Running myths busted

  • Published
  • By Guy Leahy
  • Health Promotions Program Coordinator

Running is a very popular aerobic activity, and for Airmen, it’s a critical component of the physical training test.

Because of this, it’s important to separate science from non-science regarding run training.

The Internet in general is a great resource for information. There is, however, a tendency to think if it’s on the Net, it must be true, but there are numerous mythologies on the Net regarding running.

To start with, many self-proclaimed “experts” state that striking the ground with your heel is inefficient and may lead to injury. There is no convincing scientific evidence to support this.

In fact, a recent review of footstrike patterns concluded that no foot-strike pattern — heel strike, mid-foot strike or forefoot strike — was better than any other. The conclusion is consistent with previous research.

That being said, how bones, muscles and tendons are loaded differs among foot-strike patterns. A heel-strike pattern tends to load the hip and knee joints to a greater degree, whereas the mid- and forefoot strike patterns produce greater loading of the ankle, calf and foot.

Changing foot strike does not cause forces to dissipate; it just causes forces to be redistributed.

There are instances when modifying foot strike might be beneficial. For example, if someone suffers from shin splints or compartment syndrome, a condition that causes pain from increased pressure in the front of the leg, shifting to a mid- or forefoot strike may provide relief.

A question that comes up often is whether there is “one best way to run.” There are online advocates of various running styles such as chi, pose and natural.

As with foot-strikes, scientific literature shows no good evidence that any of these running styles improves efficiency or reduces injury risk. If you attend a track meet of elite runners, you’ll observe that every one of them runs differently, yet they are all world-class athletes.

The evidence so far suggests most runners will, over time, adopt a form best for that one person. Most people do not need their running form “fixed,” and manipulating it may actually result in a running injury.

Running efficiency is in large part determined by factors we cannot change.

For example, runners with short heel bones are more economical than those with longer heel bones. Likewise, runners with a long Achilles tendon are more economical than runners with a short tendon.

Some training techniques have been shown to improve running performance; strength training, high-intensity interval training and plyometric training, which involves rapid stretching and contracting of muscles such as when jumping, are examples. Another myth is that “runners must run.” Most of the adaptations from running can be obtained from other cardio modes — cycling, swimming, elliptical machine use, etc.

The only unique aspect of running is the movement pattern, and one does not need high mileage to obtain this.

One fascinating study tested this idea directly. One group of subjects ran on a treadmill for 12 weeks, while the other group swam for 12 weeks.

The researchers carefully matched workload, frequency and intensity, so the only aspect that differed was the mode. Maximal aerobic fitness was tested on a treadmill before and after the study. At the study conclusion, both groups improved, but there was no difference in the amount of improvement between runners and swimmers, even when tested on a treadmill. The swimmers improved just as much.

I frequently recommend clients alternate running with a non-running mode such as cycling. For example, I may suggest running Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and cycling Tuesday and Thursday.

The adaptations resulting from either mode are very similar, and this provides recovery from the impact forces generated by running. This is particularly true for larger runners, as each foot strike produces a force two or three times body weight.

Where does one go for reliable information on the Net? Search for websites ending with “edu,” “org” or “gov.” Such websites are reliable. It is the “.com” extension one has to be careful about. Some are fine; some are misleading.

If you have questions about running or want to know if a particular website is reliable, contact me at