This is an excerpt from Marathon Roadmap, the Vegetarian Guide to Conquering Your First 26.2. Click here to learn more!
How to Run Like a Barefooter in Normal ShoesIt’s not that I think barefooting is bad. Far from it, I think running barefoot (or at least in minimalist shoes), is a good thing for most runners to work into their training.
But for you, the anxious, soon-to-be first-time marathoner, running barefoot or in shoes like Vibram Five Fingers introduces more risk than it’s worth. When you’ve been running the same way for 20 or 30 or 60 years, your bones and muscles are used to it.
To abruptly change that at the same time you’re ramping up your mileage is just asking for a stress fracture or other lower-leg injury. So unless you’ve already been running barefoot or in minimalist shoes for some time, I don’t recommend it while you’re trying to train for your first marathon.
But here’s the kicker: You can still run like a barefooter without running barefoot or with Vibrams, and without the risks. True, the hardcore barefooters won’t let you into their club (not that they would if you were wearing FiveFingers, either). But the effect on your form is similar.
How? Mainly, by taking smaller, quicker steps that help you land with your feet right beneath your body and make a midfoot strike more natural. And that’s what I’m going to show how to do next.
A Simple Technique for Injury-Proofing Your Stride
As I’ve written before, I dealt with injuries ALL the time when I was a new runner. From the time I trained for my first marathon to the time I ran my next, I suffered through four years of starts and stops due to injury. Mostly tibial stress fractures, but knee problems as well.
In my frustration, I tried all kinds of ways to prevent injuries. Icing, running on softer surfaces, abstaining from speedwork, taking walk breaks, taking anti-inflammatories, changing my shoes, stretching religiously before and after every workout, walking around on my heels, even shaving my lower legs so I could tape them (really). The list goes on. Some of it seemed to help a little, but none of it solved my problem.
Until I discovered the answer. I read a piece by running coach Jack Daniels, where he wrote that most of the world’s best marathoners have a leg turnover rate of about 180 steps per minute.
What this does, as I discovered upon trying it, is force you to take shorter, lighter steps. Although there are more impacts, they’re significantly smaller than they are with a normal stride. In addition, to step this quickly requires that your feet land directly underneath your body, which is exactly what you want, as opposed to landing on your heel with your foot way out in front of you, effectively slamming on the brakes with every step.
How to Increase Your Turnover Rate
Next time you’re running, do a quick test to figure out your own turnover rate: In a safe spot where you won’t fall or get hit by a car (ideally on a treadmill), record how many times your feet land on the ground in 15 seconds. Multiply this number by 4, and you’ve got your leg turnover per minute. (Note: You want to count impacts from both of your feet, not just one. If you prefer to count the number of impacts by just one foot, then double the figure you get after multiplying by 4.)
Well, what’d you come up with? If you’ve never consciously thought about this, then chances are you’re way under 180. That’s ok – so was I, and with a little practice, 180 steps per minute can become second nature. And you won’t believe what it can do for your running and resistance to injury.
Here’s how to get yourself running at 180 steps per minute:
- Get on a treadmill.
- Set it to a brisk but comfortable speed (running really slow is actually harder than fast with this).
- Start running and line your steps up so that each time a second ticks, your third step impacts the ground.
For example, if your right foot lands when the clock shows one second (0:01), then it’ll be “left” then “right” before your left foot lands exactly when the clock hits 0:02. Then “right,” then “left” before your right foot hits on 0:03. And so on.
This is a lot easier than it sounds. Once you get into the rhythm, you’ll find that it’s pretty easy to keep it going (it just feels like you’re a cartoon character and your legs are spinning like wheels, and you’re wondering what other people must think).
Now, you’ve got to condition it
All you need to do is keep running with this faster turnover rate until it feels natural, which I promise it eventually will.
If you normally run on a treadmill, this is no problem. You can stare at that clock for 15 or 20 minutes and just lock in every third step with each second on the clock, and you’ll be used to it in no time at all. (Okay, maybe not “no time,” but soon. Give it a few runs.)
If you don’t normally run on a treadmill, you have a problem – staring at your watch is a great way to get hit by a car or trip over your own feet.
What I recommend in this case is finding a song you can listen to that has a beat that matches up with your ideal 180 step-per-minute turnover. The one I listened to literally hundreds of times, and still go back to every now and then to recondition my turnover rate, is an instrumental rock song called Cliffs of Dover, by Eric Johnson. (I think it’s about 178 BPM. Close enough.) It’s a good song too, but listen to it on iTunes to make sure you don’t hate it — and make sure you give it a minute to get started. Keep in mind that even running with music in your ears can be dangerous on some roads or trails, so use your judgement here.
Plenty of other songs will work; that just happens to be the one I used. Even slower songs will work, as long as you can take 2 or 3 steps in between each beat to get to around 180 per minute.
Some good mental images
The clock-and-music stuff works well for me, but not everyone always runs with either of these two things. In that case, you can use the mental images of running on glass or eggshells, which causes you to take lighter, shorter, quicker steps. Another good one is to think of lifting your feet off the ground just enough for the earth to move underneath you. This will force you to take shorter steps, and the only way to keep up your running speed is to take more of them.
Once you’ve conditioned this so that you don’t even have to think about it, you’ll notice that running gets easier. You might lose a little speed while your body is adjusting to the new form, but after a while, you’ll be able to run faster and farther than when you were taking big, lumbering steps and landing on your heel. And you might just notice that your injury problems melt away.
Worried that I’m giving most of the the Marathon Roadmap away? Not to worry, it’s well over 100 pages long and includes four hours of interviews with incredible vegetarian and vegan athletes. Click here to download your copy now!