I’ve mentioned my amazing Ottawa-based physiotherapist, Amy Fahlman, before on this blog so I won’t drone on and on about what a wealth of knowledge she is and the great energy she gives off. I will tell you, though, about the amazing tool she forced me to become acquainted with, and how it’s become my most valuable running buddy.
When I went to see Amy back in April, she enlightened me to the fact that I was a pretty hardcore heel-striker. As far as proper form goes, heel striking essentially requires that you jut your foot out in front of your body, where it acts as sort of a brake in preparation for you to launch off onto the other leg. This, apparently, is where most runners’ injuries come from. Instead, your foot should be landing very close to, if not directly under, your center of gravity. What’s more, your cadence (the number of times your feet hit the ground) should be somewhere around 170-180 beats per minute – mine was 160 when I first saw Amy.
Cadence is what really links all of this together, because in order for your feet to have such rapid turnover, they will essentially need to fall under your body – there just isn’t enough time to reach your foot in front of you, set down your heel, and push off while maintaining the appropriate cadence. Amy’s philosophy, as she’s explained it to me, is that your cadence is not as important if you are able to maintain proper alignment while running (that is, foot landing close to/under body and landing on the midfoot); however, for most people this is not easily attained. In comparison, if you watch elite runners in action, they seem to glide; no matter how fast they run, their feet stay in alignment with their bodies, even when their cadence is not necessarily at 180 bpm. Case in point:
For us non-elite folk, the best place to start trying to align your body properly during runs is to hike up that cadence. This is a difficult feat for a couple reasons, the first being that it’s hard to count your foot-strikes while running. One way to do this is to count how many times your left (or right) foot hits the ground in a minute, and double it. The second thing that makes increasing cadence difficult is that you might find yourself running faster to try and get in more strikes. When I made this complaint, it was explained to me that you can quite feasibly run on the spot at 180 bpm and so putting that in motion in no way necessitates running faster.
Amy provided me with two invaluable tools for picking up my cadence and minimizing heel striking on my runs. Both require a lot of getting used to.
1) Swing your arms. If you’re thinking “well, duh”, it’s ok – so did I. But once I watched back the video of myself running, I realized that I was really only swinging one arm when I ran, and I was not drawing power from my shoulders. That would explain why my traps felt so sore when I ran long distances. Apparently, if your ponytail swings like hell during your run, it means you’re doing more torso rotating than arm swinging, and that’s a no-no. The best exercise for this is to sit on a stability ball in front of a mirror, tighten your core, and swing your arms while maintaining core stability and making sure not to rotate your torso. Swinging your arms is a fantastic way to increase your cadence, too, since your arms swing in sync with your feet touching the ground (so when you swing your left arm your right foot touches the ground in sync…the faster your arms, the faster your feet).
2) Use a metronome. This was the real game-changer for me, and the suggestion I resisted with force. As you all know, I’m a big fan of listening to music while I run, and I really thought there was no way I could run while listening to a metronome. First of all, I don’t bring my iphone when I run. Second of all, I was positive my ears would bleed after 20 minutes. That said, after my second visit and being shamed for not using my metronome, I begrudgingly downloaded a metronome app, set the timer to 170bpm, and set out on my run. Know what? I wasn’t so bad at all. In fact, it was kind of hypnotizing and a nice distraction to be consciously focusing on keeping up with the beat and making sure to swing my arms without sprinting. This is the metronome app I suggest.
I feel wholeheartedly that even if you only use a metronome for a handful of runs, you will learn a lot about your running technique. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reaching for it from time to time when you’re feeling a little heel-strikey