Transitioning to Natural Running Form and Shoes

Posted by on Friday, March 25, 2011 @ 8:05 am | 6 Replies

Men's Gravity Neutral Performance Trainer

By Danny Abshire, co-founder, Newton Running

Whatever your body type, fitness level or experience, the two biggest changes you can make to improve your running performance and reduce the likelihood of overuse injury are:

1. Wear shoes with a nearly level profile
2. Learn how to run naturally

How an Elevated Heel Affects Running Form

For the past 30 years, running shoes have been designed with thickly cushioned, built-up heels. This type of shoe forces the body to balance itself in an unnatural, backward-leaning position. Your toes are pointing downward, your weight is shifted rearward, and your back is slightly arched. Basically, your body struggles to maintain balance while compensating for the lifted heel.

If you’ve been running this way for years — and most people have — it’s likely the muscles and other soft tissue in your feet, lower legs (the Achilles tendons in particular) and core need to adapt to the proper body position that comes with running in flat shoes.

The Achilles tendon acts like a large rubber band that stretches and recoils with every stride. If you’ve been wearing shoes with an elevated heel — including your everyday work and casual shoes — your Achilles tendon has a shorter range of motion. When you begin running in a level shoe like a Newton Running shoe, the Achilles tendon needs to stretch to accommodate for the 10-15 mm distance that used to be taken up by an elevated heel.

How to Make the Switch

If you abruptly transition from an elevated heel to doing all your mileage in a level shoe, you’re likely to feel some Achilles and calf muscle soreness. Instead, make the transition gradually: run less than a mile at a time a 2 or 3 days per week. Work on your form and build strength in your feet, ankles and lower legs with the following tips:

Work on strength and balance:

  • Go flat as often as possible! Ease the transition on your Achilles and calf muscles by walking barefoot. Wear flatter shoes even when you’re not running.
  • Do balancing drills. Stand on one foot with a mostly straight leg, lift the other foot off the ground at a 90 degree angle and close your eyes. If you can maintain balance for 30 seconds with your eyes closed on both sides, you may have enough strength be begin transitioning to level shoes. If you lose balance on either side, make this drill part of your daily regime. (Be sure to work on each foot.)
  • Do barefoot heel dips on a staircase. While holding on to a wall or railing, balance yourself with your metatarsal heads on the edge of the stair even with the ball of your foot. Slowly dip your heel below the plane of the stair, feeling the stretch in your Achilles and calf muscles and then slowly raise back up.

Increase the flexibility and range of motion in your feet and lower legs:

  • Do common wall stretches. Lean into a wall with your hands while flexing the lower calf with a flat foot. Do this with both a straight and bent knee and repeat a couple times per day after the muscles are sufficiently warm.
  • Increase the flexibility of your plantar fascia. While sitting in a chair, cross your leg over your knee and firmly push your fingers or a thumb into the center of the sole of your foot. Maintain that pressure and point your toes up and down to stretch the plantar fascia.

Focus on form:

  • After a run, use form drills to further develop specific aspects of proper running form. Skipping, bounding, high knees and butt kicks are easy and don’t take a lot of time.
  • Watch yourself run. Have a friend video your stride in traditional shoes, level shoes and while running barefoot on grass. Notice how your body moves differently in each scenario.
    Do your feet land under your center of mass? Are you running with a quick cadence and relatively short strides? Are you running with upright but slightly forward-leaning posture? Are you carrying your arms close to your body at about a 90-degree angle? Adopt this form in your new shoes.

Take it easy!

  • Your inner marathoner might be craving the challenge and rejuvenation that a long run always brings, but refrain from going on long runs until you’ve gone through a gradual progression. Increase your weekly mileage by no more than 10 percent per week and make sure you’re diligent about self-analyzing your form and your progression.

Danny Abshire is the author of “Natural Running” (VeloPress, 2010) and the co-founder of Newton Running, a Boulder, Colo.-based company that makes shoes that promote an efficient midfoot/forefoot running gait. He has been making advanced footwear solutions for runners and triathletes for more than 20 years. For more, go to newtonrunning.com.

Share

6 thoughts on “Transitioning to Natural Running Form and Shoes

  1. Mark Sidman

    Danny,

    I was in Boulder last week visiting my son at CU and I ran past your headquarters on the way to a run on the Boulder Creek path. I stopped by later in day and ended up buying a pair of Sir Isaacs. The guy who helped me in the store (one of your engineers) spent a lot of time with me explaining the technology built into the shoes and the technique needed to get the most out of them.

    One problem, though: He neglected to tell me to start the transition with runs of less than a mile. When I got back home, I ran 3.5 miles on a moderately hilly course for my maiden voyage. Not a good idea; I was hobbled with extreme calf pain for three days. I strongly recommend that your sales people emphasize the need to start the transition slowly. You might even want to consider handing out a short version of your blog post on transitioning — had I read it before starting out, it would have saved me a couple of miserable days.

    I am now transitioning with extremely short runs (0.3 miles on a mostly flat course) and I will increase the mileage and terrain challenges slowly. The mid-foot strike, short stride, quick pace combination really seems to work for me. My center of gravity has moved a bit forward and I feel gently propelled when I run in the Sir Isaacs.

    I’ve got one question. During the transition process, is it ok to take some runs in my old shoes? If so, is it ok to heel-strike during those runs?

    Despite my rocky start, I love the Sir Isaacs. They fit me better than any shoe I’ve ever worn. And, the shoes look awesome….

    Best,
    Mark Sidman

  2. Sir Isaac Post author

    Mark,

    Thanks for your comments. We typically are extremely careful to emphasize how important it is to begin slowly with our shoes and technique. We also include information regarding this on our website, this blog and mention it daily on Facebook and Twitter (or so it seems!). We’re happy to hear that, after you’re initial misstep (pardon the pun) that you’re getting into your Newtons properly and are liking them!

    During your transition, while it is ok to wear your old shoes in order to maintain your volume, you will find that at some point it will become uncomfortable to point your toes in order to overcome the ramp angle of the shoe. Additionally, the Sir Isaac being the transitional model that it is can be “heel-struck” in if needs be. In any event, the conservative approach you’re now on with transitioning sounds good and should have your volume where you want it to be in Newtons in no time.

    Cheers!

  3. Daniel Lucas

    Hey Danny,

    I’m running the nyc marathon in two weeks and have been running in the free shoe that does not need to be mentioned, which i do not like. I purchased a pair of newtons a week ago and have been on two runs. One for 3 and 1/2 miles and the other for 6. My calf are feeling it but the rest of me feels great. I know i’m breaking the rules but is it possible to be ready to run the marathon in them with my limited time? I have been forefoot running in my current shoes but clearly not with the discipline I need to be. You mention increasing ten percent a week and I would be looking at doubling my volume with each run almost.

    I figured I would get your opinion.

    Thanks!
    Daniel

  4. Sir Isaac Post author

    That’s a super quick turnaround, especially for such a drastic departure in technique. Take it easy for the first few runs and if your body tells you to back off you should listen.

  5. Megan

    I plan on buying some Lady Isaac S in the near future and I was looking at your transitioning recommendations. I feel it would be helpful to have some stick figures, pictures or a video of the stretches you recommend because I am having some difficulty imagining them, probably because I am a very visual person.
    Thanks

Leave a Reply