3 Myths You Probably Believe About Running

Any new runner who reads a running magazine, browses an online forum, or hangs out in a specialty running store is likely to walk away from that experience more confused than they started. Wait, how fast should my feet move? Where exactly should they land? What's a gait analysis, and do I need one? We have good news: You can stop worrying. The latest research confirms what your body knew already. If it feels good, keep doing it.

Separating 5K From Fiction

Running might be the oldest exercise there is, but that's never stopped people from tweaking it to make it better. With good reason, too: From the 100-meter sprint to the marathon, runners over the years have just gotten faster. But while some improvements have proven benefits, the running world is also bombarded with myths. Those myths take an especially serious toll on beginner runners, who are likely to feel overwhelmed by all the advice they receive and might be unable to tell fact from fiction. Let's separate the two here, shall we?

Myth 1: You Must Take Small, Quick Steps

Reality: The way you run naturally is the best way for you. The recommendation to take small steps is a way to avoid something called overstriding, where your foot reaches "too far" in front of your body and supposedly increases the shock when it hits the ground, reducing your efficiency and raising your risk for injury. But experts have trouble defining what overstriding actually means. Plus, a 2017 study by a pair of running experts and BYU professors found that whether you're an experienced runner or not, the stride rate you naturally prefer turns out to be the most economical for you. Newbie runners start out with a relaxed, long stride rate, but as they get fitter, their legs are "stiffer" with every step, and they can go further with a smaller stride.

As for taking quick steps, that comes from running coach Jack Daniels, who noticed that Olympic distance runners at the 1984 Olympics tended to maintain a stride rate, or "cadence," of at least 180 steps per minute. That number has since spread far and wide in running circles, but a few details didn't come with it: For one thing, Daniels said "at least." When they're pushing to win, elite runners can reach the low 200s on a marathon and the low 300s on a sprint. For another thing, these were Olympians. Experts generally agree that a cadence lower than 160 is a recipe for injury, but that leaves a lot of wiggle room for the rest of us.

Myth 2: You Must Strike the Ground With the Front of Your Foot

Reality: We're going to sound like a broken record here, but the way you run naturally is the best way for you. A few studies have shown that people who "heel strike," versus striking on the midfoot or forefoot, are less efficient and at higher risk of injury, but they haven't shown that changing your strike pattern can fix that.

A 2017 paper published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science reviewed the evidence and made this damning conclusion: "We have concluded, based on examining the research literature, that changing to a mid- or forefoot strike does not improve running economy, does not eliminate an impact at the foot-ground contact, and does not reduce the risk of running-related injuries." Heel-strike on, heel strikers.

Myth 3: Buy Shoes That Match Your Pronation Style

Reality: The shoes that feel best are the best ones for you. (Gee, it's like there's a pattern here.) When Vibram, the Italian shoe company that makes those weird toe shoes, was slapped with a class action lawsuit for claiming their shoes were healthier for your feet, wearers of traditional shoes rejoiced because the law was standing up for science. They shouldn't have. It turns out that traditional running shoes also rely on shoddy science.

The idea is that everybody's feet land slightly differently, and you need to wear shoes to match your particular style. If your foot rolls excessively inward, that's called overpronation; if it rolls outward, that's supination or underpronation; and if it lands squarely on the ground with a tiny inward roll, that's neutral. Specialty running stores perform gait analyses on fancy treadmills to uncover their customers' pronation style, after which they offer a shoe designed to correct it. That way, the myth goes, you can reduce your injury risk. Here's the science: A 2009 meta-analysis found that there isn't any evidence to support this practice, and a 2011 study found that giving pronators stability shoes and neutral runners neutral shoes can actually increase their injury risk.

But when Danish researchers gave 200 military personnel a variety of shoe inserts to try, they found that the ones the volunteers rated as most comfortable were also the ones least likely to cause injury. The take-home message? Your body knows what it needs. All you have to do is listen.

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For more on the science of running, check out the Runner's World book "The Runner's Body," by Ross Tucker, Jonathan Dugas, Matt Fitzgerald. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer August 10, 2017

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