The Author

Steve Gonser DPT

Steve Gonser graduated with his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Daemen College, instantly applying his knowledge of human movement and functional anatomy to his passion for running. Steve is a 2x Ironman, including a 10:41 finish in Lake Placid and a Sub-3 hour marathoner.

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Why Do I Toe Out When I Run?

One of the most common run flaws amongst sub-elite runners is the tendency to toe out when they run. It’s often accompanied with other activities, too (standing and walking). For most, toed out gait is completely subconscious. Your friends may joke about your duck feet, but can you help it? The answer lies in the much hated answer: it depends. The result of toeing can be a required anatomical compensation, one acquired through adaptive compensation, or one of simply sloppy movement. Duckers can do it unilaterally, on one side, or bilaterally, both sides.

A toed out gait isn’t ideal. Although it might be required for some (due to their anatomical hip position), a large percentage of the duck foot population, who will be termed duckers for the remainder of this article, can fix their sloppy movement and even reduce their risk for injury while improving their speed.

Injury from Being a Ducker

Our body is designed around simple structural support system that works to distribute force around joints and not through them. Sure, our body spins around ours joints, mainly to absorb shock, but duckers compromise their structural support. A toed out gait allows your foot to drive through your midfoot and not over the ankle. Ultimately, the result is excessive pronation and increased strain to the foot and knee. Duckers will be more susceptible to medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS or shin splint), plantar fasciitis, or medial knee pain, as these areas receive increased tensile force through the front half of gait.

Running Slower as a Ducker

Adding insult to injury (sometimes literally), duckers will likely set themselves up for a loss of power at push off. Toeing out at the point of impact will drive you into excessive pronation, which, depending on strength, will affect your ability to find the ‘sweet spot’ at push off. Ideally, you’re foot re-supinates in preparation for push off. Supination is synonymous to rigidity. A rigid lever at push off allows the muscular force to transmit through the foot and into the ground. If you can’t achieve supination at push off your force will leak through movement at your rear, mid, and forefoot. Think of pushing off in loose sand. At a time when you’re looking for stability to drive into the ground, movement and slipage in the sand will minimize the amount of force transmitted into the ground–same idea.

The entire system becomes rigid at push off (or should). The hip extends into a closed pack, locked position. The ligaments of your hip turn your hip into a rigid lever and allow it transmit forced down the chain. The knee straightens and locks into extension. Again, transmitting force down the chain. A toed out gait? Holy energy leakage. A fair amount of force will be lost through a flexible foot.

How to Fix Being a Ducker

Hip Retroversion

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As previously stated, some runners become duckers with running, walking, and standing due to anatomical compensation. Some runners are born with retroverted hips. Simply put, either the femur (thigh bone) or acetabula (pelvis) are rotated backwards. This rotation causes malalignment at the pelvis. To maximize surface area at the hip joint a ducker will outwardly rotate their hip and in turn, the entire leg. The outward rotation of the leg, and thus the toed out gait, occurs for an anatomical reason. For these runners it’s about supporting the foot and maximizing strength. Simply turning the foot inwards is not advised.

Tibial Torsion (Rotation)

This next problem arises from either tightness or fetal development. The tibia, or shin bone, can excessively rotate inward or, in the case, outward and pull the foot with it. Dertermining if tibia torsion (rotation) is the cause of your toeing out should be conducted by a physical therapist or orthopedic doc. A PT can determine if your shin is simply overly rotated or if the bone is actually twisted. One of which (twisting of the bone) cannot be corrected through exercise. To test for tibia torsion: Sit tall at the edge of your bed, feet dangling. Without allowing your hips to roll outward, relax your lower leg. The midline of your foot should face straight ahead or with a slight outward rotation. Below we see individual with right tibial torsion.
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Hip Tightness

Our bodies always follow the path of least resistance and open the door for compensation. As our hips extend, the supporting ligaments draw taut and our hip flexor elongates. Doing so stabilizes the femoral head in your hip socket and loads the hip flexor respectively. Unfortunately, if our ligaments and hip flexors are on a short leash they will become taut early and attempt to release tension. How does you hip achieve this? Through external or outward rotation. The foot will most notably toe out at push off, through swing phase, and maintain outward rotation into initial contact. The same concept can be said for your external rotators. Tightness in the back of the hip can cause the thigh bone (and entire leg) to toe out as you swing through to initial contact.

Sloppy Movement

You would think your body would provide proper movement for an activity, but it doesn’t. Our body is concerned about task completion–not efficiency. You need to train efficiency. We see this all the time as patients adopt compensations for getting in and out of chairs, using their momentum or arms to get up while plopping from gravity on the descent. New runners or those who lack overall strength are more likely to deviate from ‘ideal’ foot placement for varying reasons. The sloppy movement usually results in flailing limbs and toeing out at impact. Improving overall strength, particularly between the rib cage and the hips, and focusing on proper foot placement will rewire the nervous system for proper foot placement.

It’s important to determine if you’re a ducker from both a speed and injury standpoint. A physical therapist can quickly determine if your hips are retroverted and if not, how to fix associated tightness or muscle weakness that’s making you a ducker. This is usually more than just simply turning your foot to face straight ahead. Always learn the why before blindly changing your movement… your movement is usually dictated by the tools in the toolbox!

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The Dynamic Warm Up: Increase Neural Activation

Ok, you’ve heard “don’t stretch before a run” for multiple reasons, but if you’re not supposed to stretch, what should you do? The answer lies in exciting the nervous system. Unless you’re a weirdo and hop out of bed into a trance, you’ll likely fall into a larger group of individuals who wake up groggy and borderline incoherent. Personally, I make it a point to ask my wife what day it is before deciding if I can smash my hand into my phone to snooze for three minutes. Running early? Forget about it. Any pace feels labored. It can take a few hours for my nervous system to fire on all cylinders. If you have trouble waking up for early runs you know exactly what I’m talking about. A 7am start at the Pittsburgh Marathon in 2013 left me struggling until mile 7 when I finally settled in and felt comfortable. The same can be said for runners who take the first mile to ease into their run–time to warm up. Static stretching is the equivalent of flipping the ‘groggy’ switch. It’s believed to decrease your neural activity into the muscle and put it to sleep.

It’s pointless to discuss to the muscular system without pairing it with your nervous system. You should always refer to it together: your neuromuscular system. Feeling soft or sluggish for early runs is likely due to a nervous system that is not fully awake. So back to the question: “If we shouldn’t stretch before we run, what should we do?” — The answer lies in waking your nervous system.

The truth behind stretching

I’m not going to beat the dead horse here. Static stretching has been proven throughout multiple research studies to decrease strength and power production with a detrimental effect on muscle performance during both explosive and endurance activities. Static stretching is what you typically think of when you hear about slow, held stretches lasting 10 to 30 seconds. There’s no doubt that static stretching can improve tissue length, but do we really want to shut muscles off prior to an event? Heck, no. Multiple researchers have cited decreased neural activation as a cause for residual weakness following static stretching. Your goal shouldn’t be to make your muscles groggy before competition. You’ll want to blow the war horn and call everyone to battle. You’ll be looking to rev the engine per say as you’re waiting for the gun fire.

Calling the Alarm

Think of a warm up as wakening your nervous system, calling on your ‘flight or fight’ response. The stimulation of your nervous system will wake you up and prepare your body for competition. Blood flow will increase and you’ll become hyperalert. In theory, a warm up program that enhances neural activity will prepare your body for the forces associated with running. It may be theoretical, but Olsen et al found that athletes performing a dynamic warm up were significantly less likely to suffer knee and ankle injuries (1). Unlike a static stretching program, a dynamic warm up doesn’t compromise strength but is believed to increase readiness for activity through neural activation and body awareness.

A warm up is just that: warming up. I suggest spending as little as a few minutes working through some dynamic lunging and balance activities. Master runners know this better than anyone else. They’ll often spend the better part of a mile ‘waking up’ and settling in before hitting the accelerator. Be on the look out for our upcoming videos on a customized warm up routine when we launch our online store in the next few months!

1. Odd-Egil Olsen, Grethe Myklebust, Lars Engebretsen, Ingar Holme, Roald Bahr. BMJ. 2005 February 26; 330(7489): 449.

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3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Use the Butt Kick Drill

Let me get right to the point. Butt kicks drills for runners are pointless. The drill has been utilized by most runners at one time or another. Whether you learned from a coach, magazine, or fellow runner, most runners have warmed up to their heels smacking their backside.

Butt kicks are meant to improve heel rise during the swing phase of gait; however, the action of actually pulling your heels up has very little contribution to the overall gait cycle and running faster. Most people are aware that their hamstrings bend their knee but fail to recognize a secondary action: hip extension. The action of hip extension is far more important while running. When we emphasize heel rise alone on the back side of our stride we forego a major opportunity to run faster. Here are a few reasons why you need to substitute this drill:

Reason #1 – Creating a Rest Cycle

The hamstrings consist of three separate muscles. This powerful set of muscles generates a large amount of force while the foot is on the ground. Since the hamstrings work so hard for you while you interact with the ground, wouldn’t it be nice if the muscle had a rest cycle during swing? Emphasizing a butt kick negates any rest for your hammies. The muscles will not only be used to advance you down the road, but you’ll be asking them to work overtime to lift your heel during swing, literally asking them to fire 360 degrees of the run cycle.

Reason 2: – More Hands Make Lighter Work

Muscles that fire together generate more force. Think of standing at the free throw line and taking a few shots. Imagine keeping your entire body rigid and getting the ball to the basket with a flick of the wrist. It’s likely the ball will fall short, well at least shorter than it would if you would have bent your knees and engaged the shoulder. The action of using your legs, elbow, shoulder, core, etc. during the free throw allows you to push the ball further. More hands make for lighter work. When you (used to) perform butt kicks you’re asking only your hamstrings to contribute to heel rise. By incorporating the drill at the end of this article you’ll get your hamstrings and your hips to contribute. Again, more hands make for lighter work.

Reason 3: – No contribution to forward movement

Butt kicks might help you lift your heel higher, but a higher heel doesn’t necessarily equate to faster running. Substituting your butt kick drill will help form better habits–habits that will unlock some new found speed. The engineering and design of how we move and function is amazing. Our movement patterns can be leveraged for stronger muscle contractions. Pulling your heel to your butt has zero influence on forward movement; however, a properly executed knee drive can not only accomplish the goal of a butt kick (higher heel), but also provide a strong push on the opposite side, instantly improving your running speed.

Take a look at this video:

Substitute Butt Kicks with these…

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How to Improve Run Form: Part 5 – Marathon Shuffle

Running was once thought to be a sport that involved putting one foot in front of the other. “You run the way you run” touted articles and experts, implying that changes would likely decrease efficiency and yield slower times. Luckily, the close-mindedness of said individuals is evolving. Imagine if golfers bought into this stubbornness. “I swing the club the club the most efficient way for my body.” For any of us who picked up a club we can admit that our swing is far from perfect. It takes fine tuning, practice, and usually the helpful eye of someone who understands the sport. The same is said for a swim stroke. Triathletes can attest to how much drill work they do (or should be doing), yet when the lace up the shoes it’s just more miles, more speed work, more of everything.

The marathon shuffle is a relatable term for most runners. Low swinging heels, scuffing of shoes, and race photos that project an “am I walking?” internal dialogue paint the picture of the run form of the majority. Unfortunately, what most runners relate to the end stages of a marathon are likely occurring from the first step. Runners continually bias themselves to firing their quads (front of the thighs), completely negating contribution for their hips.

Run with Your Hips

A brief look into the anatomy and muscle function reveals some helpful insight. Although our quads and calfs are strong, powerful pushers, they also produce a lot of vertical motion. I don’t know about you, but when I run I’d like to minimize my up and maximize my forward. Our glutes are linear muscles. When firing during running they create little vertical force. Think of a skateboarder screaming down the street. With one leg cemented to board the other will catch and pull on the ground. He or she will produce very little force from their quad or calf, while they maximize their posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes). They can’t produce upward force, right? Otherwise they would be lifting themselves up and off their skateboard. As runners we should be looking to do the same thing, looking to break out of our quad dominant marathon shuffle.

Breaking Out of the Shuffle

Breaking out of your marathon shuffle is actually easier than you think. Unfortunately, most runners fall back on an old drill to do so: butt kicks. Butt kicks are a hamstrings dominant drill that coaches and athletes have practiced since before I was born. The movement produces little to ZERO forward movement. Sure, it limits your scuffing on swing phase, but if it’s not helping us run faster is it really worth it? (Tell yourself no) Our hamstrings are a strong, dominant hip extensor to boot. When your foot is on the ground they help extend the hip, advancing your body over your foot. Asking them to fire to lift your heel during swing is ridiculous. Ideally we would like to allow for them to rest at some point rather than activating them throughout the run cycle.

Your hip flexors play a supporting role during running. Typically our hip flexors, comprised of your iliopsoas muscle, assist in hip stabilization while our foot is on the ground and act as a mover during swing phase. Unfortunately, marathon shufflers minimize contribution during swing, actually allowing one of your quad muscles to swing your leg though. You got that right. Your big, bulky quad muscle that is a prime mover and force generator for movement is also working during swing phase. Think of the gait cycle as a toggle switch. Ideally, we would toggle between two phases of the gait cycle, each phase firing specific muscles. Phase one consists of when your foot is on the ground and is associated with group of muscles ‘A’ firing. Phase two, when your foot is off the ground, consists of muscle groups ‘B’ firing. Marathon shuffling and butt kicks create an overlap between the muscles groups that fire in each phase (quad and hamstrings respectively). It yields zero ‘off cycles’ and zero rest for the muscle group.

The Fix

Work on translating your knee forward after push off. Doing so will fix a few things:

1. The Marathon Shuffle:

Through an efficient knee drive your knee will fold on itself during swing, minimizing the need to pull from phase I muscles (your hamstrings) or to perform a butt kick. As the foot swings through more efficiently it will decrease the lever arm of the leg, making it easier to pull through.

2. Decreased Step Length:

Driving your knee forward will increase your distance traveled per step (step length) without sacrificing excessive upward movement. As the knee swings through you’ll notice a ‘float’ or ‘bounding’ sensation. Increased time off the ground (without increased vertical force) means more ground covered per step.

3. Glute Power at Push Off

Remember the earlier example of the skateboarder? Our glutes are capable of tremendous horizontal power. Through the use of an effective knee drive you can tap into your crossed extension reflex, a hard wired reflex from birth. As you fire your flexors on one side, you’ll get activation of extensors on the other side—very similar to stepping on something sharp that creates an upward pull on the stepping foot and downward push on the opposite side. (Neat, huh?).

RunSmart Online Members, Try These…



Keys to fixing properly:

The primary issue with fixing your knee drive is the tendency to drive up and not forward. Focusing on a horizontal or translational movement from your knee will prevent you from launching upwards. Remember to push your knee forward, do not drive it upwards. The fix will likely take some conscious effort and even be frustrating early on. As you learn the new movement you’ll find it more sustainable. Some athletes feel it’s “harder”. That’s ok. Think of it as rewiring your central nervous system or correcting a bad habit.

Don’t give up on this. It offers a big bang for your buck when you’re trying to run faster. As you fatigue you’ll look to fall on old habits. Keep a mental run form checklist that you can address during races or training runs. Good luck!

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Applied Movement Principles of Midfoot Running

Although the research and rehab community continues to grow our understanding of movement, some principles have stood the test of time. The relationships between muscle strength and joint position has been tried and tested. The same can be said with generating force from countermovement. Luckily, you don’t need to know all the specifics… you just need to know us.

Although the following principles haven’t been tested for running specifically, I refuse hesitation for their application to run form and performance. Various articles tout the benefits of midfoot over heel strike running. Sure, some poorly designed, six subject research articles have challenged a strong foundation, but the evidence continues to support a soft, midfoot strike.

To what I’m aware these two principles have yet to be analyzed or researched as a means to support the use of a mid foot strike. The principles are real, tested, and proven. They define how muscles function and I’m simply applying the theories to the running movement.

The Length-Tension Relationship

At a tissue level our muscles are constructed of filaments known as actin and myosin. These filaments are what generate force and power as they ratchet on each other. The muscle can contract to shorten or lengthen, much like raising and lowering a bucket in a well. You’re likely waiting for me to link this back to running. Wait for it. First, you need to know that as your bones flex and extend your ability to generate force charts a bell curve. This isn’t earth shattering research; we’ve known this for a long time. Research conducted by Haffajee, Moritz, and Svantes1 in 1972 found that the position of your knee directly affects how much force the knee extensors can generate. This article, along with some preceding research, laid the framework and ideology of the muscle length-tension relationship. Muscles that are too short or too long cannot generate force, while midrange is where the magic happens. Now, there are anatomical reasons for this, but far beyond the reach of this article. If you’re knee extensors (quadriceps) cannot generate force it’s safe to say they cannot store it either. Again, the previous statement is only applied, not proven (from what I can find).

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Two Graphs Illustarating The Length Tension Relationship1

Countermovement Force Generation

Although the research community is not settled on a ‘why’, we do know that our body can generate more force with countermovement. An everyday example is observed when you jump. The countermovement of lowering oneself prior to jumping stores energy within the muscle. A 1996 study conducted by Bobbert, Gerretsin, Litjens, et. al. found over 60% higher force production in study subjects when they utilized a countermovement prior to jumping. The loading movement resulted in an average of height 3.2cm higher jump than those in a comparison group.2 We can apply countermovement with every stride taken. As our body interacts from initial contact through midstance our center of mass lowers, storing force for push off. [see video below].

Why Do I Care?

Well, first your body is amazing–that’s why! Understanding how we function can help us better understand movement and sport. Leveraging research creates a faster, stronger, and less injury prone athlete. Haffajee, Moritz, and Svantes1 found that our knee is weakest at or near full extension. An extended knee negates the lever arm created from the patella. That, paired with a short quadriceps muscle, is a double whammy (my words, not theirs). Both factors effectively render your quad muscles useless. Wouldn’t you like your quadriceps absorbing force at landing and not your bones? I sure would. Second, we can observe countermovement in every stride taken. Whether you heel strike or mid foot strike, you’re going to utilize countermovement. The difference? A midfoot strike allows you to load sooner with less braking. You’ll take the force of push off and toss it into your next step and instantly counterload at contact. Think of it as carrying your momentum from stride to stride. Overstriding, which most runners do, creates a braking force that will negate any initial countermovement. As gravity sends you back to earth you’ll be looking to store that force (through countermovement) directly into your elastic tissues (ie. tendons and muscles) not your unforgiving bones. A midfoot strike offers this.

Landing midfoot has been long touted the ‘ideal’ way to run. Talks of minimizing braking forces and improved shock absorption have been beaten to death, revived, and beaten again. Some of you know you need to improve but are likely stubborn. Confiding within yourself, “This is the way I run and it’s ok” is selfish to not only your body, but your times. In a sport where injury run rampant (pun intended) and athletes spend countless seasons running the same splits and with the same injuries, learning and committing to a midfoot (not forefoot) landing can pay dividends. You may actually run faster without having to run more.

Commit to running faster and with less injury by learning a midfoot (not forefoot) strike. Our online members should master the following drills:

1. Haffajee D, Moritz U, Svantes G, Isometric Knee Extension Strength as a Function of Joint Angle, Muscle Length, and Motor Unit Activity. Acta orthop. Scandinav. 43,138-147,1972.

2. Bobbert MF, Gerritsen KG, Litjens MC, Van Soest AJ. Why is countermovement jump height greater than squat jump height? Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 Nov;28(11):1402-12.

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How Should My Foot Land When Running

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times. “You shouldn’t land on your heel when running.” How should you land when running? Well, of course, not on your heel, but making the transition might be harder than you think.

You’ve taken millions upon millions of steps one way. It’s a habitually hardwired activity. We’ve all had runs where we shut our brain off, literally running on autopilot. Rewiring circuits and altering your autopilot takes persistent effort.

Thinking to yourself, “well if I’m not supposed to hit my heel, I’ll just land on my forefoot” is a dangerous thought–shelf it. Too often runners over compensate, landing too far forward on their foot. Not only will an exaggerated forefoot strike place potentially damaging stress to the Achilles, it can also hamper any gains in efficiency.

What not to do

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You need to avoid over extending your leg and landing with your toes pointing downwards. Most runners find it difficult to find their midfoot, generally overshooting and landing on the ball of their foot. Landing too far forward will cause excessive bounce in your running, over utilizing the recoil in the calf at push off. You want to move forward, not upwards, right?

What it should look like

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Without formal coaching, it may be difficult to achieve success in landing midfoot. You’ll need to have fairly good body awareness. The key is to land with a bent knee and your foot parallel to the ground. The foot should neither point down, nor up, but parallel. As your shin pendulums on swing it will slow and come to meet the ground, avoiding over extension or the infamous ‘Air Jordan’ pose from Nike.

Where most runners go wrong

From experience, I can tell you that most of you run too tall. Remember this: a bent joint (knee, hip, elbow, whatever) is one that can generate force. A tall runner generally straightens their joints, significantly dampening their ability to generate force. Keep your joints bent and relaxed.

Focus on running relaxed. The new form shouldn’t feel forced. Most runners become rigid in their lower and upper body, limiting the ‘natural’ feel it offers. Plan on transitioning over a few weeks, adding a few minutes per mile to the new way. Landing with a perfect mid foot strike introduce new stresses to your body. Too fast of a transition can cause soreness or injury.

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Trail Running – Preventing Ankle Sprains

Trail running can be rough and the falls worse. A typical trail run can not only leave you exhausted and muddy, but could also win you a swollen, painful ankle. Fatigue is an open invitation for more falling. Once turns into twice and twice into countless trips, near misses, and straight up nose dives. Small, camoflauged, roots grow hands and grab your toe leaving you lying on your back gazing at the sky.

Don’t be embarrassed to fall. Any experienced trail runner knows that kissing the dirt happens.
The negatives outweigh the positives here. Sure a fall has inherient risks, but navigating the woods comes with benefit. In the concrete jungle every foot strike is predicatble. In the real jungle (ok, the woods) every foot placement is varied. Your foot is forced to adapt and stabilize. A root here, a rock there–everything the trail has to offer can help you run stronger and more balanced. With varied foot strikes comes activation of neglected muscles. Then there’s the obvious benefits of running on a softer surface, too.

Any experienced trail runner knows that kissing the dirt happens.

Still, you might be hesitant. Afterall, no one likes falling down–especially infront of a group. There’s the safe choice of taking it slow to prevent falling, but with that comes getting dropped off the back, fending for yourself in the woods. It might suprise you to hear that some runners are more likely to fall than others. Although improving foot strength and gaining trail experience will build you confidence, it may not be enough. Captain Obvious will say, “you need to pick up your feet,” but a rolled ankle rarely results from catching your toe box on that camouflaged root.

Quick rolling of the ankle often happens as a result of run form. It’s more than weak ankles (although that certainly matters), and more than clearing your toe during swing. Spraining an ankle in the woods is largely due to overstriding. Yep, I’m bringing that cursed word back from the 2012 dead! Just when you thought overstriding was beat to death, revived, and beat again.

Over Striding

Overstriding results in a contact point far in front of your center of mass (where your body weight falls). An outstretched leg neutralizes any chance for correction, your front foot is toast–left in no mans land. Rolling it has become the only option. The knee is straight (a.k.a. helpless) and your weight is so far behind your foot that all the foot can do is roll outwards. Your opposite leg (a.k.a. useless) just finished push off and can’t help. Afterall, it’s trailing behind your center of mass and needs to stretch way out front to get back to the ground.

A shorter, quicker, lighter stride is the way. Landing sooner equates to a more responsive ankle, knee, and hip. It allows corrections from above to save your ankle. The shorter stride also gives your trailing leg a chance to get to the ground sooner, off weighting the rolling ankle before it jumps off the deep end.

So the next time you’re barreling down a single track trail, estimating a safe foot placement between roots, holes, and sticks, remember to keep your feet light and your stride short. It gives you the best shot and not only staying on your feet, but also protecting your ankles.

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How to Properly Taper for a Race

Tapering for your next race, whether it’s a 5k, 10k, or marathon, is more than a reduction in training. In fact, research is beginning to shed light on the art of the taper. Usually runners fall into one of two categories. The first group, the “I made it—time to rest” group, is usually signaled by a complete shutdown and a feeling of heaviness on race day. This group puts up their feet up, likely running too little to maintain their given fitness. The second group of ‘taper-ers’ significantly reduces their training all awhile freaking out regarding their potential loss of fitness.

The goal of your taper is simple, rest to minimize accumulated fatigue from training while avoiding any effects of detraining. You’ve worked hard to get to race day and peaking for a single race can be achieved with a proper taper, and in some instances, become a shot in the arm for your fitness.

When should I start my taper?

Tapering for an event is specific to not only the race, but also the individual. It should be fairly apparent that a taper for an 800 should be fairly different than that of a marathon. In general, the longer the race the longer taper. A meta-analysis by Bosquet et al in 2007 concluded that a two week taper is ideal1; however, you can achieve an effective taper in 6 days for shorter races. Remember, the taper can be individualized. If you’re feeling sluggish and tired you may want to extend your taper period by a few days or even a week.

How often should I run during taper?

Remember, taper is not synonymous with vacation. Much of the research supports that your run frequency should remain fairly high. Research has yet to find a physiologic benefit for high frequency runs during taper week; however, I suspect it likely carries a psychological component of feeling “sluggish”. In my personal experience, too many runners hang up their shoes during the weeks leading up to an ‘A Race’. You want to avoid any detraining and loss of fitness. Over resting can actually have negative effects on your fitness.

How much should I run during taper?

A recent review of research by Mujika and Padilla in 2003 placed a range on mileage for your taper, citing a range from 60%-90% of total mileage to be beneficial2, while others state this range to be 41-60%1. This reduction in mileage can provide physiologic and psychological benefits leading up to race day.

How should I structure my taper?

There are a few ways to taper, but generally most runners will either execute a step taper or linear taper, neither of which may be your best option.
taper for race

Step Taper

The step taper is fairly common and associated with a significant drop in mileage that is then sustained to race day. If you’re running 60 miles a week a step taper would drop you to roughly 24 miles a week until race day (60% decrease in mileage).

Linear Taper

Simply put, you run less as race day approaches. A runner averaging 60 miles a week would gradually diminish their run distance every day, finalizing with a 30% reduction in run distance by the end of taper.

Although both tapers can help you recover and prevent detraining, a more specific approach to taper could be beneficial. Shepley et al found that a high intensity, low volume seven day taper can significantly improve time to exhaustion.3 This ‘quality run’ type of taper emphasizes speed at a lower volume and is termed an exponential taper.

Exponential Taper

This taper method is being researched to determine its influence on performance. Without getting too technical, a runner would drastically reduce mileage daily leading up to their A race, ending with a roughly 80% decline in mileage at the end of taper.

Executing a Taper

With emerging research, it appears that an exponential taper that drastically reduces mileage over two weeks provides the most benefit. The key here is quality, not quantity. From personal experience I have found this method to be extremely effective. Not only will you avoid feeling “dead” on race day, but you’ll also feel fast from a psychological standpoint. Try to work in short track or fartlek workouts at race pace. Don’t forget to provide ample recovery, too. As race day approaches, perform less intervals at the same pace. The result will be high quality with descending mileage and the ability to dial in to a given pace.

I’ve used this protocol with success in the past, but remember, this protocol needs to be individualized to you, your health, and ability to perform them without creating more fatigue. Be careful of running too hard!

Each interval is roughly 4-5 minutes with nearly the same amount of time to recover. Day 14-7 usually involves an overall reduction in 50-60% in mileage with a few short, high quality track workouts.

Day 6: 6 intervals at marathon pace
Day 5: 5 intervals at marathon pace
Day 4: 4 intervals at marathon pace
Day 3: 3 intervals at marathon pace
Day 2: Travel / Recovery
Day Before: 1 interval at marathon pace

1. BOSQUET, L., J. MONTPETIT, D. ARVISAIS, and I. MUJIKA. Effects of Tapering on Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 39, No. 8, pp. 1358–1365, 2007

2. MUJIKA, I., and S. PADILLA. Scientific Bases for Precompetition Tapering Strategies. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 35, No. 7, pp. 1182–1187, 2003.

3. SHEPLEY B., MACDOUGALL JD., CIPRIANO N. Physiological effects of tapering in highly trained athletes. J Appl Physiol., Vol. 72 No. 8, pp. 706-711, 1992.

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Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone

I’ve been racing long courses for years. In the past 4 years I’ve raced two 50 mile ultra’s, two Full Ironmans, and 2 full marathons. In reality, I’ve raced fewer than 2 5K’s. I’ve been training my body to go long and steady. My training consisted of mainly steady state base training, while ramping my speed 8 weeks prior to the gun going off. I’ve always limited my short course racing, as it rarely fit in my plan to run my best marathon.

My last race was the Pittsburgh Marathon (read the race report here) on May 5th. Since then, I haven’t “trained” but I haven’t turned into a slug either. My workouts have been unstructured and even untimed. On a last minute whim I decided to sign up for a local 8K. I’ve never found too much success in ‘shorter’ courses. I find that the ‘comfortable hard’ perception is much more tolerable than ‘exhaustible hard’ that’s associated with anything 10K and shorter. These races are definitely out of my comfort zone. My heart rate hasn’t been consistently over lactate threshold (LT) in almost a year (probably longer). Sure, I’ve done intervals on the track and even tempo runs, better never a sustained >LT workout.

I expected a few things going into the 8k.

1. I expected to finish roughly in 30 minutes
2. My heart rate would be above LT for the entire race
3. I would be outside my comfort zone

All three were true. I finished in 30:21, with an average heart rate of 174 (my LT is 168), and I was absolutely out of my comfort zone. You may have heard the saying, “You need to run fast to run fast.” I’ve always been a strong proponent of this theory, but clearly need to work on my implementation. I understand that my times may be fast for some runners, while being fairly easy for others, but I only compare me to me. Afterall, speed is relative.

It’s crazy how our body adapts to distances. I’ve run a few courses this year, all of which were rather hilly. As the start and finish line grew apart my times slowed, but not accordingly. For example, take a look at the following recent races:

Recent Races

1. Brian Moorman 8K – Average Pace 6:06
2. Y-10: 10 miler – Average Pace 6:17
3. Rochester Half Marathon: Average Pace 6:21
4. Around the Bay 30K – Average Pace 6:39
5. Pittsburgh Marathon – Average Pace 6:46

What’s even more disheartening was that I wasn’t truly racing #2-4, but rather treating them as training races. Clearly, there’s a disconnect between my ability to function aerobically and anaerobically. I was completely out of my comfort zone during the 8K (maybe the heat had a little to do with it). I tell runners all the time I’d rather train and race a marathon than run a 5K. There’s plenty of truth in that statement. I think I may be allergic to lactic acid? Maybe I’m just mentally weak when it comes down to the pain?

One thing is for sure, I could use some speed development. I hate to be one of those guys who run one pace across varying distances. I need to tap into my inner lactate and carbohydrate system. I need to spend some time out of my fat burning comfort zone. It will start this summer. I’m signed up NYC (again), and plan on changing my tactics for racing. For those of you who don’t know me, I have a inner passion for cycling and triathlon (minus the swim). I will be training for my next marathon as duathlete (I miss my bike!). The cycling will cut into my run mileage for sure, but will also aide in my quest to qualify for Ironman World Championships in Kona next year.

For those of you who find yourself in a similar situation, stuck in fat burning “same pace” across multiple distances mode, try working at or above your lactate threshold. Teach your body to thrive in uncomfortable situations. You’ll body will adapt, learning to clear lactic acid quicker, while fine tuning your anaerobic/aerobic systems. Remember, there’s a higher risk associate with running faster so be sure to give yourself some wiggle room and extra recovery time.

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Heart Rate Training for Runners

Heart rate training isn’t a running fad. It’s an objective, reproducible way to gauge training sessions and view improvements. Training with a heart rate monitor for running isn’t too complicated, either. You just need to know some basics to get started.

As it turns out, your running watch comes with a heart rate monitor for a reason. Who would have thought? Unfortunately, it’s a piece of technology that is highly overlooked and stuffed away in some old gym bag or at the back of a sock drawer. I’m talking about your heart rate monitor (HRM). Continue reading

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