that it changes your footstrike. It may alter it slightly and maybe eventually change it, but for most unless you are doing a massive amount of barefoot running, the foot strike change needs to be helped along. For an example, here's a blog that shows a runner running in shoes, vibrams, and barefoot who has done a decent amount of minimalist running, yet still lands heel first. (link here)

Step 1-Regain the feedback

Your body is so used having a heavy shoe on your foot that, heel striking has become second nature. The first step is to slowly regain the proprioception and feedback and let your body figure out how to interpret that data. What happens most of the time when you try and switch foot strikes is that the runner can't feel what they are doing. They can't really tell how their foot is striking.

To fix this, you need to see what you are doing. Grab a video camera and have someone film you doing easy strides. Take a look at how your foot is striking, then take the shoes off and do another short stride barefoot. Again, look at the video and see how you are striking.

If you strike more forefoot barefoot then the process is simple. Simply do some more easy strides barefoot trying to focus on the feeling you are getting and what your legs are actually doing. Then, put shoes on and try and mimic this feeling, being sure to video tape it to see if you are translating that barefoot feeling to running with shoes.

If you strike heel first barefoot then the process is a little longer. You need to try out a variety of cues running while barefoot. By cues, I mean things you think of doing while running. The best way to do it is try one cue out, then watch the video and see if anything changed.  If it doesn't work try another cue.  Repeat the process until you find something that works.

Possible cues include:
-put your feet down sooner
-drop your foot as soon as knee comes through,
-feel like you're striking behind you.
-Shorten your stride

Barefoot running should be used as an aid to learning how to change your footstrike initially. It's easier to feel how you strike barefoot. Once you've got the feeling down, we move to the next step. It's important that you periodically go through this video taping exercise throughout the process to see if the changes you are making are actually working.

Lastly, remember that footstrike is not only a result of what your lower leg is doing.  The entire body is connected and works in a connected way.  The lower leg does not act in isolation.  Look at the entire body to see if something else might be throwing off your foot strike.  Everything has an equal and opposite reaction
Some things to consider:
-Watch the opposite shoulder.  If the opposite shoulder is turning inwards too much, that makes the lower leg extend out.
-Watch the oppposite side arm stroke.  If the arms keep going (i.e. upwards too much or across the body), then the leg keeps going.
-Look at body position.  Leaning back causes the lower leg to go out.

Step 2- Strengthen
The next step is to prepare your body for the foot strike changes its about to make. If you look at the different stress patterns of the foot strikes, the most problematic area will be the achilles tendon. We have to prepare it to take the stress that it's supposed to take but hasn't in years because of how you run.

We do this via two ways. First, the problem with the achilles is that it needs to handle a good deal of eccentric stress while running. Research has shown that the best way to actually strengthen and remodel the tendon itself is through eccentric calf lowering exercises. These exercises consists of basically the lowering portion of calf raises. The difference, obviously, is that we are concerned only with the lowering portion of that exercise. To do these, find a step, or use a calf raising machine, and raise up high with both feet. Once you've gotten up high, take one foot away and lower slowly all the way with only one foot. Then, come back up with both feet. Repeat this approximately 10-15 times for each foot. The goal is actually to do these with a good amount of weight. The high weight is partially what triggers the tendon remodelling. Start with body weight only, and progressively add weight, either by machine, or by holding dumbells or a barbell or any other technique you can think of.

The second way to prepare for the foot strike change is the obvious one, start doing some walking/jogging barefoot and/or start introducing a minimalist shoe to your training. Not much, just get used to being barefoot.  Start with walking around and including barefoot running as part of a cool down after a run.

Step 3- Think about it and practice! Forget Drills!
This step is probably the most obvious but hardest to do. You have to actually practice changing your foot strike. Start with focusing it only on strides following runs. Then progress to thinking about it on cool downs. The next step is to think about your form during normal easy runs. It is impossible to focus on form for a whole run. You won't accomplish anything. Instead, pick out certain time periods during the run in which you REALLY focus on it. Start with maybe 30sec every mile spent concentrating on it. The goal is to extend these periods of focus until it starts to translate into being automatic.

Forget about drills. Running form drills don't change foot strike. Forget them.

SPRINT!- Most people will change their foot strike to at least a bit more forefoot when sprinting. You'd be surprised on how much actually sprinting helps change foot strike. In particular spring uphill. Why? Because it's almost impossible to sprint uphill and land heel first. Use these uphill sprints to get the feeling right on how to land and then progress to getting that same landing on the flat ground.

Step 4- Go minimalist
The fun part is finally here. Go minimalist!
At this point, your body should be prepared mechanically to deal with the change in foot strike. So, start introducing actually minimalist running. How much will depend on your background. Most high level runners already do some minimalist running on a regular basis. They run faster workouts in flats or spikes. This is a great way to transition. If you haven't already done so, do your faster runs each week in flats.

If you are already at that step, then steadily increase the amount of mileage done in a minimalist shoe. Keep track of it in your log and make sure it's progressive and steady. The best ways to do this are if you run once per day, then alternate a minimal shoe and your old shoes every other day.

Step 5- Extend barefoot running

The last step is to extend the amount of barefoot running you do. If you are at this step, you should have already been doing strides and/or cool down jogs barefoot. Now, the goal is to extend these.
Once again, steady progression is the key.

I suggest, and did, the following:
-Think of your barefoot running as if it were hard interval training. That means start with a relatively small amount (1mi) and progressively increase that as you adapt. Also, this means that you need recovery after this "hard training". Start with 2-3 days 'recovery' where you run in flats or regular shoes before you attempt your next barefoot running session. Then cut the recovery to one day, and so on, for however long you want to go.

-Have a mileage limit. Have a mileage cap on how much barefoot running you can do per day and per week. This can progressively increase but should start relatively low.

-It's best to start with including a short amount of barefoot running at the end of regular runs. Meaning if you have a 9 mile run, then run 8 miles of it and then throw off the shoes and do an easy 1mi barefoot. Progress this to where now you are doing 1.5mi, then 2mi, then 3mi barefoot at the end of that run.

-Barefoot running is done to support the foot strike

There you have, that's my quick guide to transitioning to a fore foot strike and some barefoot running. How far you want to go is up to you.

Just remember that going barefoot without the foot strike change is pretty much pointless.  They have to compliment each other.

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Looking at Running Form frame by frame: Vibrams vs. Shoes

Shoe's vs. Vibrams:
I put it to the test.  Below you'll see variations in running form in the same runner, on the same day, at the same pace.  Looking at footstrike in Shoes vs. Vibram's.  On the left is me in shoes, and on the right is me in Vibrams.  Notice any differences?

Conclusions:  It's hard to tell off of these lower quality videos, but shoes cause changes.
Early on, you can see greater dorsiflexion (toe up).  Footstrike is also different.  With shoes I did not have a pronounced heel strike, if you got to look at better video you'd see  I land whole foot, tending towards the back.  In my vibrams though, the footstrike is different.  The forefoot touches down first, barely, with the rest of the foot following.

This little experiment pretty much sold me on the role of proprioception in foot strike.  Yes, you can change foot strike in heavy shoes, but these shoes were made to make you land heel first.  It's tough to battle against what your body wants to do in these heavy shoes, which is heel strike.  Given this, it's important to recognize this, and incorporate at least some minimal training to make sure you are prepared to forefoot/ midfoot strike.

This frame by frame analysis also gives some nice pictures to analyze running form with, so if you have any thoughts, throw them out there.  I'm very pleased with it while running in Vibrams, not as much in shoes.  Footstrike wasn't wear I wanted it.  Drive phase looks good in both though (although I didn't include the pics for those...).

New studies on footstrike. Do faster runners heel strike?

Perhaps the most interesting finding in Lieberman’s work is that it may not be so much the barefoot vs. shod but the footstrike that is the important part. Brefoot running allows for the footstrike to happen properly, so they are interconnected.
Let’s leave behind injury prevention for a bit here and focus on speed. Is one footstrike better for speed in distance events? There are several theoretical arguments that point towards yes.

The role of elastic energy storage and return is one such factor. I’ve already mentioned this quiet a bit, but the Achilles tendon and the arch of the foot store a large amount of energy upon footstrike and then that energy is subsequently used upon take off. A forefoot strike has shown that it potentially uses this mechanism much better. One reason is that upon initial contact the foot is in better position to store the energy from the ground strike. In heel running, a great deal of the initial strike energy is lost. On a similar note, it is possible that a forefoot strike utilizes the stretch reflex mechanism better due to the position of the foot upon contact. With a forefoot strike the whole calf complex is in better position to be stretched and subsequently respond than in a heel strike.

Another potential performance enhancement is that it allows for shorter ground contact time while applying the same amount of force. Several different studies have shown the importance of ground contact time in running. In two separate studies, shorter ground contact time was correlated with top running speed and better economy. This shouldn’t be a surprise when you think about it. Ground contact time is going to be a result of mainly the person’s ability to produce force quickly, footstrike, and the ability to use the elastic energy mentioned above. Obviously footstrike plays a role in the latter two.

Let’s look at a couple of studies on footstrike. Several of which have yet to be published.
In the one study that everyone quotes, Hasewage 2007, they looked at footstrike at the 15km mark in a half marathon. The anti-forefoot strike people use this as justification in their decry of changing running mechanics. However, there are several problems with this view. First, let’s look at what the study said. In the study, out of the 283 runners, 74,9% were rearfoot strikers. The rest were midfoot and forefoot strikers. That leads many to conclude that rearfoot strike may be the way to go. However, if we look at a couple of other factors the picture gets a little more cloudy. When you separate out the top 50 instead of using the entire group, those who midfoot or forefoot strike jumps from ~25% to 38%. That significant difference showed that there was a tendency for more mid/forefoot strikers to be faster
Secondly, if we look at ground contact time, there was a linear relationship with the faster runners having less ground contact time and GC increasing as you got slower and slower. Basically, the faster the runner, the lower the GC, this isn’t unexpected. In addition, forefoot/midfoot strikers spent significantly less time on the ground than their heel strike counterparts (183ms vs 199ms). These findings led the researchers to conclude:

“The percentage of RFS increases with the decreasing of the running speed; conversely, the percentage of MFS increases as the running speed increases. A shorter contact time and a higher frequency of inversion at the foot contact might contribute to higher running economy.”

There are still two other factors that no one takes into account. First off, the video was taken at ~9.3mi into a 13.1mi race. In other words it takes place pretty late in the race when fatigue has already set in. Studies have shown that footstrike changes with fatigue. What happens is that more midfoot and forefoot strikers become heelstrikers. Thus, when you look this deep into a race, that potentially skews the percentages.
Secondly, the study was done in a large Japanese road race. While there were several elite Kenyans and other nationalities, of the top 283, the vast majority were Japanese. This is very significant. This means that technically, the results are only generalizable mostly to Japanese runners. Why is this significant? Because of how the Japanese historically train and how they historically run. Due to the heavy emphasis on very high mileage and moving everyone to the longer distances (half marathon and marathon) with neglect to the shorter distance races (1500,5k), the running style of Japanese runners is much different than Americans, Europeans, and even Africans. Similarly, the traditional ideas taught by Japanese coaches at the time favored a running style that was more flat/scoot around type running. Researchers and scientists will probably scoff at this idea, but go watch any video of top Japanese running and you will notice a visual difference. In addition, one of my coaching mentors started spending time going to Japan educating Japanese coaches on running mechanics at around the time of this study. We’ve spent many hours discussing what their views were, what the runners were being taught, and how there athletes were running.

Due to these factors, it’s impossible to take this study and generalize it to anyone except Japanese runners. In addition, the study shows that speed is correlated with both footstrike and ground contact time.

British studies:

In all of the British studies they looked at semi-elite/competitive runners during 800 and 1500m competitions. They looked at foot strike and ground contact time on each lap. This will not only give us an idea on foot strike implications but also on fatigue. The conclusions that can be drawn based on the research about fatigue and training are very interesting!

In the 1500m, the range of times went from 3:45 to 4:22 with the average being 3:56.
Once again, ground contact time-ground contact time was related to foot strike. Forefoot strikers spent 161ms on the ground compared to 169ms for midfoot and 192ms for heel strike. The difference between heel strike and the other two are pretty remarkable. What is interesting is that ground contact increase basically on every lap.
Footstike also changed based on lap. Initially on lap 1, 34.6% were forefoot striking, 46.2% midfoot, and 19.2% heel striking. On lap 4 the picture changed slightly. More of the midfoot strikers in particular had switched to heel striking (heel striking increase to 27%.)
What this means. Fatigue: “over the course of a 1500m race, ground contact time increased irrespective of footstrike position. This implies an element of fatigue, with runners presumably requiring longer to generate the same impulse.”

Before delving into the meaning of this, let’s look at the results of the other study on 800m runners quickly:

800m male runners- 1:47 to 2:01 (avg: 1:55):

- forefoot-35% Ground contact (156ms)
- midfoot-48% Ground contact (161ms)
- Heel-17% Ground Contact (177ms)
-Ground contact lap 1- 156ms lap 2-168ms
-Ground contact time and footstrike related to running speed.

What it all means:

What does this all mean? It’s hard to make a lot of conclusions since the hard data on the british studies could not be evaluated yet. The preliminary observations are very interesting though.

In regards to foot strike, there is a relationship between running speed and footstrike. Do all fast runners forefoot strike? No, but there is a tendency for the faster runners to forefoot/midfoot strike more so than the slower runners.

Is this a function solely of the speed that they are running? Speed of running certainly plays a role in where you strike to an extent but it’s unlikely that it plays as much of a role as people make it out to. Meaning that someone is not going from a straight heel strike while running easy to a forefoot strike while running 800m pace. The Lieberman study provided the first evidence showing that forefoot strikers struck forefoot regardless of condition. Similarly, if we look at the data in the studies above, you can see that the percentage of footstrike types is remarkably similar despite the significant increase in average running speed (from 63-64sec per lap down to 57.5sec per lap). Even though these are different people running each event, if foot strike was solely a function of speed, like many have claimed, then you would expect to see a definite trend away from heel striking as the group got faster.


Perhaps most interesting is what seems to happen during fatigue. Ground contact times increase in both studies, regardless of footstrike. If we look back at what typically impacts ground contact time, it provides some interesting clues. Ground contact changed even when footstrike did not, so we can eliminate that possibility. The other two possibilities are that leg stiffness and use of elastic energy changed, which is entirely possible, but impossible to know. There is some research showing fatigue changes leg stiffness and stretch shortening cycle fatigue. Lastly, the most likely scenario is that fatigue is impacting the body’s ability to produce force in as short a time period.

Lastly, in the 1500m study it was interesting to see a change in footstrike pattern. During the last lap, you saw an increase in heel striking. This would seem surprising as generally one of the faster laps in the race as people try and kick it in. The question is why do runners switch to a heel strike under heavy fatigue? I’m not sure I have the answer. One possibility is that stride length tends to decrease with fatigue and runners are trying to compensate by lengthening their stride, but instead of doing it by pushing off and covering more distance, they simply let their lower leg reach out. Another possibility is that fatigue may impact fine control of the lower leg.

Practical Implications:

What do we learn from all of these studies?

It lends credence to the idea that footstrike is important when we are concerned with speed and speed only. There is a tendency for faster runners to adopt a non-heel strike in a variety of events. In addition, these foot strike types allow for shorter ground contact times, which also correlate well with speed.  One other variable to consider is how that foot strike occured?  It's impossible to know but where the heel strike took place is incredibly important.  There is a big difference between striking close to under your hips to striking way out in front of you.  Perhaps we should consider looking at foot strike in terms of where it occurs in relation to your center of mass, instead of where it occurs on the foot.

Using this data, I’d recommend a switch to a more midfoot or forefoot running style if speed is your main concern.

Secondly, these studies provide some interesting data on fatigue and foot strike. Seeing that ground contact times lengthen, some training should be done to avoid this decrease. I’ve written an entire article (and done a presentation, which I have not posted yet) on a related phenomenon, Strength endurance work, that explains some of the ways to combat this fatigue. We need to train the body to maintain force production (and muscle fiber recruitment) under heavy fatigue. This means start off with being able to increase force production, move to being able to produce force quickly, then move to being able to produce force in heavy fatigued conditions.

Basically, strength endurance work combined with plyometric and power training would seem the best way to train for this type of fatigue resistance. In practical terms:

-Strength Training -> Power training/ Sprint training -> Strength Endurance (Circuits/hills) -> Strength Endurance under fatigued conditions (hard circuits/ 200m reps at 800m pace w/ bounding in between)

Read more about Strength Endurance Here

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