StrideFu: A running primer for new, injured and overweight runners

shamrock2I often get asked about how to get started running from people for whom the activity seems out of reach for a number of reasons. Sometimes they feel they are too heavy, most often they complain of hurt knees from a youth spent frolicking without a care. Sometimes people will ask me to help them out because they just simply don’t know where to start. How far, how fast, what shoes?

To begin with, if you’re already a runner, you’ll probably not get a ton of useful info here. Running is often an experiment of one, and if you’re already settled into it, you’re pretty set. I’m not going to share performance improving secrets here because, honestly, I’ve only been running a few years myself. I’ve learned a lot, but probably not enough to help someone boost their PR (unless they don’t have a PR yet, that is. A “PR” is a “Personal Record”, by the way. A best time for a distance.)

So let’s start off with the basics. If you’re thinking about starting up an exercise regimen and aren’t currently active, seriously go talk to a doctor first. Believe me, they’ll be THRILLED. You don’t have to tell them you’re going to be running. Some doctors still think running is bad for you. But, you definitely need to make sure you’re not gonna keel over out there. Be safe.

OK, so how does one run? The best quote I’ve ever heard in reference to that is “Running is simple, but not easy.”

Um, what? Essentially, we all know the basics of running. Nearly all of us ran around like mad as children. To run well requires a balancing of forces, a mindfulness and focus. It is very much like a martial arts kata. You can perform it 1000 times and improve on the 1001th repetition.

We’ll begin with the movement. And again, I’m going to be talking about running to minimize impact and allow folks with bad knees (like me) to run. One of the biggest mistakes I see, and probably one of the most damaging, is “the bounce”. When most inexperienced runners go out for even a slow run, they bound from foot to foot, their heads tracing a parabolic arc through the air. Their arms swing across their bodies, and generally their movements are very “noisy”.

Consider that any movement you engage in takes energy. So right off the bat we’re burning more fuel than we need to. More importantly, the up and down is murder on your knees. Anytime you run you will definitely put some shock through your system. Physics is harsh that way. But you can and should minimize that. How?

First off, take small steps. Imagine you are pedaling a tiny bicycle. Keep the cadence up for speed but resist the urge to cover huge swaths of ground with each step. While striding, move forward by driving the lead knee, instead of pushing off with the back foot (it’ll happen anyway, but don’t force it). Keep your arms tucked in tight, pumping like a boxing trex and never crossing the midline of your body. Head stays up, body stays very vertical. Don’t crouch or squat. Imagine there’s a string pulling the top of your head to the sky and keep steady tension on it.

Simple right? Well, yeah and nah. Believe me, what might seem easy for 10 steps becomes something tough to focus on after 10 miles. But don’t worry about that. One step at a time.

As far as what to wear, I highly recommend starting off with a very minimalist shoe with low drop, especially for someone with “bad knees”. If you’re pretty overweight however, having shoes with support will help keep things in line. As you lose the weight (and you will if you keep at it, running IS that one weird trick) you can slowly transition to a minimalist shoe.

And slow transition is important no matter what. Most people in the U.S. are used to having their feet coddled and supported, with their heels raised high in the air. Going to a more natural stride is good, but you gotta rebuild those support muscles, or you’re going to be very unhappy. Keep in mind too that a small percentage of the population actually has mal-formed feet and requires support. That percentage is small, but these people do exist. If you’re one of them, definitely wear your supports. However, keep in mind that often the people suggesting the supports are the people selling them to you. Do your research.

This is where I am sure someone will ask “why a minimalist shoe?”. After all, people have run forever with big mushy heels! Right?

Erm, no. The big wedge shoe was invented in the 70s. Prior to that, people ran in flats. Or sandals. Or mocs or nothing. But the reason I’m going to give here has nothing to do with any of that. There’s two big reasons for starting off without a lot underfoot:

1) You NEED to transition slow to use a minimalist shoe. You also need to start off slow on a running regimen. You will build muscles and cardio capabilities in parallel. The two concepts definitely help each other out.

2) Not having a lot underfoot makes it much harder to pound the pavement & dirt. The foot is sensitive. No, seriously. It really is. And it is that way for a reason. By putting a bunch of protection underneath, you leave yourself able to stomp much harder, increasing the shock you drive through your joints. And no, that “padding” won’t “absorb shock”. Sorry, the math doesn’t add up. You’re better off running gently, easily & smoothly.

Now, does that mean minimalist shoes forever? Nah. I run in all kinds of shoes. Once you get the form down, you can run in a pair of sandals, or HOKA ONE ONE max cushion shoes, or a pair of Skechers GoMebs or you can keep going in your minimalist kicks. It really all comes down to first getting form, then picking what feels best for your particular activity. I try and run in a different pair of shoes each time I go out.

There’s a lot more to learn, but that should get you started. If you have more questions, feel free to tweet at me over at @thefatpanther GET OUT THERE!


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