As I wrote close to a decade ago in my first post about forefoot striking, there'd be a follow up post discussing safe ways to start adjusting your running mechanics. Well......this is it!
Now before we start, here are a few things to remember. It took me close to a year to build up the strength to run a marathon while forefoot striking. Prior to that switch, I had been maintaining a substantial 40+ MPW average for quite a while. So don't be fooled into thinking that you can continue running 30, 40, 50, 90 (I'm looking at you, Bonnie) miles per week. It takes a lot of patience and humility. After the first calf strain, the depressing realization that I was, in fact, mortal, was at the same time a great reminder that the process was going to take time.
The offseason (for most of us Northerners) is a great time to reinforce good mechanics, whether it's on the road, on the trainer or in the pool. Please be careful. And remember just because tweaking my mechanics worked for me, it doesn't mean the result will be the same for everyone.
You can't really start too small. If you just make a conscious effort to land on your toes for one block every five, or one minute every ten, that's fine. As you're doing it, try to remember what the most noticable changes are in your form. Pay attention to the motion of your ankle, foot, and knee and how it compares to your natural stride. Also, try to examine your stride length and cadence. If you notice that your strides are shorter in length and the frequency of footfalls increases, you're onto something. I can guarantee that it'll feel a little awkward at first. The key is to reinforce these mechanics by repetition and thus aiding muscle memory.
We all run with our own unique gait because of muscle memory. And I'd say that we've all gotten to be pretty successful even with our own quirks. Take golfer Jim Furyk. He has a pretty unique swing, but he's been pretty successful. On the running side, the posterboy for weird form was Emil Zatopek. A current example would be triathlete Tim Don (pictured)
, who has jerked, clawed, and headbanged his way to sub-30 10k times.
Now obviously, "practicing running" sounds like a stupid concept. It's like practicing eating or sleeping (both of which I'd happily practice anytime). Here are a few drills to practice when you're not running: (note: these can be done barefoot in your apartment or on grass)
1. Marching in place. I know this sounds dumb, but really emphasize bringing your knees up, keeping good posture, and keeping your arms swinging in line with your body. Notice where your feet land when you march in place. Here's a hint-it's not on your heels.
2. Slow deliberate marching. Apply the same emphases as in the first drill.
3. Now increase the pace by step-hopping keeping a very short length between steps. It's kind of like skipping, but in a more controlled and rhythmically even way. Get your knees and heels up and make sure that your arms are included.
4. Finally work up to running while alternating high knees and kicking up your ankles. This is a very important drill because it keeps your leg swing in line with the forward direction of your body. It prevents your feet from kicking out to the sides, which inhibits forward momentum. Try to apply the same principles to your arm mechanics. Keep them moving in line with your body with minimal crossing across your chest.
If you're training for an early marathon in January or February, now may not be the time to start making big changes. Regardless of what you're training for, begin by seeing how things workout on your shorter runs, and make very small changes as you go along. The key is to go at your own pace and to have a ton of patience. Big signs that you're overdoing it are sore Achilles tendons, sore calves, and even plantar fasciitis. I'm not saying it'll be a painless transition, but be aware that you'll feel it. Always err on the side of safety.
As far as footwear goes, a shoe that allows a little more flexibility and less cushion may feel more comfortable when forefoot striking, but if you're used to a more structured stability shoe or even a highly-cushioned neutral shoe, be cautious if you decide to try something lighter and more flexible. Keep in mind that I was wearing the Asics Nimbus, a very well-cushioned neutral shoe when I started adjusting my mechanics. So no, you don't need a pair of vibrams or a racing flat. See how the shoes you have been running in work out, and if you'd like to try something new, make very small adjustments. If you have the brilliant idea to buy a pair of vibrams, try to do your 15 mile long run in them this weekend, this is your preemptive smack in the face.
Best of luck. If you find these changes work for you, great! If you find they don't, just as great! Finding the perfect physiological balance of mechanics, endurance, and speed can be very tricky. Be confident in the results, however you find them.