Ethan Hammond is a performance therapist and CrossFit instructor who helps people improve their mobility and athleticism. He came on ConverSapiens to discuss the top 5 mobility issues he encounters in his work, one of which is the inability to run well. In this excerpt from the show, Ethan describes his own journey as a runner and the tells a cautionary tale about heel striking.
I’ve heard you say before that no one ever teaches you how to run, even if you’re an athlete. You just learn naturally how to walk and then it’s presumed that you’ll be able to run. You may grow up playing a sport where you’re running the whole time, but the coach never trains you to run because it’s presumed you’re already able. There is little to no emphasis on technique.
Well, more than likely your history teacher in high school didn’t have any idea how to run either. Let’s be honest, your football coach was your history teacher. I’m going to say something here that might piss some people off…. The vast majority of sports coaches don’t know much of anything about athletics. They know their sport, and they’re more of a sports strategist. They know the game and they’re very good at that, but when it comes to actually performing in the weight room or on the track, they are going to mimic what they did in their younger days. In that way they often pass down subpar technique at best, whether that’s in lifting weights or running.
The game and athleticism are not one in the same. I’ve only been seriously involved in athletics since my early 20’s, but I played tennis and I ran all throughout high school. I ran cross country but that didn’t make me a skilled runner. I did that for two years, and I was perpetually broken the whole time. I went to physical therapy because I had horrible shin splints. They thought that I might have stress fractures, meaning that the tibia – the shinbone – was actually cracking, or so they believed. I was running about 20 miles a week. If you don’t know, that is an extremely low amount.
That’s not even a marathon a week! For reference, my brother ran track in high school several years earlier, and he was doing 60 to 80 miles a week. That’s significantly more training volume. I was doing a much smaller amount, yet I was having all these issues. When I went to the physical therapist, all they did was massage my shins. They would rub and massage in some lotion. They also put some kind of infrared light over my leg… I still have no idea what that was about! I would spend the rest of appointment stretching out my calves by myself, because the physical therapists would be treating his other 10 clients for that hour. Nothing got done to actually help me run better.
Unfortunately running injuries are so freakishly common that it’s considered just part of the territory. It’s understood. I understood my issues to be inevitable byproducts of running. I thought, I’m a runner, so I’m gonna be living in pain, that’s just how it is. I didn’t understand, and neither did my coaches or the physical therapists, that the real problem was my technique.
Were you really running that incorrectly?
Yeah, horribly so! I’ve always loved running. I can remember being a little kid always wanting to race people. Running was always my thing, but I wasn’t trained to run correctly as a kid. Unless you grew up running barefoot, running probably isn’t really something that you do well. I think anyone who hears me say that might kind of funny psychologically, but when you run barefoot outside on the asphalt, you will run differently than if you have all the protective cushioning around your feet called “shoes.” The way you move will completely change.
And it becomes what becomes more correct?
If you want to define correct as meaning you’re not going to have as much pain or as many injuries over time and you’ll have more longevity with your sport, yes!
What is it that makes you say that, from a physiological/mechanical perspective?
When most people run they do what’s known as heel striking, meaning they reach their leg out in front of their body and their first point of contact with the ground is their heel. You will not do that when you’re barefoot unless you’re on very soft ground, like in the sand. If you’re on a firm surface, even just hard dirt, and especially if you’re on concrete or asphalt or any kind of pavement, you will not heel strike. You can try to force yourself to do it, but instinctively your brain will want to take over, and it will not let you run very well. You’ll wind up tiptoeing, which is closer to how you should be running, mechanically speaking.
When we’re talking about ideal running mechanics, it’s landing on the ball of your foot, meaning the area in between your arch and your toes, because that’s where you’re meant to land, biologically. If you stand up barefoot and start jumping in place like you’re jumping rope, you’re gonna jump on the balls your feet. Now lift your toes up to try to balance yourself on your heels and then jump. Mechanically it doesn’t work because there’s no spring there. There’s no energy absorption. When your heel hits the ground from heel striking all that energy is going to get dispersed through your entire body. You will feel it jerk all the way into your head. When you’re jumping and landing on the balls of your feet, you will feel your whole body shaking much less because most of the energy will get distributed through your arch and through your ankle. That’s why you have an arch. It’s a spring!
No other creature on the planet has a foot arch. Human beings are the best endurance runners on the planet. The arch is there to act as a natural spring, like a shock absorber. You’re springy arch is there, so you should use it! But the assumption you’re already using it properly may very well be wrong. When we try to get people to change how they’re running, it’s a completely different skill set from walking. It takes real training! You’re completely rewiring how your muscles are used for an activity that you’ve been doing for most your life. That’s a pretty deep set habit. When I began to address my running technique problem, it was probably damn near a year before I felt like I was actually competent at running correctly. When you learn to run on the balls of your feet, you just fall forward. You literally lead with your hips like you’re falling down, and you pick up your feet and catch yourself on the ball of your foot.
I’ve never heard anyone have a valid argument for heel striking. The only people that I’ve ever heard who are for it are those who do it and don’t want to change because it’s what they already know. You’re not going to be a powerful heel striking runner, period. There is no professional runner in the world that runs on their heels. It doesn’t happen, because they can’t get that good. Choosing to heel strike is like choosing to be exhausted much faster, to not be able to go as fast and to have far less endurance. Also, the likelihood of you developing plantar fasciitis, shin splints, knee pain, hamstring strains, lower back pain, or hip problems escalates drastically when you heel strike because of all the constant impact on your whole body.
You’re also using gravity when you’re when you’re running properly, right?
Yes! That’s why when I teach people to run, I also teach them how to fall. We talk about how to catch yourself, in case you do fall. No one that I’ve ever worked with has ever fallen, but getting over that fear of falling allows you to embrace the feeling more readily. You’re just falling forward. If you think about the satellites that orbit Earth, they don’t actually fly. They perpetually fall at the exact same pace that the earth is moving away from them. Running is the same, in a way.
You’re just perpetually falling and you barely catch yourself with your legs, using the ball your foot and your ankle to compress and distribute the impact energy. You’re letting gravity pull you forward instead of propelling yourself by jumping forward, which is the mechanics of heel striking. It’s so much less energy efficient to run that way. You can heel strike if you want, but you’re gonna have a much greater likelihood of developing problems. Or you can find a good quality coach. It’s becoming much more common to find coaches who teach this stuff now. Spend a day with them. If it’s a good quality coach, that day will help you to start to build correct habits. Practice those for a month and you’ll start to habitually run correctly.