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The Pitfalls of Recreational Running

I have never made a sports team that I had to try out for.

Granted, I only tried out for volleyball one semester in high school, so that’s not really surprising.

The point is, I’m not competitive. I’m a recreational athlete through and through. Most of the time I don’t even compete against myself. I’m just out there to be out there. You could say that my training plans are looser than a Ferengi’s morals.

So, it’s no surprise that, as a runner, I was nearly felled by recreational running injuries. At least, that’s what I took away from this fascinating article at the Science of Running.

For people who have almost exclusively walked for 30-40-50years of their life, you often see them heel strike when they start running. Why? Because their initial speed is in that walk-run transition area so they kind of shuffle with an in-between running and walking motion. Secondly, they are used to walking, not running, and in a walk you heel strike.

Science of Running

Heel strike? What? If you’ve read anything at all about running in the past year, you’ve certainly read about barefoot running, minimalist running, the Nike Free, Born to Run, Vibram Five Finger shoes — a hotbed of information trying to argue that we’ve been doing running wrong since the 1970s.

What happened in the 1970s? (If you guessed Unix, I’ll give you geek points, but it’s irrelevant to this blog post.) Answer: Nike debuted its first line of running shoes in 1972. Naturally, a lot of recent articles on running injuries like to point the finger at Nike, much like the documentary Supersize Me made McDonald’s the poster child for what’s wrong with the American Diet.

What Science of Running is saying is that the 1970s heralded a boom of recreational running, which companies like Nike merely responded to, providing products for this new market of self-made athletes. No longer relegated to the realm of track and field, your everyday health nut was taking up the sport with little conditioning and no formal training. And who needs training to run, anyway? You’ve been doing it since you were toddler. Can’t be that hard, right?

True, you ran as a toddler. But have you run all that much since then? That’s where training comes in handy.

I remember back in High School doing cool down laps around the inside of the track barefoot. Similarly, my High School coach would have us take our shoes off and do barefoot strides to work on form. In particular, we had one runner who was very good but a bad heel banger (what we called heel striking…), so to force him to change coach would make him do barefoot strides on the track. And we certainly were not unique.

Science of Running

I have never once run barefoot around a track. That could partially explain why I’ve always been slow and battled knee pain, which can be a symptom of heel striking. My knee pain was officially diagnosed as a symptom of flat feet, so for years I wore incredibly expensive prescription orthotics to mechanically raise my arch, which worked for a while. Barefoot striders probably would have been more economical with longer-lasting results, but how was I supposed to know? I guess I should have been tipped off when my podiatrist mentioned that a lot of the athletes he treated had flat feet. I’m as similar to a local college basketball player as a toy poodle is to Cerberus.

Thankfully, earlier this year I read Born to Run and had the same “hallelujah!” moment that I’m sure thousands of injury-prone runners experienced over the last few months, right before we all threw out our shoes and sprinted out barefoot to the street.*

*Which really hurt, by the way! I suggest starting your barefoot adventures on a nice, grassy knoll.

I guess I’m not a cold-turkey girl, because that didn’t turn out very well for me. However, I did sign up for a Chi Running* workshop in February, where the instructor told me I went a little bit too far when it came to avoiding the dreaded heel strike. It’s taken a fair amount of practice since then, but I’m now successfully running with little, if any, knee pain in lightweight shoes sans orthotics.

*Check out this article for an amusingly critical view of Chi Running, where the author basically says that, for an unscientific piece of crock, it achieves its goal, which is to improve running form to the point of injury prevention.

So to sum up the the Science of Running debate, it’s not that we’ve been doing running wrong this whole time. It’s that the unlucky recreational runner who picks up running long after its become an alien activity to them has been doing it wrong. Elite runners and their coaches had it right the whole time… because it’s their job.

Coaches innovate and come up with it Scientists explain why it works. Whenever it happens the other way around, it goes horribly wrong.

Science of Running

Are you competitive in sports? Do you train competitively?

4 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Recreational Running

  1. Great post, Elaine. I started having the dreaded knee pain earlier this summer and it’s not going away. I’ve had to start taking Ibuprofen at night because it’ll wake me up otherwise. Not a happy situation for me. I’m glad to hear about some of your experiments (and aches) with barefoot and Chi running. I think I might sign up for one of the workshops.

    1. Oh no, Nicci! I know exactly how that feels. When I started running in college it got so bad that I had to hobble to and from class.

      The Chi Running workshop I took was with Chris Griffin (yes, really, lol) in San Francisco, and it was totally worth it. But I later found out that there is at least one place in Sacramento that has workshops. I actually have the book and the DVD too — I can loan you the DVD so you can get a gist of it before signing up for a class.

      In the meantime, you can try wearing knee sleeves on your run and icing afterward. Caitlin at Healthy Tipping Point has had good success with that.

  2. Great Job Boss, you worked in ST and Unix humor into a posting about running! Full marks! As a proud owner of vibram 5 fingers that I use almost daily to kayak(btw, you do not want to be in the same house as my 5 fingers), this article almost makes me want to try running again. BUT I still maintain that to be properly motivated I must be chased by a knife-wielding maniac… or at the very least, a small child with scissors.

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