PUBLISHER'S NOTE: Our running expert, Greg Hitchcock, takes the late Gordon Pirie to task. If Hitch was Japanese, he could've entitled his article "Critique of Pirie-san" which would've been a homonym of Immanual Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason," in which the latter takes David Hume to task. (Sorry... couldn't help that).
Everybody's always taking somebody to task. Hitch starts his article by quoting Twain, who takes James Fennimore Cooper to task, citing Cooper's "surplusage verbiage." (Twain doesn't mention that Cooper got paid by the word.) Hitch believes Pirie's advice is dangerous, and if that's true (and it might be), it's probably not so much as what Pirie wrote as it was his dogmatic one-size-fits-all approach.
Pirie and the Deerslayer
by Greg Hitchcock (www.slowtwitch.com) 10.8.01
"Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in Deerslayer, and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record." - Mark Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses".
Gordon Pirie's accomplishments as a runner must be admired, but the excerpt from his book is full of inconsistencies, bad advice, implausible representations of fact and faulty logic which might be laughable, if his recommendations were not so likely to lead the typical runner to certain injury. It is all the more astonishing that so much bad thinking can be contained in so short a piece. Anyone who advocates a one-size fits all prescription for running should be looked at skeptically, even if they have won an Olympic medal and set numerous world records. All I have read of Pirie's running technique advice is contained in that excerpt and a few interviews that can be found on the internet, so what follows is not a complete critique of all things Pirie, only what has appeared on this site.
Pirie's philosophy on technique is similar to the legendary Percy Cerutty's "back to nature" teachings. Pirie's starting point is to examine how people run without shoes, in the natural way. He notes that many runners from developing countries exhibit excellent form, and many of them never had shoes as children. Indeed, anyone who has seen the opening scene in "Endurance" in which Haile Gebrsellasie runs along a dirt road cannot help but be moved by the beauty of his form (one of the greatest opening scenes in any movie ever, after which the movie wanes for all but the running enthusiast). He is also the best distance runner the world has seen. I am similarly impressed by Michael Jordan's jump shot and Tiger Woods' golf swing and Pete Sampras' tennis serve. They are all things of beauty, and really do not do much to inform us of how we, as mere mortals, are to go about trying to achieve some success at the same sport.
Pirie's main point is that all distance runners should avoid landing on their heels, no matter what pace they are running. This is absurd and dangerous. As proof for this "essential" running technique, he notes that when a person runs barefoot on a beach, the ball of the foot makes a strong print, indicating for Pirie that the ball of the foot naturally bears most of the weight of the landing. Of course, the reason the ball of the foot leaves the greater impression on the beach is that a runner pushes off from the ball of his foot -- it is the takeoff that cause the deeper impression, not the landing!
Pirie writes: "Amazingly, despite these straightforward observations, most running shoes are designed with the greatest amount of 'protective' material at the heel." No doubt he must be right that 70% of running shoe designers are complete idiots who avoid straightforward observations at all costs.
While most serious runners believe that shoe companies overemphasize shoe cosmetics, the manufacturers do get the basics of biomechanics right. The folks who run shoe companies are not dumb. The shoe business, like any business, invests too much money to get a customer to try its product to then provide a faulty product which would result in the consumer saying bad things about the company, or worse yet, to injure the customers so that they can't buy anymore shoes. While the leading brands of the shoe industry are heavy on style (for broad appeal to non-runners and those who run only a little) they do deliver substantive shoes with varied structural designs for the wide variety of runners. Those that don't deliver substance (can you say LA Gear?) go out of business.
Pirie's argument that running shoe companies provide too large a heel wedge in their training shoes (based on the assumption that runners land on their heels) had some merit at one point. Back in the early 1980s, shoe designers did cycle through a few years of excessively high heel wedges, but today there are not many shoes made with large heel wedges. However, almost all running shoes are still made with slightly more shock absorbing material in the heel than the forefoot, opposite to what Pirie thought was essential.
And why is it that running shoes have greater protection for the heel of the foot than the ball of the foot? It is because most runners (even very good runners), most of the time, land on the heels of their feet. There are runners who naturally land on the ball of their foot or mostly flat, but most people land on their heels during normal running. And training shoes are designed for normal running. In addition, most people run either on roads or sidewalks with no ground absorption, or on tracks and hard dirt trails which have limited ground absorption. Hence, it is essential that the shoe provide reasonable shock absorption at the point of contact (in most cases, the heel).
The faster a runner goes, the more likely it is that he lands on the balls of his feet rather than the heels. This too is natural. At a normal walk, everyone lands on their heels, with a heel-to-toe roll that exaggerates the running motion. As the typical person begins to run, he continues to land on his heels and it is not until he is going quite quickly that he lands on the balls of his feet. This is also why racing flats for shorter road races do not have as big a heel wedgerunners are going faster and landing more on the balls of their feet.
There are parts of the Pirie excerpt that are the running equivalent of psychobabble. For example, in describing his "low posture" during running, in which his knees stay bent throughout stance (i.e., when the foot is on the ground), he writes: "This 'low' running posture allows me to stay in contact with the ground longer, and makes it possible for me to generate more power during each contact power-phase with the ground." It kind of sounds good, but makes no sense. Why would a runner want to stay on the ground longer? And remember, this is running, not hitting a baseball (described by Ted Williams as the single most difficult thing to do in sports), so this "contact power-phase with the ground" is so many fancy words for the simple push off into the leg swing.
Moreover, this passage illustrates the inconsistencies in Pirie's technical advice. He urges a low posture with knees bent at all phases of the stance, and yet he also holds elite African runners out as prime examples of excellent running form. Elite runners of any ethnicity almost uniformly race tall, and it is surprising after the race to see how short they are when they stand. So which is it, the ideal of the elite runner running tall, or the low posture?
In one passage he urges a "power" push, which would indicate a long stride. A few breaths later, Pirie tells readers to take a "quicker stride than is natural", in other words take a short stride. So, is it going to be long or short? Plus, if his whole premise is to return Man to a natural running form, it is not clear how an unnaturally short stride serves that purpose.
He is not above creating questionable facts and making gross exaggerations to support his claims. He noted it is "common" to see a "stubbing gait" among joggers, and that "they are nearly tripping themselves up with the heels of their shoes on every step". You would think it might take four years to obtain a degree in walking and chewing gum at the same time after absorbing these sobering "facts". He goes on to reveal that "ankle sprains are a very common affliction" for those wearing "high-heeled" running shoes, and in another interview, he estimated that 75% of runners get injured each year, creating a veritable epidemic that the Surgeon General seems to have missed.
He warns against letting "the leg and foot drift away and land on its own out in front whenever it wants" as if those body parts were truculent teenagers that have to be told to put their laundry in the hamper.
He argues that the calf muscle is only at full use if a runner lands on the balls of his feet and that a heel-toe roll prevents this. However, landing on the balls of the feet puts maximum strain on the calf muscles and can lead to muscle pulls, not only for the unprepared but for the seasoned athlete as well.
His description of the arm swing is also problematic. He gives the standard advice on acute arm angle with a swing that does not cross the body center, but allows no deviation from his recommended cross body swing (the swing cannot be "haphazard in any way"). In a separate thought he urges "a strong arm-stopping" not as a police action but to achieve the desired short stride. This is a prescription for a tense, rigid arm swing. If we know anything about athletic performance, it is that relaxed muscles outperform tense muscles, and that includes a relaxed arm swing of a runner.
Dan Empfield got it right in his series on running techniquethere are differences in how people run that are quite natural and it is dangerous to try to mess with these genetic differences. There are some basic mistakes that some runners make and Dan adequately addresses those: clenched arms, horizontally swinging arms, hunched over running, over-striding and bouncing.
Pirie is not alone. There are a few more current coaches who advocate running solely on the balls of the feet, and that there is one Right Running Technique for all humans. This style worked great for Pirie and for a few other runners I have seen. However, most runners do not naturally run in that style and should ignore his advice.
But if you think the "run on your toes" proponents are zealous about their teachings wait until I tell you about the power lifting crowd that is convinced that any aerobic exercise is harmful to the human body.
BACK TO THE LONG RUN