Sunday, April 29, 2012

The journey to injury-free running starts with your ass, not your feet.

Squats...developing J-Lo booties since...well, whenever humans started squatting.

Pre-post note: I will be using the words "ass" and "hips" almost interchangeably in this post. I realize they aren't the same thing. I need to do this so I can swear a lot and post pictures of women's backsides. Deal with it.

There are a lot of methods out there as to how to properly transition from traditional running shoes into barefoot or minimalist running and the forefoot/midfoot strike. Ken Bob has a seven point method that starts with pointers that start with head position and works down to your feet. Jason Robillard has his Merrell Bareform method. I have my gimmicky, zen-like, "be the ball" method that advocates a complete lack of method (here's a sample if you're not familiar).


Most of these methods, and indeed most of the discussion in modern running form discourse, emphasize the importance of foot strike; using different focus points to achieve a glorious forefoot or midfoot strike. Ken Bob would tell you that bent knees is the key to a good forefoot strike (or forefoot kiss as he would call it). Jason would tell you that it's all about short cadence. I focus on achieving a relaxed and comfortable foot (also known as a "state of awesomeness").

I think all of this discussion about good foot position, and how to achieve it, is critical. A good forefoot or midfoot strike is key to preventing overstriding; an aspect of bad form which appears to place significantly more stress on the body. But as I've said before, although I think there is a biomechanically correct way to run, I don't think the forefoot strike the golden ticket to the magical (probably mythical) land of injury-free running.

In fact, I think that for some people, switching to a forefoot strike just shifts your potential injuries to different places. Anecdotally, I see this all the time. For example, there's a reason why there is a thread on the Barefoot Runners Society forum called "Fellowship of the ITBS". I've been saying for years that I think minimal shoes could contribute to IT Band Syndrome. I also see a fair amount of peroneal and Achilles tendinitis popping up with my coaching clients.

But there's been some evidence to back up such statements as well. Last year, the University of North Carolina conducted a survey to study the relationship between foot-strike and injury rate (here's the abstract). The study found no link between running form and injury rate. However, it did find a correlation between running form and certain types of injuries. Namely, it found that heel strikers were more likely to injure their knees, and forefoot strikers were more likely to injure their foot, ankle, or Achilles. Yes, I realize that surveys like this are probably the least persuasive of all scientific studies, but you have to admit...these results make sense.

This is a problem for someone like me, who coaches an approach that relies on the forefoot or midfoot strike. If I train people to use a different footstrike and they still get hurt (sometimes in completely different ways), that indicates to me that I'm missing a step somewhere.

Anyone else find this diagram to be a lot like how we go about discovering the key to injury-free running? For example...Step #1: Do 100-Ups...

The step I'm missing, and I think we're all missing, occurred to me yesterday while looking over the blog of fellow minimalist running coach Brian Martin. Brian advocates a method that starts, not with your feet, but your hips.

I enjoy this new focus on hips already.

Why start with the hips? Well for one, the muscles surrounding your hips (which I shall collectively call "Your Ass"...mostly so I can wrap it in with the title of this article, and post a lot of butt pictures) are are collectively responsible for both stabilizing you during running as well as powering you forward. I'm talking muscles like hamstrings, hip flexors, and glutes. Strong hips make a strong runner.

And, not surprisingly, what do most running overuse injuries have in common? They are usually caused by some sort of muscle weakness. Specifically, I would say most are caused by weakness in the muscles surrounding your hips. ITBS for example usually means weak hip flexors and glutes. Again, I'm not just shooting from the hip here (hehe...unintended pun). There are several studies that link hip strength to running injuries (see here, here, here, and here).

Basically, I'm saying that if you've got a weak ass, then it doesn't matter what part of your foot you land on. Sure, a forefoot strike will substantially reduce the stresses on your body. Maybe to the point where you don't have any immediate issues. But you're still a weak ass. Your muscle imbalances are causing you form problems regardless of what you do to consciously change your form. So you're just delaying the inevitable. In short, your new running form is just a band-aid. Your weaknesses are eventually going to catch up to you. And you've perhaps introduced new movement patterns that could contribute to injury elsewhere.

In short, I'm saying that I think that in running we can't separate our body mechanics from our body composition. So we might as well stop focusing on just form.


MGBG: with the serious case of gigantism.

Calvin & Hobbes Look-a-Like Contest Winner: But MGBG, how do I know whether I have weak hips?

My guess is, unless you have a regular strength training routine that includes lots of posterior chain work, you have a weak ass. Even though they use these muscles all the time, runners who never lift typically have notoriously bad hip strength. If you need proof, go try to do a squat sometime. If you can squat your bodyweight, I'll buy you a steak dinner. Your problem is compounded if you work a desk job. In that case, you take your already weak ass and stretch it out 8 hours a day, weakening it even more.

If you're a runner, there are many such girls. Possibly children as well.

Is this another MGBG article nagging you running addicts to stop running so goddamn much and start strength training? Most certainly. In particular, I'm saying that your transition to barefoot or minimalist running represents the perfect time for you to establish a solid foundation for real injury-free running...i.e. running that starts from solid hip strength.

Here's a suggestion. Many of you will already have to back way off your current mileage to give your feet time to adjust to your new barefoot/minimalist ways. Instead of filling that remaining time with dumb cardio crap, why not fill it with a steady diet of hip strengthening exercise? Specifically, I recommend that you supplement your transitional running with strength routines like this one that revolve around strengthening the posterior chain. And even though I make fun of it incessantly, I'd even go so far as to say that doing an 100-Up routine is better than doing nothing (of course, you should consider doing this instead)

Welcome to your new diet...

So what did we learn today? That's it's important to recognize that learning correct running technique is not enough to prevent running injuries. You can't just master the forefoot strike and think everything is going to be honky-dorey. You don't change your tires when your transmission needs fixing. At least if you want to go any sort of significant distance. You need to start from a strong foundation to ensure that you won't develop problems once you ramp up your distance or intensity.

If you want to be an injury-free runner, you need a more holistic approach than just thinking about where your foot lands. Put that in your pipe and smoke it citizens. Cheers!


  1. I accept your squat your body weight challenge. What's the time limit, I like my steak medium rare.

  2. Woohoo,
    Finally someone points out what lifters have known forever. I'm a firm believer in Squats and G.O.M.A.D (Gallon Of Milk A Day for those not in the know). In fact, if there was one exercise I'd do if I had to give up all others, it would be the squat. Nothing says bad ass like putting a shit ton of weight on your shoulders and squatting it up and down.

    And now it helps with my running? Even more reason to keep squatting. By the way, I accept your challenge. Unless it's front squats. For that, I say kiss my oversized, squat grown ass.

    Nice post brosef.

  3. Isn't it funny how backward the running community can be at times? We've known for years about the benefits of barefoot, the squat, and stretching among other things. In running, most of those subjects are taboo for no apparent reason.

    Do either of you mind if I Fed Ex your steaks?

  4. Eherm. I'd rather you use your fancy smancy lawyering to figure out a way for us to meet in the middle of the country and have a steak together. Yep. Seems fair.

  5. I'm with you guys. I traded in knee and hip injuries for lots and lots of foot and ankle soreness/injuries. every time I speak to a PT about where the sore spots come up they always tell me to do lunges and planks. not that I really go right home and start doing them (I'm lazy that way) but I'm fairly sure they are probably right. ;)

  6. I totally agree!!!!!! The hips down to our feet is one big chain. You need to start at the source. yes I am 100% a believer in landing and how it reduces injury BUT the hips and glutes are just as important

  7. One... I weigh 182 and do 2 sets of 12-20 reps "at" or "above" my weight 2x a week (185 and 200 respectively... but I HAVE to use the machine because of my three back surgeries). You can bring my steak to court tomorrow. But on to the important thing that you are missing (or at least didn't mention) is that even with hip/ass strength if you cannot/do not "activate" the muscles properly your strong ass is of no good. For instance, if my case, I have a great ass but my dominant hip flexors (comes from too much cycling) take over much of the load for the ass and thereby my glutes - sorry... meant to write ass - do not fire and therefore I am wasting that potential ass-strength both running and cycling. The only thing other than actively thinking about my ass while running/cycling that gets that muscle group to fire correctly and jointly with the other groups has been pilates and "open hip running" (i.e. where you lead with your hips while running which increases distance per stride while keeping a compact fore-foot strike and prevents you from "bouncing" while running). Yes, pilates is for girls but if it makes you a faster runner it is worth it. From a guy that gets chicked in races on a regular basis (there are some FAST chicks in Minnesota) I say it is better to train like a chick then to get chicked by a chick. Final thought is milk... being an endurance junkie chocolate milk is awesome for muscle recovery and replenishing glycogen stores and tastes WAY better than white milk. End of rant.

  8. I am planning on starting P90X after my first ultra(2 weeks). I know it will give me a better core strength and help me in the long run.

  9. Yes Harvey. Ass activation is important as well. But squating on a machine is not squatting. It is leg pressing.

  10. I know it has been a number of years since I was maxing out at 16 stone 9 pounds (415lbs) as a collegiate soccer player, but I'm rather confident I could still do my body weight. Man, steak sounds really good right now. Thanks for helping me push that pizza craving aside.

  11. This is the second time your squat "challenge" disappointed me. The first was some challenge you issued to have everyone do 100 air squats nonstop. Oh. Wow. Now this: squat your body weight once. Oh. Wow.

    How about combine the two into the "squat your body weight 100 times nonstop" challenge? Now that's damn hard. I tried that once and got into the 70's before I had to stop because I felt like my head was going to explode.

    1. Maybe 10 (each leg) good form lunges with body weight? I figure it has to be possible, and it certainly seems like it would be difficult. What would you think of weighted pistol squats, Brian?

    2. In a way a lunge with your body weight would be like squatting with double your body weight. Now that would be even more impressive!

      Of course I'm not asking this to turn into a body building site. I was being a bit facetious.

  12. Brian disappoints me by thinking that these are actual challenges.

  13. Christian, can we please see a pic of your dairy air??

  14. I can't imagine anyone really wanting to see Christian's derriere (Okay maybe Mrs. MGBG, but that's in a dark bedroom, right?. But if I had to guess it probably looks something like this...

    What? I kid! I kid!

  15. Christian... not the leg press machine (although I do that too for one leg stuff). This is the one that you are standing and the harness if over your shoulders and you - well - squat down. It just doesn't require the use of any assistant muscles to prevent you from moving laterally... or as I like to call it... falling over.


    This is the machine I am talking about... (see link above).

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