"Your Running Style is Genetic"???

As many of you know, my third full time job is my role as the Active Release Techniques director for all Rev3 triathlon series races. This past weekend was our Florida race – our last race of the year. It was a great weekend, but sad to say goodbye to staff, some age group athletes and pro triathletes who I have become good friends with. Lots of memories from this year.

Unfortunately, during the last moments of the trip, my brain almost exploded. A few of us were driving to the airport and there was one guy (really nice fellow) who operates a running specialty store and he was asked by another Rev3 staffer about his store – how he fits people, does he look at them run etc. He doesn’t know what I do for a living, so I was curious to hear his answer to her question. His answer was surprising: “No we generally don’t look at people run…I mean the way you run is based on your body type and skeleton and that is all dependent on what genetics your mother and father gave you. There’s nothing you can do to change the way you run. We fit them based on their foot type”

I kept calm in the face of the unfolding fiasco…

The other Rev3 employee knows what I do, and asked if I’d like to comment. I honestly didn’t know where to begin. We were approaching the airport and only had about a minute until we arrived (plus, I was driving and I didn’t was to get in a head-on collision as I reached into the backseat to smack him), so I let it go with a “that couldn’t be farther from the truth” comment and just tried to blow it off.

Have you ever gotten into a disagreement with someone and then an hour later thought “I should have said ‘such and such'”. Well, if I would have had more than a minute, it would have went something like this…

Running style is based on neuromuscular coordination, endurance and strength not to mention cardiovascular fitness. The neuromuscular system is not plastic. It is a dynamic, constantly adapting, complex interplay of balance, strength, coordination and timing which are based on proprioception, feedback, intent and previously grooved movement patterns.

Movement patterns are easily changeable. Just ask anybody who has played a musical instrument – they may initially struggle with a sheet of music, but as they continue to practice, their fingers, hands, wrists and arms begin to move in a fluid beautiful pattern where there becomes less and less conscious thought process. Ask any gymnast, hockey player, golfer or tennis player if they can learn to adapt to a movement skill.

We constantly see examples of stroke victims suffering hemiparesis who learn to eat, write and do other fine and gross motor skills with their non-dominant hand. The motor reorganization starts with awkward, poorly coordinated movements but with practice and determination, their neuromuscular patterns adapt.

If you want to get into running specific examples, ask the researchers and runners in this study or this study who learned to change their running gait mechanics with proper feedback and drills.

We fully know certain gait patterns increase the risk of injury. Or, on the reverse side, we know certain injuries are correlated to certain gait patterns. If the way someone moves is fundamentally incorrect, sloppy or unstable why wouldn’t we help them correct it? A competent understanding of anatomy, neurophysiology and biomechanics should be a prerequisite.

On the other hand, why would anyone prescribe a shoe based on the foot type. This has been tried before…unsuccessfully here and here.

Why doesn’t prescribing a shoe based on foot type work? Because studies show that the static foot architecture simply doesn’t predict what happens to the foot when someone starts to run. Pete Larson over at Runblogger.com did a great job summarizing a couple of these studies.

The most frustrating part of this story is that the shoe retailer in question is in a position of authority to many runners. Runners often seek out shoes in an attempt to overcome pain and injury, so they go to their local running specialty store for authoritative advice. However, who is screening, educating and explaining anatomy and biomechanics to the retail salespeople? More often than not, it’s the shoe manufacturer reps who give detailed presentations to the retailers about how their minimalist/neutral/stability/motion control shoes are the cure for most runners. When the retailers are constantly fed the sales pitches it’s understandable that they start believing it, so it’s hard to lay the blame solely at their feet (no pun).