Pirie on running

(www.slowtwitch.com) 10.3.01

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: Gordon Pirie was an Englishman who set a variety of world records in running during the 1950s. He held strong attitudes about running technique, and about the product running show manufacturers make. Below are excerpts from his book, which can be found and downloaded (Acrobat) complete on the web at gordonpirie.com. Its publisher has allowed us to print excerpts.

I did not know about this book, but after I published a Slowtwitch article on running technique a reader pointed me to it. I do not necessarily agree with everything written below, but I have to admit I find myself liking with a good deal of it. I guess I'd just be more likely to state my views less demonstrably. I print it below because it is yet another take on running technique, and the reader may glean from this what he deems instructive and useful.

It is not only essential to learn correct running technique, but equally vital to find a shoe designed to allow correct technique to develop. It is no coincidence that most runners from developing nations, many of whom grew up never wearing shoes, exhibit the best running technique. We marvel over the incredible fluidity of the great African runners, without ever stopping to consider the source of their grace and efficiency.

The best way to begin injury prevention is to learn correct technique and practice it constantly. A computer study of pressures on the foot during running indicated that the highest pressure and "wear and tear" zones were at the front and ball of the foot, and beneath the toes. Certainly, when one runs on the beach, one notices that the sand is dug up by the toes. The ball of the foot makes a strong print, while only a soft indentation is made by the heel. Amazingly, despite these straightforward observations, most running shoes are designed with the greatest amount of "protective" material at the heel.

The champion runners, who all have to run correctly, do not make much noise when their foot lands. When the fastest runner runs, he is very quiet on his feet. Excessive foot noise indicates that you are striking the ground instead of caressing it. You are dissipating energy which should be utilised in propelling yourself forward. This shows bad timing. The force to drive you forward should only be applied after the foot has settled on the ground completely. Striking the ground, especially with the heel, causes trauma and makes the runner susceptible to injury.

The nerves conveying tactile sensation from the foot are predominantly located in the forefoot. When the ball of the foot touches the ground, these nerves "alert" the muscles of the legs, which involuntarily react to absorb the shock of landing. If a person hits the ground heel-first, this reaction of the leg muscles will be considerably less, and consequently more shock will be experienced at the point of contact of the foot, and be transmitted to the bones of the leg. This jarring is guaranteed eventually to cause injury to the ankle, knee and/or hip joints.

It is therefore important that a runner lands on the forward portion of the foot, with the knee slightly bent, and with the foot placed beneath the body. By doing so, the runner will make use of the body's own efficient shock absorbers - the arch of the foot, the calf muscles, and the quadriceps muscles in the thighs - and in this way reduce the stress experienced by the heel, shin bone, knee joint, thigh bone and hip joint. It is these areas which are stressed the most when the heel strikes the ground.

So, stay off your heels! This rule applies to running on any surface, in any terrain, and at any speed, either up- or downhill - with the exception of running downhill on loose sand or gravel. In the latter case, you should bury your feet heel-first into the ground to stop sliding.

When I run a road race in the US or Europe, in the midst of runners of every age and ability, the noise of their feet crashing to the ground is deafening. This racket is caused by runners slamming their feet into the ground heel-first. A runner must land on the outside portion of the ball of the foot, with the knee slightly flexed. The knee should be flexed so that the large muscles of the thigh can aid in absorbing the shock of landing. The foot must land on the ground directly under the body (not way out in front as is often the case when a runner tries to "stride out", straightening the knee). When I am running with a group of athletes of my own height, I am lower than the rest in my running stance. My relative height is reduced because I am closer to the ground with my knee flexed during the weight bearing phase of the running stride - when the body is passing over the foot. 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. If a runner is making full use of his feet and legs as shock absorbers, he will make little if any noise when he runs, even on the steepest downhill stretches, because there is no vertical pounding of the feet and legs into the ground. The body will not crash down on the foot, but will pass smoothly over it. For most runners, the timing of this action does not come naturally and takes a good deal of practice.

Correct running technique will be prevented if the rear portion of the foot is lifted high off the ground by a running shoe with a larger volume of cushion material at the rear of the foot than at the front (I can always catch a girl in high heels). If the shoe raises the heel above the level of the ball of the foot, then the foot will be prevented from carrying out its full range of movement. In the normal case, you start with a flat foot and the calf muscle group fully stretched - the toe pressed into the ground. Your flexed knee sets the foreleg sloping forward. Then the calf muscles become well stretched, practically to their maximum, so that the full range of contraction can occur as the toes are driven into the ground at the finish of the power phase, and prior to the foot losing contact with the ground.

With improper shoes, the heel is already up, and you lose a large proportion of your propelling capability. The result is reduced power, speed and efficiency. Thus, such shoes make correct technique impossible. A shoe with a wedged heel also causes premature contact with the ground by the heel, even before the full stride is completed. The result is a stubbing gait which is so common amongst joggers. They are nearly tripping themselves up with the heels of their shoes on every step. A high heel is also less stable than a flatter-heeled shoe. Ankle sprains are a very common affliction among runners who wear such high-heeled shoes. It is no surprise that the high heel is quickly worn away - because it shouldn't be there!

Correct running should feel like a series of very quick but powerful pulses, with the arms and legs working in unison, followed by a period of relaxed flying between each power phase. Try to take a quicker stride than is natural. Quicken up! Get your feet back onto the ground as quickly as possible. This can be achieved by strong arm-stopping, which causes the foot to land quickly but lightly on the ball/front of the foot. Do not wait for the leg and foot to drift away and land on its own out in front whenever it wants. Make it snappy and quick. Do not float along. Watch runners like Joan Benoit and Carlos Lopes; both employ quick but very powerful running actions.

Let us now take a closer look at correct arm action, firstly by examining examples of poor technique. There are many runners who throw their arms across the body in great sweeping arcs. The result is that the legs swing in wide arcs also, and the runner wastes a lot of energy going from side to side, instead of straight ahead. Leg injuries can result from running in this manner, as it puts a great deal of strain on the knee and hip joints, which are not designed to support a side-to-side and twisting action. Then there are runners who take the arms along for the ride, carrying them uselessly at their side. The result of not using the arms effectively is very slow speed, and an excessive amount of stress put on the legs and mid-section of the body. A "stitch" is often the result of a jerky, twisting motion of the upper body, and stomach muscles trying to balance the powerful leg activity. The job the arms have to do! Back troubles leading to hamstring problems are another result of this "no arms" body twisting.

The hands should swing up and across the body (remember the acute angle of the elbow), not quite reaching the centre line of the chest. When you have this arm action mastered it will cause your footprints to follow a straight line. This type of arm action will make the feet swing in slightly, and the foot land naturally on the extreme outside edge of the ball of the foot. God designed the human foot to work in this way, with a nicely rounded heel, so that the foot can roll gently inwards as it takes and carries the full weight of the body. An arm action which is too wide and sweeping, or is in any way haphazard, will make it impossible for the feet and arms to work in harmony.