The Evolution of Learning How to Run Distance

by Stew Smith

When remembering all the different coaches (distance and speed) I had during my life as well as some of the forms and styles I picked up along the way on my fitness journey, I realize that we have come a long way in the way we teach running today. Now with super slow motion cameras that can be bought at any local Best Buy, we can dissect a stride, arm swing, and foot strike with more accuracy than we could in the 1980's. What this article will discuss and show in video the many different styles out there and let the reader decide what works best for them.

One thing I have learned in more than 30 years of running is that different body types, load bearing situations, and ground conditions create the need to learn different running styles. For the purposes of this article, the focus is on distance running not short distance sprints.

I started off this article by asking over 100 people How do they run? What form do they use? Here is what I found from avid runners who use running as entertainment / fitness conditioning. Many even race 10km and marathon distances.

63% - Did not know what form they ran they just ran.

22% - Used POSE Method

10% - Used Chi Method

5% - Used Barefoot Running or minimalist shoes

The funny thing is that everyone swore by their method. Even the 63% stated that this is how they naturally run. Using the styles of above, we will break them down and discuss the differences and similarities of each.

Heel Toe Contact: What does this mean?

I remember my first coach teaching to run with heel toe contact in the early 80's when I was in my early teens. In fact, I have taught this method but now realize that I was never running on my heels it just looked like it to the naked eye. The actual impact point was more mid-foot and directly under me as in the videos below. But my heels grazed the ground.

Many runners took that literally as landing on the heel and rolling across the foot and pushing off the toe. Some took the heel toe contact as the heel / toe landing on the ground at the same time. My first coach in running did teach teach two important skills that helped limit running injuries however: they were the Audible Test and limited vertical bouncing while running. I think these are valuable no matter what method you use to run.

Audible Test - The one thing I still use from my coach from the 80's is the Audible Test IF you can hear your foot slapping the floor on impact you likely are running wrong if jogging. It could be because of heel strike foot slap, or calve and shin muscles overworking and unable to extend / flex the foot during the foot contact.

Limited Bounce If you notice some of the best runners in the world, they have very little bounce from the waist up. In the military, we call this marching from the waist down to prevent head bobs when marching. This is just applied to running. See Kenyan Runners running a Marathon.

The narrator breaks down some of the world's best runners. Notice foot strike, hip rotation, leg extensions, and arm swings.

So in the 80's, I experimented with both methods. The one difference the coaches I had in the 80's taught that the heel strike was not a hard strike on the back of the heel with the toes pointing up, but on the front side of the heel closer to the mid-foot. I have in the past used this heel - toe method in teaching with lack of further explanation and have since explained it differently as more of a mid-foot strike and roll of the foot. I apologize for any confusion. We know that hard heel strikes are a result of over-striding and can lead to many foot, knee, and shin injuries. Also the heel strike in front of the body can limit your momentum and slow you down significantly.

Here is the difference between the 80's and today. The human eye would see a heel contact with foot roll where as the super slow motion sees differently from this marathon winner's stride.

The heel may touch first, BUT it is not the point of impact, the mid-point actually is taking the impact of running when the foot is directly under the runner. Looking at this pro-runner running form, he is mainly using the mid-foot landing at greatest impact. The mid-foot strike means that the heel and the toes touch the ground at the same time at full weight impact. There is a roll of the entire foot and with a slightly bent knee, the foot will hit the ground under the center of gravity for apparently a world class running posture.

Different Running Forms?

The goal of this section is not to be critical of any form. In fact, many people prefer their methods and I tell them. "You cannot argue with results." So if one of these is your form and it works for you and makes you a faster / injury free runner, then keep it up. The other forms may or may not work for you but may work for others, but the discussion is meant to look at the differences and similarities of what people swear by is the ONLY way to run. As you will see below there are MANY ways to run which one works best for you!

There are running forms that people now use as slang. "I'm a POSE runner or I'm a Chi runner, or Barefoot or Evolution runner. What does this mean? Here are some of the similarities and differences between the forms.

POSE Running - Dr. Romanov, two time Olympic Running coach for the former USSR, teaches methods of certain body positions, or poses, to assist the runner with the mechanics of running.

Here is a video on showing the Pose Method taught with before and after shots of a heel striker.

Clinical study discusses efficiency of POSE method

Physiological differences may be minimal but you need to test it out to see if it saves you from any nagging injuries. One physiologist I spoke with who works for a government agency stated many injuries are caused by weak posterior tibialis muscles that are quickly developed once you run barefoot or use a foot strike other than a hard heel strike. Impact on the mid foot or fore foot will at first challenge your calve region of the leg but will soon strengthen you for more distance and load bearing marches.

Chi Running Chi Running was created by Danny Dreyer, an American Ultra-marathon runner and T'ai Chi practitioner. This video may help you further understand, but on a basic level Chi is very similar to POSE running with added Chi components.

Here is one of the best explanations of CHI running I have seen. Also see www.chirunning.com to learn the basics of this running style. Basically, you learn to lean while running and have more internal awareness of HOW you are running. The mix of T'ai Chi may or may not be your thing but it never hurts to learn internal focus / awareness and listen to your body when you are creating pain for yourself.

The POSE / CHI methods are similar with the use of the forward lean but there are some differences:

- Foot landing (full-foot or mid-foot vs. fore-foot)
- Calf/lower leg usage (disengaged vs. active)
- Leg motion (knees low vs. knees lifted via heel 'pull' and use of hamstring momentum)
- Cadence (constant vs. variable)
- Emphasis on a level pelvis (Chi)
- Pelvic rotation (Chi)
- Emphasis on arm swing (Chi)

Here is a good comparison of Pose vs Chi.

Barefoot Running This is the "latest and greatest" of all the running trends I have seen in the past 25 years. It makes sense to me as I grew up running around barefoot. In fact, about the only time I wore shoes was to school, church, or athletics when I was an elementary school kid.

Robert Vervloet is a certified US Track and Field running coach and a recognized pioneer in cutting edge science specializing in teaching barefoot running. Way ahead of the curve, Robert has been teaching barefoot sports training since 1997. An exercise science researcher in animal movement and an athletic trainer who shares what he has learned from Mother Nature's top athletes.

Robert gave some good advice when testing out different methods of running:

The following is an email exchange with Robert

At a given speed and incline (1.5% incline), you should be able to get a pretty good unbiased viewpoint to energy expenditure per step. Since your heart rate is passive, its one tool I use with clients to prove myself regardless to what they perceive as exertion.

Its the test I did with Nike. Taking runners at 6MPH and measuring their heart rate for their traditional technique, taking them off the machine and teaching them the Kenyan running technique, their heart rates averaged 20% lower with only an 1-2 hours of teaching [upon returning to the machine at same speed and incline levels].

If you can get to the point of running completely silent on the treadmill deck, the difference in heart rate should be significant. Sometimes, given that I'm teaching the use of muscles that previously had no strength, coordination, or endurance, its sometimes deemed to be a "harder" perceived way to run. The heart rate monitor doesn't lie. As a side note, I don't recall any technique book recommending to wear a heart rate monitor to prove its a "better" way to run.

My world was to study the world's best walkers. Its funny, because the worlds best walkers give birth to the world's best runners. We all know that Kenyan and Ethiopian are great distance runners. What few know is of their mothers. They're documented to be of the most efficient load bearing cultures.

The joke of great African runners, is that the reason they dominate distance running, is because they don't walk like we do, nor do they run like we do. In fact, as the story states, they consume 20% less energy per step than we do.

Describing the connection between these women and their distance champion sons was tested and validated under the supervision of Nike's Sports Research Lab." That relationship is what I'm sharing with you. And the added benefit is that you can also learn the skills of carrying a 45 lb pack with the same energy expenditure of carrying a feather. I'd be honored if you share these skills with your fellow soldiers.

I'm starting you with the basics of distance running. First you have to learn how to walk as efficiently as possible:

I call it the masking tape exercise, so if you give it a try, in about ten minutes, you should notice a significant difference in how you walk.

Once you become comfortable with it on level ground, you can transition it to the treadmill. I usually use an incline treadmill to teach it, so you can practice from there and build the strength, coordination, and balance skills necessary to exercise the muscles that you're seeking to improve...

First recommendation is to start by walking barefoot. Barefoot training will help you tremendously with your goal. You'll need to develop the strength in your feet to comfortably carry your bodyweight and learn the balance skills necessary to train your feet in optimum movement. Start with your bare feet using a six foot length of masking tape on the floor.

Begin with the middle of your heel directly over the middle of the tape at one end. Place the middle of your second toe (called your index toe) outward from your big toe on the middle of the tape for positioning. Set your second foot heel to touch your second toe of the planted foot and place the second foot in direct mimicry of your first foot in heel and second toe position with your heel and toes touching on the tape line.

What you'll find is that you're highly unstable. To find your natural body posture for your body, let your hips drop to the floor (I call it the "sitting posture") to the point that your back leg knee can roll itself behind your front leg and remain upright and balanced. This won't be easy, but it demonstrates how out of balance we have all become.

Its also important to keep your torso leaning backward and remaining as upright as possible. Just take the time to become comfortable with this posture. You'll easily feel your body wobble. That instability is merely demonstrating the muscle control you'll need, and currently don't have. The walking technique I'm introducing you to in the end looks highly similar to how a professional model walks, so its a very graceful step.

I recommend you practice this perspective in front of a mirror so that you can see how perfectly aligned your body posture truly is. In a mirror you should be able to see that if you draw an imaginary line from the middle of your nose through the middle of your upper body, that the same line will pass through the middle of your knees and through the midline from your second toe out and the middle of your ankle at the heel of your feet. What you're learning in this posture is a perfectly centered balance position, which will be the foundation to everything I'm sharing with you. Your ultimate goal is to focus on rotating your knee inward into a neutral position, which is the secret to how you'll be walking.

Walking begins with learning to pull your weight forward. the natural human walking technique is to lean forward and push backwards with your feet. On a treadmill, with no momentum, and a surface moving underneath you, you have to think differently to master it. Rather than lifting your thigh to move your leg into its next step placement, relax a little, and let the movement of your feet start the leg movement. That difference will make every step much more fluid in motion.

Your leg motion isn't to lift your knee and swing your lower leg forward. Instead, you'll be swinging your feet from in back of you and in a circular motion to place your foot in its proper place.

Instead of leaning forward and pushing back, you'll have to become comfortable with leaning backwards and pulling your weight forward on the tape. If you pull your weight to the lead foot on the tape, while you're pulling yourself onto your lead step you'll be swinging and rotating your now weightless leg forward to put it in front of your weight bearing leg. Your goal is to use the tape to teach your body what it actually feels like for both legs to walk with completely equal motion and in a perfectly straight line. The more equal your legs work, the greater balance control you'll have on the ground as you run.

The trick to pulling your weight forward is to lead in step with your feet, not your upper leg as with traditional walking and running. What you'll discover is that your legs have to rotate inward to keep the knees in alignment with your body's natural centerline. Take a few steps, and when you're comfortable, slowly begin walking a little faster and lengthening the distance between your feet, all while keeping your body in that neutral balance position. If you walk inline and pull your weight, you can reach around and feel in your butt how walking this way utilizes the gluteus maximus compared with walking naturally.

The golden rule is to relax, and to walk faster, you'll notice that to increase your stride length, you'll find your hips dropping towards the ground rather than leaning forward and pushing yourself up. If you do it right, you'll notice that you'll be walking with a very flat, fluid, easy walking motion. This will help you with your posture.

The first video is what you should look like walking on the tape and the second video clip shows what walking at a normal 3MPH speed looks like leading your step with your feet instead of lifting your knees forward.

This video is the walking at 3MPH and the foward pulling orbital leg swing from the feet.

Robert is one of the fastest / efficient walkers I have ever seen. Learning to walk this way could be very beneficial to load bearing marches we do in the military.

Evolution Running - Was created by Ken Mierke, a two time World Champion tri-athlete and physiologist. See http://www.evolutionrunning.com/ for more information on his style which you will find is very similar to POSE and Chi. You could say it is a combination of both styles.

This running style focuses more on turnover rate versus stride length and limits the amount of time the runner's feet are on the ground absorbing impact. Create short kick leg movements while remaining relaxed sums up the Evolution Running style. See more on the style.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. If you are interested in starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle - check out the Military.com Fitness eBook store and the Stew Smith article archive at Military.com. To contact Stew with your comments and questions, e-mail him at stew@stewsmith.com.


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