While the title is in jest, I thought I’d post some random musings based on a conversation I recently had with my High School coach, Coach Stewart. We covered a range of topics from barefootin’ to stretching to the importance of an active lifestyle, so I’ll briefly highlight the points.

As any coaching nuts would, our conversation quickly turned into a discussion on some of the latest topics in the running and coaching world.  I thought a few of the points that were made were thought provoking enough to post on here.

Where have the Milers gone
Once The African invasion of distance running began, the only true distance event that remained within the american/european’s grasp was the mile.  Not going too far back we had the like of Wes Santee, Dyrol Burleson, Jim Ryun, Marty Liquori, Steve Scott, and Jim Spivey.  Similarly, across the pond they had Steve Cram, Steve Ovett, Seb Coe, and Peter Elliott to name a few.  Add in the Spaniards like Catcho and France’s Mehdi Baala and things looked pretty good.  But, if you scan the top 1500 and mile lists, with the exception of Alan Webb’s 3:46 in 07 and Baala’s 3:28 a couple years before that, the times of the great European and American runners in the 80’s remain king.  So, what happened?  Why little progression in the mile?

Fit lifestyle=prerequisite for running success
Instead of posing questions, here’s an answer.  While not all african runners run to school (although research has shown that the ones who make it to international level tend to run more to school, about 70% of them do.) its impossible to argue that there lifestyle is a very physically demanding one.  Back in the 60’s and 70’s the guys out of New Zealend and Australia (Cerutty’s group in particular) also grew up with physically demanding lifestyles, as I’m sure the American runners did too.

Fast forward to present day and some of the most successful runners seemed to have an active youth.  Whether it is Alan Webb being a hard core swimmer, or Ryan Hall living in Big bear and running like 13miles on his first run, many of the best Americans have had such a lifestyle.  Similarly, if I remember correctly (it’s been a while…) recent sub 27min 10k runner, Chris Solinsky used to bail hay or something crazy like that in the summer.

Is it a rule that you have to be active? No, there are exceptions.  But the point is that perhaps this active lifestyle is increasing the general physical fitness base during their formative development years.  Then once they begin training they have a bigger base of fitness to call upon.  Combine this with our recent developments in genetics and epigenics that demonstrates that genetic change can occur rather quickly, their lifestyle or their parents could have supplied them with a nice foundation off of which to build.

We both agreed that stretching before running seems like its losing favor and that I finally have an excuse for doing absolutely zero stretching in High School and beyond, and that after all this years “the mags stretch” (sitting in a stretching position but doing nothing) was correct.

Barefoot running
There was a recent article by Matt Fitzgerald about barefoot running (here) and how elites weren’t doing it, and it doesn’t necessarily make you faster, so why join in on the fad.  He quoted a bunch of elites and such to make his point.  But he forgot something and made the mistake that many barefooters and barefoot haters make:

Barefoot running is a tool to use to improve your running form.

Barefoot running without changing your form does little.  Fortunately barefoot running makes it easier to run right.  The point is that you can watch a video of Ryan Hall running in slow motion and guess what, he lands midfoot correctly with no problems.  THAT WILL MAKE YOU FASTER.  Instead of asking Hall and other elites if barefoot running will make you faster, ask hall if landing like that or landing heel first is faster.  Same thing with Salazar’s group who Fitzgerald quoted.  I know for a fact that Salazar changes running form so that athletes don’t land on their heel.

So, no, barefoot running won’t make you faster, but it is a very good tool to use to improve something that will make you faster.  Does every runner need to run barefoot to change their form? No, not at all.  But most don’t have a good coach who actually knows what he is talking about running mechanics wise (there are very few out there) to help them change their form. Which brings me to my last me and coach stew point:

No more barefootin’=heel striking
Back in the day, people walked around barefoot when growing up.  I’ve heard plenty of stories from my dad, his friends, Coach Stew, and others of similar age.  It’s what was done.  If they weren’t growing up barefoot, they had some crappy minimal shoes on.

Taking it back to the active lifestyle, growing up with active feet also plays a role.  We came to the conclusion that kids used to grow up strengthening their feet by running around playing barefoot or with some shoe that had no fancy cushioning.  There feet developed and strengthened.  In addition, they learned how to run correctly.

With growing up in shoes, none of that occurs.  Why?  Because there is no feedback going on.  As Coach Stew put it, if you go run on the track barefoot, you’ll learn real quick not to slam your heel into the ground because it hurts!  We had one horrible heel banger on our team, and the only way coach Stew could get him to not land on his heel was have him run barefoot on the track.  The point is that, you never learn the consequences of running wrong.  How do we learn when we are young?  By feedback and consequences.  You quickly learn not to touch something hot after touching the stove for example.  With all the fancy cushioning and stability junk in shoes, there are no consequences for slamming the heel into the ground.

I’ll give an example, when my sister was very very young, she ran right.  How do I know, because she’s 11 years younger than me, so when I was in HS changing my form, she would hang around and Coach T would video tape her. She did some things wrong, but she ran okay.  As she developed, she ran more and more like everyone else, meaning heel straight into the ground.  Fortunately for her, she’s a tennis player so it doesn’t matter.  But my point is, it’s my contention that wearing running shoes causes developmental changes in our gait.  We never learn the consequences of running wrong.

Thus, there’s a reason why there are all these injuries popping up and you have stuff like achilles tendonitis and plantar fascitis, which were never heard of 50 years ago.

So, there ya go.  Those are some random musings from my conversation with Coach Stew.  I hope you find some interesting or thought provoking.

More interesting info to come as soon as I finish finals.

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    1. Ken Schafer on May 6, 2010 at 10:23 pm

      Great post! For some "random musings" you managed to sum up a lot new and important information on our current understanding of running, and why most people in the Western world have such crappy technique.

    2. RICK'S RUNNING on May 7, 2010 at 6:38 am

      Check out this Saucony advert it's so funny, not thats it's meant to be, you understand!

    3. Patrick on May 7, 2010 at 7:59 am

      Hey Steve,

      This isn't really related, but I wanted to suggest/request a topic I think would be interesting and informative to cover at some point.

      I'd like to get your take on lifting and the impact it can have on distance and middle distance running. I don't mean the typical high rep, injury prevention stuff most people associate with the weight room. Rather, I'm interested in benefits than can be enjoyed from heavy weight lifting, olympic lifts, power lifts, and the like. I'm somewhat convinced by my own personal experience, but I'd like to hear (er, read) your thoughts on the impact heavy deadlifts, squats, power cleans, etc can have on distance and middle distance running, and perhaps how this could be incorporated in training.

      Thanks for any thoughts you're able to provide.

    4. Joey Martinez on May 7, 2010 at 2:38 pm

      I agree as a kid I ran everywhere barefoot. I use shoes now and I like to think I never land heal first.
      I do have to say I was Impressed the other day when I watched some thing about this Central American tribe that runs barefoot for great distances. They prove that growing up in a active life style greatly improves ones running ability.

    5. RICK'S RUNNING on May 7, 2010 at 3:03 pm

      In the book HEALTHY INTELLIGENT TRAINING by Keith Livingstone there is a chapter [9] on strength training for runners;
      His conclusions are that high rep light weight training puts unwanted muscle weight on the athlete due to the fact once past about 10 sec of effort the muscle cells involved require complex oxygen and fuel delivery systems [ capillaries] and an arry of glycolytic and aerobic organelles and a lot of fluid in the cell body to function.
      His answer was to train the alactic system, very heavy weights and for not more that 10 sec effort at a time, with long rec between reps , ie like an olympic weight lifter [ who must not build up muscle bulk , so that they can stay in their weight division class

    6. Anonymous on May 7, 2010 at 6:48 pm

      It's interesting that you mentioned your sister. I haven't noticed nearly as much minimalist attention being paid to the female side of the equation and I can't help but wonder if women, and girls, who have experienced years of walking in high heels have adapted to a forefoot strike. I may be way out in left field with this but has anyone ever considered it? I live in NYC and though this seems contradictory, there are scores of women I know, or see, who are both serious runners and serious shoe fashionistas.
      By the way, I am a man and have never worn a pair of heels so this is VERY speculative.
      Thanks for this great blog, Steve. My HS running son and I are both enjoying it.

    7. stevemagness on May 8, 2010 at 11:22 am

      Thanks all for the comments!

      Rick- ha, nice add. I love how all the runners are heel striking and they talk about maximum cushioning….in a minimalist shoe. Someone might want to inform them what a minimalist shoe is.

      Patrick- I got your suggestion. As soon as I have some time, I'll cover the topic. As a quick preview, most distance runners have the lifting idea backwards. The goal is to improve such things as muscle fiber recruitment pool, rate of force development, efficiency through increases in stiffness, etc. Heavy lifting using the prime movers for running lays the neural foundation. So, many of the exercises you mentioned would fit. In addition, I'd transition/add explosive ballistic type lifting to shift the focus to more power and RFD improvements. Finally, top it off with some simple plyo work to work on ground contact, imparting enough force in a very quick time frame, etc.

      Joey- Glad to see you on the site! Agree, whenever I have kids, I think I'm going to ban shoes, haha.

      Andrew- I have no idea on the heels idea, but my feeling is it could play some sort of role. I mean, we know that wearing heels all the time, changes things, especially due to the chronic shortening of the achilles.

    8. DumpRunner Matt on May 8, 2010 at 10:15 pm

      First of all, I like the site redesign.

      I would disagree with the statement that "We never learn the consequences of running wrong" on a few levels.

      Running is highly individualized and the mythical "right" way to run doesn't exist. There is "better and more efficient".

      Shoes are only part of the equation with form. And it is quite possible to run excellent form in shoes. As it is possible to notice when you are running wrong while wearing them. One problem with the recent barefoot/ minimal shoes is they have overstated the importance of shoes. Form is whole body.

      I'm not sure where you live. But I have 2 kids and live in a neighborhood full of kids; kids are barefoot a lot. In fact, the de facto move for kids of a certain age is to remove their shoes immediately when entering someone's house. If they were to run wrong, they would do it as much.

    9. stevemagness on May 8, 2010 at 10:47 pm

      Thanks for the comments and glad you like the redisgn.

      Never is a strong word, so it's probably not entirely correct. Your correct in that individuals will run slightly different. When I say "right" way to run, I'm referring to general biomechanical principles that hold true for almost everyone who is a runner (I'm going to exclude outlieing groups such as the obese as there are different biomechanics affecting them).

      Sure, there are very individual differences based on how we are made up. But the underlying biomechanical principles hold true for all.

      You are exactly right that it is possible to run excelent with shoes. I learned how to run better while wearing heavy shoes. The fact remains that shoes hinder awareness of running wrong. The proprioception is greatly diminished with shoes. We are talking about feedback that you don't consciously notice.

      THe biomechanics are king. I say this over and over, but barefoot or minimalist running should be a TOOL to improve form. It is easier to run correctly barefoot.

      Glad to hear kids are barefoot somewhere! Where I live and where my parents live, both nice neighborhoods with parks and such and in completely different parts of the country, and I never see kids barefoot outside, ever. Do kids go barefoot in houses, sure all the time. But think of what they do in houses barefoot, walk. There isn't a whole lot of full strides running going on. When walking heel striking is correct. Kids don't grow up running/playing barefoot in situations where they are running. Thus, never learning consequences of heel striking. There are other factors at play, namely that kids pattern their movement off of what they see. A kid growing up will bat like his favorite baseball hitter. No one gets to watch fast runners when they are little. They pattern themselves off what they see, mostly people jogging for fitness in the neighborhood who have horrible form, or people running on TV in other sports, who also have horrible form (ever watch MLB players run…it's bad…)

      Thanks again for the comments, love the discussion.

    10. Andrew on May 9, 2010 at 1:55 am

      "The fact remains that shoes hinder awareness of running wrong. The proprioception is greatly diminished with shoes."
      This is one of the most important factors in where shoe development has gone astray. R&D is focused on the wrong things, as Steve has previously stated.

      "…kids pattern their movement off of what they see."
      Absolutely! Its starts young, as soon as a child develops awareness and begins to mimic what s/he sees. I coached Little League for many years, in New York, and the number of kids who adopted the batting stances and bat swings of Derek Jeter and A-Rod was astounding to me. I had little success in retraining most of them, although some were receptive to learning more fundamental skills that matched their unique body make up and natural mechanics.

      So let's say it starts with kids at a young age and then is perpetuated through their lives. I went to college with Jeff Bagwell, who was a phenomenal hitter even then, but had that same weird hitch in his swing that was present through his entire career with the Astros. In interviews he admitted to how "wrong" it was and even said "Kids, don't do what I do," but at the same time was terrified to try to relearn his swing for fear that the results would be negative. This, I believe, is why many serious runners won't likely consider minimalist shoes and adopting form corrections (among other radical training changes), the stakes seem too high after all they've worked towards in their training.

      Most of us know only enough to get ourselves into trouble and keep perpetuating the same, dominant thinking in our running.

      Maybe "Just Do It" needs a little "Think Different."


    11. Fitz on May 10, 2010 at 4:42 pm

      Steve I completely agree. I was thinking about this about a month ago and wrote that minimalism, including both shoes and being barefoot, is simply a tool to become a better runner. Whether you consider that faster or less injury-prone depends on the individual.

      I see too many runners thinking that the end goal is to run barefoot all the time. That's just not correct. The objective of training barefoot or using minimalist shoes is to get stronger/improve efficiency so that you can race faster and avoid injuries.

      For me, the balance is doing 1-2 workouts in flats per week and 4-6 barefoot strides 2-3 times per week. That's what I need and I don't try to do long runs in VFF's or barefoot distance runs.

      – Fitz.

    12. stevemagness on May 11, 2010 at 6:13 pm

      Thanks for comments Fitz and Andrew.

      Andrew- The baseball experience demonstrates the problem exactly! As a born and raised Houstonian, love the Bagwell reference! I must admit that as a youngster I mimicked the Bagwell stance on occasion (though my preference was the Sheffield swing!)

      Fitz- Agree completely. Barefoot running is best used as a tool. Glad you found your balance. I've found mine too. It consists of doing a couple short (4mi or less) runs and strides in my VFFs. 1-2 workouts in very light flats, and 1-2 runs in normal flats, and long stuff in trainers.

    13. Anonymous on May 30, 2010 at 3:37 pm

      [Matt Andre]

      Love all the comments! I used to run with a bad heel strike. I had the idea to try barefoot running, and it totally fixed my technique. Then, afterwards, I learned that's how I was supposed to be running (without an initial heel-strike) and performance improved drastically. I remember I was so sore at first, b/c I had never properly used any of those muscles!

      Whenever I have clients running with a heel-strike and I correct their technique, they are upset for about a week because they can't run properly for very long. By the 2nd or 3rd week, they are running better than ever and their knees/low-back feel way better, and then they are happy to have dropped the heel strike…

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