This article discusses the condition some of us have experienced. This is not an article about “foot striking – which one is better?” This is my hypothesis along with anecdotal evidence on how transitioning into a new form cured me from shin splints. The transition took a lot of time (6 months) and work (I ran slower, at first) so please understand that this is not a quick fix. What I do know and what I’ve gathered from all my research is that it doesn’t matter if you land heel or mid or fore foot. What matters is your form, gait, posture, over kicking, speed, and how you would naturally land. The operative word here is “naturally.” My transition must have corrected all those things as a byproduct, although I may not have been thoroughly aware.
Damn, shin splints twice in two weeks. Both times, after a 10 km run. Both times, taking a week to recover.
“It’s all part of being a runner,” I thought. Surely ALL runners suffer from this ailment, right? WRONG!
I was a heel striker for a good long time, maybe 10 years, give or take a couple. The running shoe companies created those space shoes with, you know, the air bubbles, shock absorbers, three-inch padding all placed at the heel. I thought there must be good reasoning backed with research and development into creating these technologically advanced shoes that all promote heel striking form. And for $200 shouldn’t these shoes make me a better, faster, stronger, and more importantly, injury free runner. At the very least! Right?
After all, the marketing posters in virtually all running ads show one or two runners, smiling, having a great run session in some trail or park, with one leg fully extended in front, the foot dorsi-flexed (toes pointed up), about to HEEL strike the hard ground. “That’s the way you’re supposed to run,” is what’s implied by these companies.
Well, I became very frustrated in that my running progress was continually being hindered by shin splints. As you sufferers know, shin splints are almost impossible to stretch out, and virtually impossible to massage. Resting, ice, and NSAIDs seems the only way to get rid of shin splints, and it often took two days or more to relieve the condition. Even if I managed to relieve my shins, I knew they’d return. So it got me thinking.
WHAT IS NATURE’s SOLUTION?
I mean, those spaced out shoes are not natural at all. So, if I were in the cave man days and I had to run away from a man-eating Stegosaurus (yes I know, wrong era and Stegosaurus was a herbivore) what would have been my running technique?
Off to the nearest park I went to test out what the form would be!
I kicked off my shoes, removed my socks, and for the first time in probably all my life I felt the cool, dry grass under my feet and it… felt… great! Actually, I felt like an eight year old kid again. Then I went for a run.
I literally took one running step in my heel strike form and stopped immediately. I stopped to see where that car went that hit me, but there was no car. Allow me to describe the feeling in detail:
I felt as though I were uppercut by Mike Tyson. My entire body was jolted, my spine felt like it were being compacted one-vertebrae-at-a-time as the shock wave terminated at the base of my skull and the impact made my brain slosh around in my skull. And my teeth crashed against each other.
Something was not right. I needed to shake off the jolt and took a nice stroll around the field. It gave me time to think. I’m no kinesiology major but simple thought processes lead me to this revelation:
Heel striking activates the smallest muscles in the legs; shins, and hip flexors. None of the major muscle groups are being used, or rather, used to their full potential: gluteus, quads, gastrocnemius, and soleus. The glutes are extended; the quads are surprisingly relaxed; the calves are elongated. Interestingly enough, the hamstrings are unaffected.
Next was to test a form that incorporated the bigger muscles, which lead me to the fore-foot “strike” (I use this term loosely as proper form results in a much softer “landing”). No longer were my shin muscles being activated, in fact, the muscles were relaxed. My gluteus had a more relaxed and freer motion, my quads flexed and became a part of this shock absorber system which allowed for less stress on my knees and provided knee stability, and my calves were firing and were also were contributing to this shock absorber system.
My concern, however, was the drastic reduction in my stride length. In order to land on my fore foot I couldn’t extend to reach my leg out. To increase my stride I had to rely on my glutes, quads, and calves on the back kick to launch forward.
I ran around the field for a good 5 minutes. I couldn’t go further because my feet, my quads, and especially my calves were getting sore. I laced up my shoes and went home.
Then a question came up:
“How do Olympic athletes run?” These people are the best of the best in the world! I did a quick search on the Tube and looked at video-after-video of athletes in marathons, 10km, 5km, and sprints and noticed a remarkable similarity:
THE TOP RUNNERS IN THE WORLD RUN ON THEIR FORE-FOOT. (except for Usain Bolt, he flies)
Notice Usain Bolt’s back leg. His quads and his calves are active. We can infer that his gluteus is working as well. Also notice his front leg how relaxed the foot and the rest of his leg is.
OK, I admit, not all elite athletes run fore-foot. There are elite athletes who do run with a heel-strike form. They aren’t Olympic Champions, though. And the percent of these heel-strike athletes compared to mid and forefoot landing athletes is like 10-20%. That’s 10-20% of a total number of like 1-2% of ALL runners in the world. So there’s not a lot of them.
Interestingly, a separate study conducted on the other 98% of us running marathons showed that a staggering 93% of all runners landed on their heels. My thoughts on this are:
It’s the damn shoes and shoe companies producing these space shoes that promote heel striking form. The majority of the population are not professionally trained or coached. We receive tips and advice from shoe store clerks and people conducting running clinics and we see massive insulation on the heels of shoes and we create our own conclusions that that is where we are supposed to land, on our heels.
Now, I was on a mission to do further testing to see if changing form from heel striking to fore-foot landing would eliminate my shin splints.
My hypothesis was:
Altering my running form from heel strike to fore-foot strike will transfer the load from the shins to the calves (small muscles to much larger muscles). Changing form will result in a relaxed foot and most of the weight will be carried through the shock absorber system consisting of the:
- Foot and soleus/gastrocnemius
- Gluteus Maximus
But that would mean only using this new form over several months to gather enough data and be running in various conditions. I had nothing to lose except those painful shin splints and the top runners in the world all run the same, so I made the decision to change and put my hypothesis to the test.
First Run Was Disastrous:
My first run in this new fore-foot form was a disaster. I couldn’t run for even a kilometre. Not because I was out of shape or tired. Mind you, I was running 10km prior to all this experimenting. No, I couldn’t run in this new form because my calves were atrophied from underuse. My calves were weak.
I had to devise a strategy to make my transition easy and painless. I ended up swallowing my pride and ego and tackled this by pretending I was a new runner and knew nothing about running. In essence, I relearned how to run, again.
My training sessions started with 5 minutes of barefoot running at the park followed by 25 minutes running with shoes. I still used my heel-strike shoes for this.
Subsequent training sessions extended my time barefoot while reducing my time in shoes. I did this until I was able to go for 15 minutes barefoot. This process took a couple weeks. I won’t lie, my calves were frequently tight and sore and I spent a great deal of time stretching. I paid careful attention to my Achilles during this phase, as well.
Then, I went to the shoe store and picked up some Vibrams Five Fingers and New Balance Minimus shoes. I wore these shoes at work, when I went for a run, walking the dogs, and pretty much anywhere and everywhere. At first, my feet were screaming in pain and I could only wear them for 10 minutes at a time. I brought an extra pair of shoes to work so I can switch out my shoes. Eventually, I was able to wear these shoes all day. However, let me be clear with you:
IT TOOK ME SIX MONTHS TO ACHIEVE THAT MILESTONE.
Ok. So where were we? Ah, yes. Six months of testing later. My persistent training in my new running form finally got me to running 10km, albeit, at a much slower time than my heel-striking time. I was running 10 km in about 46 minutes in heel-strike form, while my time in fore-foot form was closer to 55-60 minutes. However!!!
I did not have one single shin splint flare up during the six month transition!!!
Fast forward eight years, a 16 minute 5km personal best, a 45 minute 10km personal best, a sprint triathlon under my belt and not another painful shin splint. Not one.
My findings and very scientific (not really) study is that switching from heel-striking to fore-foot landing eliminates shin splints. Yes, yes, this all is very anecdotal, but I didn’t have much to lose and my thought process was logical. Also, if the top runners in the world have similar form there must be a reason.
Now, here is what I noticed in my running after switching forms:
– Faster and more involvement in the larger muscle groups
– No more knee pain due to having a bend in the knee as opposed to being locked straight out
– Faster cadence from not having to reach forward in my stride and to compensate for a reduction in my stride length
– Higher launch and stronger forward thrust leading to longer air time resulting in free speed due to gravity
– No more shin splints!
If you suffer from shin splints, consider your shoes and false advertising as the culprit, as well as, your running form. And if you do decide to transition into the fore-foot form, please do so very slowly and with knowing it will take six months or longer. That time you invest, however, will keep you in the race and enjoying running once again and for longer.
If you heel strike and don’t want to switch, meaning this is your natural form, looking into your posture, reducing your overreach in your forward leg kick, and increasing your cadence can help to resolve some issues. Higher cadence, not necessarily increased speed, alone will drastically reduce your impact on the ground making you run lighter. Also, relaxing the foot and avoiding dorsi-flexion can also help prevent or reduce the occurrence of shin splints.