Gordon Pirie forefoot strike

I’ve read the excellent Gordon Pirie book though the first few chapters where he explains how to develop correct running technique. His explanations are really fascinating and clear. Yesterday I did two 15 minute runs applying his information – but still have some DOMS today in the calves although not crippling as they were previously. Particularly interesting was his explanation of how the foot strikes the ground. According to Pirie the foot should land on the outside of the forefoot – the foot progressively coming down on the rest of the forefoot and finally allowing the heel to contact the ground so as not to injure the calve. This of course is the opposite of conventional wisdom which says to strike the ground with the heel and let the toes contact the ground last rolling forwards on the foot from  heel to toe. Ultimately everything I’ve observed in good skill development from skiing to playing the violin involves “the opposite” of conventional wisdom. I put “opposite” in inverted comas because it is always opposite but with a subtle twist – so we don’t spot it easily.

This shoe is the new Merrell Trail Glove – I’m definitely getting a pair! Tried on size 41 and 42 in the shops yesterday but need the size between. This shoe accurately reflects Pirie’s stated requirements for a running shoe. It has a wide toe box so that the toes can splay out. It is very light (same as Vibram Fivefingers). It has the same thickness under the heel as under the toes – but more protection under the ball of the foot with “plate” to prevent sharp objects from hurting. The heel is low and doesn’t contact the Achilles tendon. It has a good range of tightening so it can hold the foot securely like a glove. The all round protection of the foot is good and substantial. It gives full “barefoot” sensory perception. It looks “normal” unlike the Fivefingers. I’d feel very comfortable running off-road with this whereas the Fivefingers don’t inspire confidence in rough terrain. I’m happy to view my Bikila LS Fivefingers as mainly a road running shoe – which is what it actually is anyway.
Yesterday when playing with the modified foot strike I had to access the trail by taking a steep flight of concrete steps up a hill. I noticed that both going up and down the steps – no matter what shoes I had on – the automatic reflex was to use the foot exactly as Pirie describes for running. You do not go either up or down steps landing on your heel – you land on the outside of your forefoot with the leg slightly flexed – even when descending. It was really fascinating to observe this – after a lifetime of using steps without ever noticing. This is a good sign that Pirie is correct – because it links up immediately to other things as all good science does.
I’m also working on squatting on the fronts of the feet – with heels on the ground. This gives a deep stretch of the calves and I can’t actually get into the full squat without support – so I’ll continue to do it every day after exercise. Pirie once again correctly insists on avoiding static stretches because they are associated with injury to runners – this information has been stated often recently but Pirie’s book was written 20 years ago!
Yesterday I also tried to use the arms as Pirie describes and it works too. Until now I’d just been carrying my arms and trying to relax them as we are normally told to do. Pirie makes it clear that this is a great error.
One exercise he gave really connected with me – it was to feel how a quick punch forward with the arm connects with a rotation of the pelvis backwards on the same side. The arm action should be snappy and forceful – not relaxed and limp. This works! It also made running feel a bit more like Nordic Walking where the upperbody is very active. Pirie also explains that the “stitch” comes from not using the arms actively and relying on the stomach muscles to balance the legs instead – and I often get a stitch when not in good running shape – so that makes a lot of sense.
Running barefoot with this awareness yesterday felt simply great. I really don’t want to run any other way now but may have to until  the calves have properly adapted – but at least barefoot running is now looking attainable thanks to an improved understanding of technique. It’s not just “attainable” but it’s the only way to run correctly!
Pirie made me laugh when I read in his book that if you want to beat anyone in any sport just get him back on his heels! In skiing I teach heel use so that people can have a strong ankle, avoid using the boot as a support to replace bone structure and muscle, learn to rock the foot from the subtaler joint and use the hip adductor muscles all in coordination. Pirie however is absolutely correct – you might learn good coordination for skiing this way but you won’t excel. Eventually the skier has to learn to get the pressure off the heels and onto the forefoot but while maintaining all of the same coordination and without ever allowing the ankle to collapse. There is no greater nonsense in ski instruction than “flex the ankles” but 100% certifiably stupid BASI trainers (UK) just love to tell people to do that. When you consider that most proprioception (awareness of the body in space) is controlled via pressure sensors in the feet and that 70% of those are in the forefoot – then yes – you want to get onto the forefoot for skiing as soon as you can. Killy’s statement about “the intelligence of the feet” being his key to success takes on a clearer perspective in the light of this information. In addition Killy cut away the backs of his ski boots so that he could extend the ankles better – and that is exactly what is often required to be on the balls of the feet. If standard running shoe design is a compete mess – which according to Pirie is the case (he was associated personally with the founder of Addidas) – specifically because of the raised and padded heels – then I think the same question should be asked about ski boots which are jacked up very high on the heels and ramped forwards even on the bindings. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this – but there is no alternative out there at all in skiing.
Despite the DOMS I decided to run a proper trail run barefoot today. The idea was to work on technique and try to use the pain to highlight any faults and more accurately correct them than otherwise. The plan worked out pretty well. First of all the Fivefingers were great on the trail. Forget about hurting your feet – you just don’t – but you do feel everything and that’s great. It really is like you have eyes in your feet when running “barefoot”. As long as you are being attentive to your running the feet seem to look after themselves – but the moment your attention wanders off you get paid back by having a sharp stone or something bring your attention rapidly back for you. That’s a great thing because we want to be mindful of the activity – not dreaming. I was amazed at running on a rough trail and in a heavy rain storm there was no discomfort or difficulty at all from having no padding beneath the feet. I read some time ago that by pressing shapes made from groups of fine points against the tongue the brain is able to see the corresponding images visually – not imagining but actually seeing – that is, seeing with the tongue. Considering that most of the body’s proprioception nerves are in the front of the feet then perhaps in a sense there are “eyes” in the feet and the “sixth” sense of proprioception makes it happen – it certainly feels a bit that way. I’ve worked for years personally to develop better use of my feet in skiing, developing foot flexibility and coordination, making and changing shapes continuously. I got rid of orthotic foot-beds years ago and stopped having foam injected inners that altogether leave you with about as much sensation and control as a pair of concrete wellies. Normal running shoes are without doubt equally destructive.
During the run I understood what Pirie meant about the feet needing to land one in front of the other – single file so to speak. He points out that this is made possible by using the arms correctly and if you don’t then the feet leave two tracks one beside the other. I could feel the connection with the “punch” forwards of the arm, the pelvis rotating backwards and everything lining up so that the feet placed one in front of the other. When this is working it’s then much easier to ensure landing on the outside extremity of the forefoot. If the feet are apart you don’t seem to get properly on the outside and the forefoot lands a lot “flatter” instead of on its edge.
After about 25 minutes the calves were hurting significantly so my concentration had to become more focussed on technique than ever. The Pose technique claims that there should be no push off and that pushing off at the end of a stride overloads the calves. I became aware of an unconscious push off and with a real effort to relax the muscles was able to gradually eliminate it and this eased up the pain considerably. In the Pose technique they talk about only lifting the foot up behind and avoiding a push off – using gravity only for propulsion – then posing the foot directly downwards below the body. With the improved alignment I became very aware of posing the foot and the more directly below the body it was the easier it was to land on the forefoot and for the foot to then relax down onto the heel. It put me in mind of how a kangaroo leg works – with the foot itself becoming like a very short lower leg like the kangaroo’s. Getting the foot to pose on the ground directly below then made me aware that I had been leaning too far forwards with the upper body. Once this slight lean was corrected all the pain miraculously disappeared and I was able to speed up – this being about 40 minutes into the run. It then became clear that the main cause of the calve muscle problems is due to posture – leaning slightly too far forwards. When the posture was corrected I found that using a push off didn’t hurt any more. Pirie repeats again and again in his book – “Don’t lean forwards!”
Pain still returned when running downhill and of course I was changing my posture automatically to compensate for the slope – exactly like a beginner skier or child on skis I was keeping the upper body in the “vertical”. This really caused a rapid loading of the calves. The solution was exactly the same as in skiing – bring the upper body back into perpendicular with the slope! It was an amazing experience with all of this coming together. Both Gordon Pirie’s information and Pose method technique were required to make sense of it all and to make this happen. Pirie does not mention about using gravity for propulsion – but he did coach with a “fall forwards” right from the start of changing somebody’s running technique. I love his story about coaching a 58 year old marathon runner who was at just over 3hrs and with no effort other than changing technique was able to get down to 2hrs 32mins!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *