The Evolution of Learning How to Run for Distance

A chief master sergeant crosses the finish line on mile 51 of a 52-mile run at Minot Air Force Base, N.D.
Chief Master Sgt. Geoff Weimer, 5th Bomb Wing command chief, crosses the finish line on mile 51 of a 52-mile run at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., July 24, 2015. (Senior Airman Stephanie Morris/U.S. Air Force photo)

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 1980s. What this article will discuss and show in video are 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 sprints.

I started off this article by asking more than 100 people:

  • How do you run?

  • What form do you use?

Here is what I found from avid runners who use running as entertainment or fitness conditioning. Many even race 10K races and marathons.

  • 63%: Did not know what form they ran. They just ran.

  • 22%: Use the Pose Method

  • 10%: Use the Chi Method

  • 5%: Use 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 1980s, when I was in my early teens. I have taught this method, too, 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 midfoot and directly under me, 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 and toe landing on the ground at the same time. My first coach in running taught two important skills that helped limit running injuries: the Audible Test and limited vertical bouncing while running.

The one thing I still use from my coach from the 1980s is the Audible Test. If you can hear your foot slapping the floor on impact, you likely are running wrong if jogging. 

As far as limited bounce, if you notice some of the world's best runners, 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.

The coaches I had in the '80s taught that the heel strike was not a hard strike on the back of the heel with the toes pointing up, but rather on the front side of the heel closer to the midfoot. 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 midfoot 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. The heel strike in front of the body also can limit your momentum and slow you down significantly.

Different running forms

The goal of this section is not to be critical of any form. 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 and 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?

Pose Running: Nicholas Romanov, the 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 about the Pose Method.

Clinical study discusses efficiency of Pose method

Physiological differences may be minimal, but test it out to see whether it saves you from any nagging injuries. One physiologist with whom I spoke said many injuries are caused by weak posterior tibialis muscles, which develop quickly once you run barefoot or use a foot strike other than a hard heel strike. Impact on the mid- or forefoot will challenge your calves at first but will soon strengthen you for more distance and load-bearing marches.

Chi Running: Chi running was created by Danny Dreyer, an American ultramarathoner and Tai 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 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 Tai Chi may not be your thing, but it never hurts to learn about internal focus or awareness and listen to your body when you are creating pain for yourself.

The Pose and Chi methods are similar with the use of the forward lean, but there are some differences:

  • Foot landing (full foot or midfoot vs. forefoot)

  • 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. About the only time I wore shoes was to school, church or while playing sports when I was in elementary school.

Robert Vervloet is a certified USA Track and Field running coach and a recognized pioneer in cutting-edge science specializing in teaching barefoot running. Way ahead of the curve, Vervloet has been teaching barefoot sports training since 1997. 

He gave some good advice when testing out different methods of running. The following is an email exchange with Vervloet:

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, it’s one tool I use with clients to prove myself, regardless of what they perceive as exertion.

It's the test I did with Nike. Taking runners at 6 mph 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 1-2 hours of teaching (upon returning to the machine at the 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, it's 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 it's a "better" way to run.

My world was to study the world's best walkers. It's funny because the world's best walkers give birth to the world's best runners. We all know that Kenyans and Ethiopians are great distance runners. What few know [about] is of their mothers. They're documented to be among the most efficient load-bearing cultures.

The joke among 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. 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 Sport Research Lab. That relationship is what I'm sharing with you. And the added benefit is that you also can learn the skills of carrying a 45-pound 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 10 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. 

[The] 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 body weight 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, 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.

It's 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 demonstrating the muscle control you'll need and currently don't have. The walking technique to which I'm introducing you in the end looks highly similar to how a professional model walks, so it's 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 backward 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 behind 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 backward 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 walk faster. You'll notice that to increase your stride length, you'll find your hips dropping toward 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 3 mph looks like, leading your step with your feet instead of lifting your knees forward.

Vervloet is one of the fastest and 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 triathlete and physiologist. See for more information on his style, which 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. Creating 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. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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