It’s a natural tendency in our society to try and simplify complex training ideas and topics into one-size-fits-all recommendations. Even the most knowledgeable of athletes can’t resist headlines that claim to have found the “hack” or the “secret” to better training. I think it might be ingrained in our DNA. This tendency has now made its way into how many runners are choosing running shoes. Specifically, many runners have been lead to believe that switching to a minimalist shoe will automatically improve their form, reduce injury and make them a more efficient runner. Minimalist footwear has become the one-size-fits-all “hack” to running with better form.
Unfortunately, this just isn’t true.
That’s not to say footwear plays no role in your current running mechanics or how you approach improving your form; but, they are not a cure-all.
Footwear is simply one of the many tools in your repertoire to improving mechanics and reducing injury. Here are three common misconceptions about the role of footwear when it comes to changing running form and a more thoughtful approach to how they can help.
Choosing Running Shoes
Minimalist shoes will automatically turn you into a forefoot striker
Many runners mistakenly believe that slipping on a pair of minimalist shoes will “force” them to run on their forefoot.
But it’s not that simple. Consider a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina.
When researchers interviewed 35 runners who wore minimalist shoes and asked them whether they were heel or forefoot strikers, all 35 responded that they were forefoot strikers. However, after analyzing footstrike patterns with a slow-motion camera, 33% of the runners were actually heel strikers.
How can this be?
Not only were these participants wrong about the foot strike they perceived themselves to have, but heel striking runs counter to the belief that minimalist shoes force forefoot striking.
What’s really going on
Rather than magically forcing you to run with a certain foot strike, minimalist shoes HELP YOU DEVELOP the proprioceptive awareness to land with your foot under your center of mass to reduce impact (more on this later).
The improved feedback and awareness that comes with less shoe and more “feel” for the ground allows your feet to send better signals to the brain about where your foot is in relation to itself, how it lands, and the space around it.
But, even with all the proprioceptive awareness in the world, you still need to first be able to get your foot under you – and this has nothing to do with your footwear.
This accomplished via hip extension.
By improving your hip extension (how much your leg and thigh travel behind your body with each stride) through strengthening and flexibility, you give the leg the physical tools it needs to stop over striding and land with the foot directly under the ground.
Footwear can help you feel when you’re not generating hip extension and over striding, but they are not a magic bullet.
Minimalist shoes reduce impact forces and prevent injury
The misunderstood theory is that running in minimalist footwear decreases the impact forces on your legs because the lack of cushioning encourages you land on your forefoot and allow the foot to absorb more shock.
This isn’t quite how it works.
It’s not your footstrike that is paramount to shock absorption, but rather where your foot strikes the ground in relation to your center of mass.
As we’ve previously discussed, minimal shoes don’t automatically mean you forefoot strike.
More importantly, if you wear minimalist shoes and you don’t change where your foot strikes the ground (i.e. you continue to heel strike due to over striding), research shows that vertical loading rates can be up to 37% higher than heel striking in traditional shoes.
Increasing your ground impact with each step by 37% can lead to some serious injuries.
What’s really going on
Again, it’s not about footstrike, but rather where your foot lands in relation to your center of mass.
By landing with your foot closer to your center of mass you can dramatically reduce your impact loading rate. This means landing under you, rather than in front of you, i.e. over striding.
One of the easiest ways to land with your foot directly under you is to improve your cadence. Minimalist shoes help improve cadence because, without the raised heel and additional shock absorption of traditional shoes, it’s easier to feel yourself over stride.
But, again, shoes are not a cure-all. It’s still possible to over stride with minimal shoes.
The key is improving your cadence by making a conscious effort to count your steps. Alternatively you could improve you hip flexor, glute and hip flexibility and strength.
Minimalist shoes make you more efficient
Footwear companies love to tell you that minimal shoes will make you more efficient. This isn’t backed up by any research. What the scientific studies do suggest is that the weight of the shoe matters when it comes to efficiency.
The heavier the shoe, the less efficient you become. So, when compared to traditional running shoes, minimal shoes assist running more efficiently because they are lighter weight.
Yet, when comparing a minimal shoe to a traditional racing flat or even a lightweight trainer with a 10cmm heel-to-toe ratio, they are the same. Therefore, in itself, a minimal shoes doesn’t make you more efficient.
What footwear can do is allow you to better feel your mechanics and make the changes to your form that eventually enable you to run more efficiently and with fewer injuries. Shoes are just one piece of the equation.
Posture, hip extension, muscle strength, muscle activation, proprioception, etc. all contribute to running with better mechanics. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking a specific shoe will cure all your problems. Remember to look at your form and mechanics with a holistic view and work to improve the whole puzzle.
Summary – Choosing Running Shoes
In summary – your shoes help influence your running style, but they don’t dictate how you run. Make sure that whatever you wear is comfortable, and make sure that they fit. We are partnered with The Triathlon Shop who have a wide range of brands and styles of shoes. They also have a couple of treadmills where we have our Run technique sessions.
Send us a message or leave a comment and let us know if you have any questions! We all have our own thoughts on the matter, and we all have something different that suits us.
See what’s up next week for our #RunFormFriday tip! For more understanding on how to put this into practise, get in touch and we’ll see how we can help!
Tools are useful for all sorts of training, right? Well yeah, if you use them correctly. I very rarely use any toys while I’m swimming – or coaching – but here are a few bits and pieces that if used correctly, can be a really useful addition to your sessions.
A Triathlete’s best friend!
Triathlete’s best friend!
I like to make a joke about how triathletes tend to use pull buoys as a crutch, but a leg float can be a really potent tool to use. The idea with the item is that you isolate your arm muscles and DON’T KICK. It kills me when I see swimmers with a float between their legs and kicking as per usual! If using one of these there are two elements at play – firstly you don’t have to worry about your legs (or body position), so you can really work on what your arms are doing under the water; Secondly you can build in some power and resistance (because the shape of the float sticks below the body, it adds to your frontal profile – the bit that causes resistance) and so strengthen your arms. Obviously, in the long run, this should make you go faster – but in no way should you be swimming faster with a float than you do without it! If this is the case you really need to think about your BODY POSITION!
One way of getting the most out of your pull buoy is to change the position that you hold it in – and even do some pull sets (i.e. arms only) without a float. This gives you the advantage of feeling your body position change in the water and having to balance yourself somewhat. Try placing the float between your knees, between your shins or even squeezing it between your feet.
Hand paddles are your real strengthening agent in the water. If you don’t have access to – or time to go to the gym, using a pair of paddles (sparingly) can build the power in the lats and arms. They can also be used to focus on technique as well. I would always recommend using paddles without the wrist strap – or side straps depending on the brand of the paddle – and solely use the finger straps at the top. The reason for this is simple: If you are fully secured to your paddle, then your hand can do what it likes underwater, potentially with no benefit to you, or maybe even increased risk of injury. If, however, you were to only keep the finger straps on, you would HAVE to ensure that your paddle/hand and forearm are always engaging pressure on the water and causing the paddle to stick to your hand.
Using paddles adds to the water and resistance you can push – so will make you go faster while you are using them. But be careful of doing too much with them, you don’t want to over stress the shoulder muscles and the tendons around the elbow.
Swim fins are great for those with rigid ankles – potentially from cycling or running background – as they lengthen the foot and help to increase the range of motion within the ankle. This along with regular kick will help build up efficiency. As a competitive swimmer myself (and a strong kicker), my old coach went by the maxim that around 40% of our sessions should be kicking! Now for the majority of Tri Coaching followers, that will seem like a lot, especially for triathletes who feel that they don’t kick much and want to save their legs for the bike/run. I would put it to you that you want any kicks that you do make, to be strong, efficient and propulsive, and giving a good platform for you to pull from; that doing a couple of hundred metres a session kick is really beneficial to your leg mobility and flexibility, as well as your swim power.
Front Mounted Snorkel
Front mounted snorkel
The last training toy is the front mounted snorkel. The reason that I picked this tool out is that it helps you as a swimmer to keep your head still. I regularly make the joke that breathing is overrated, but with regards to swimming, it really is. All the time that you keep your head down, your stroke remains the same, unchanged, constant. As soon as you turn your head to breath, that is when things start to change – and if you are swimming open water, where you are likely to go off course. By occasionally using the front mounted snorkel to keep your head still (and watch your hands come through under your body), you can ingrain some really positive strong habits.
If you feel like this is too easy, or you want to build up your lung strength, Finis also do a cap to go on the top to restrict airflow(!).
All these tools are positive additions to your sessions – potentially – if used correctly and if used sparingly. Unlike on the bike, where shiny kit can make you go faster in training and in races, swim tools will only help you in training, the benefits will only cross into races if you use them correctly.
You might notice that I haven’t mentioned kickboards/floats. The only time I ever use floats are with complete learn to swim beginners, and even then I try to avoid it if possible. By using floats for doing kick, the body becomes completely out of alignment and disrupts the use of the kinetic chain, and doesn’t allow efficient, powerful or propulsive leg kick.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch; either by email, facebook or leave a comment on here!
See what’s up next week for our #SwimTechTues tip!
Having agreed to sell HUUB Wetsuits to you good people, I wanted to make sure that the wetsuits stand up to scrutiny, that they aren’t just marketing hype. Some of the fastest triathlete swimmers in the world are wearing them, like Richard Varga, and now ex World Champ Helen Jenkins – as well as Alistair and Jonny Brownlee – are all wearing the new kid on the block!
The Huub website says “The best wetsuit in our opinion ever created. The Archimedes (named after the great Physicist and Mathematician Archimedes and his Buoyancy principle) This suit quite simply delivers the buoyancy and flexibility that you would expect along with a host of benefits created by the experts in scientific and practical swimming development.”
Huub Archimedes Wetsuit
Firstly, the suit looks sharp! Lets be honest, with most of the kit we buy, if we’re prepared to spend a bit of cash, we want to look good! Regardless of shape, size or swim speed, the dark material with the silvery panels, contouring and flashes (red on the men’s, pink on the women’s Axena) certainly help with making the suit look fast. And purely from a psychological point of view, if you think you look fast it certainly helps you to swim quicker.
Of course there are several suits out on the market that look fast, but how do the specs match up?
Firstly, I’d like to get the only negative out of the way. There are a lot of suits and brands around that have marketing material on their suits. That is, there are elements of the specification or the suit that don’t serve any real or useful point. For the Archimedes, this element is the bicep release panels. When swimming we talk about having high elbows to help maintain pressure on your forearm and hand through the water. Huub say that this panel is to take pressure off your bicep when your arm is in this bent position, but through the midpoint of your stroke your bicep is under isometric contraction; that is, it doesn’t expand (concentric), it just holds the arm in place. It just renders the stretchier panel fairly irrelevant – it certainly doesn’t make the suit any worse.
Now to the positives!
The suit fits well – having sold a few to clients of different sizes (small to tall, lightweight to slightly larger), Huub have done a great job making sure that the suits don’t just fit one body type. A good fitting suit makes more difference than anything the wetsuit has to offer, and certainly is more important than the cost of the kit! Added to this the mix of 39 and 40 cell neoprene (the softest/smoothest/most flexible neoprene that is currently widely available) and the super stretchy and comfortable jersey on the inside, the Archimedes is incredibly mobile without being too stretchy. There are a few suits that are made completely of the 40 cell neoprene (TYR Freak of Nature and Aquaman Gold Cell) which while comfortable, can over stretch and fill with water; this makes the fitting of the wetsuit irrelevant and obviously adds to drag, so Huub have done well to avoid this.
The neck and zip, however, is my favourite part of the Archimedes wetsuit. For once a wetsuit’s neck closure system felt locked in without choking, and there was little to no water entering through this area. The zip isn’t just your standard zip. Aquaman and Blueseventy pioneered the idea behind a reverse zip – the idea being that with the zip at the bottom (and opening upward), you won’t get people unzipping you deliberately or otherwise! Huub have taken a different route; a breakaway where a sharp hard pull on the zip means the teeth will break apart and allow you to pull the suit down over your shoulders – and off. I have to say, after initially struggling to adapt to the idea, actually it was a really easy way to get out of the suit and is a nice difference to the usual.
The Brownlees in Huub are swimming at the front of the pack
Down the calves is a similar material to that on the biceps. Similar to the bicep release panel, Huub state that this is to “improve kick, propulsion and circulation”, though honestly I don’t feel that is necessary (see above!). On the flip side, the extra flexible material helps with wetsuit removal – especially as I have big (size 12) feet! So while the stated intention might not be particularly worthwhile and just for the sake of being there – but actually it works anyway.
Finally the last part of Huub and their philosophy – offering suits at the same specification for two different styles; a more hip buoyant 3:5 and a more neutrally buoyant 4:4. The numbers refer to the thickness of the neoprene in mm. The idea is that the 3:5 is thicker, and therefor more buoyant around the hips for triathletes whose legs tend to sink, while the other style is aimed at swimmers who have got their body position more in line (obviously something we coach here!). Its a great (if slightly lazy?) way of getting weaker swimmers more happy and confident in the water. The extra buoyancy in the hips of the 3:5 does definitely lift the hips more than the 4:4. Its a great option for athletes at both the £500 and £380 price points – but it’s not a philosophy confined to Huub. Blue Seventy and Orca both do varieties of their wetsuits, they just call them different names.
The Huub Archimedes is without a doubt one of THE fastest wetsuits that I have swum in. It’s truly comfortable, snug but flexible and easy to get off. I am looking forward to swimming fast and coming out at the front in it this season!
The TTS – FELT team in full kit
The Triathlon Shop in Bristol have asked me to be part of their race team for the year, racing on Felt bikes, in K-Swiss kit and shoes, and supported by Oakley, Bell, Soleus, Balega and Headsweats. Jon Burrage, store owner and director, has collected together a group of 8 top local athletes who not only offer ability but also attitude; to other competitors, to marshalls and also to shop customers with tips and assistance. I am looking forward to representing a top quality local establishment that offers great service.