Podcast, Running

Running form, biomechanics, shoes, and myths part 2 with Dr. Thomas Hughes | EP#111

 March 19, 2018

By  Mikael Eriksson

Running form, biomechanics, shoes, and myths part 2 with Dr. Thomas Hughes | EP#111

Thomas Hughes, running biomechanics specialist, discusses running form and biomechanics for triathletes. To optimise your running performance and reduce injury risk, he believes you do not need to learn to run. You just need to teach your body to learn to run. Part 2 of 2. 

Discuss this episode!

  • Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Running cadence - why you should run at 180 steps per minutes or faster.
  • Running shoes - how do different kinds of shoes (maximalist, minimalist or everything in between) affect our running mechanics, and what kinds of shoes should you choose. 
  • Barefoot running.
  • Tom's take on the Pose method, Chi running, and various running devices. 

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Related listening

NOTE: I mentioned in part 1 of the podcast that Tom has a PhD. This is not correct. He started his PhD research but did not finish the PhD. Tom asked me to add this correction when he noticed the mistake.

Running cadence  

04:31 - 

  • Running cadence is important, but not exactly for the way it's normally shown.
  • High cadence seems to reduce running injury risk.
    • A low long cadence, particularly with a big heel strike and breaking forces, seems to promote absorption of the impact forces.
  • A faster cadence tends to promote a landing with the foot underneath the hips.
    • Imagine your lower leg is a spring system giving energy back out.
    • If you give the energy back out, you reduce the energy you take in so do less damage.
    • This means you can run further, faster, longer and less injured.
  • A long slow cadence often creates a breaking force.
    • If you're landing in front of the pelvis you can't give the energy back out, if you were you'd send yourself backwards.
  • The spring system in the lower leg is on a time release: Imagine you're playing with a spring in your hand.
    • If you push it in tight and then let it go, it'll bounce open and release all it's energy in one go.
    • If you push the spring in and slowly release it, you can absorb the energy and not release it in one big burst.
    • That's what we don't want to do! But it's what often happens - we land and slow everything down, and absorb all that energy.
    • That's why the number 180 steps per minute came about - it's the point where people pass over the threshold of being able to use that recoil. 
  • If you're someone who is very tall with long legs (e.g. Jan Frodeno), you can get away with a cadence of 175 but that's literally the lowest end.
  • If you look at the elite 10,000m final, they'll all be running with a cadence of 180 upwards.
    • Almost all elite runners will use a combination of cadence and stride length to increase their speed.
  • You need to measure your own cadence, and if it's slow, start to think about why this is.
    • I believe cadence slows down a lot because we are unstable as we land.
    • If we have an overly cushioned unstable shoe, or we're landing with a cross over gait or in front of the pelvis, that has to slow everything down.
      • We have to slow down so you stay on the ground for longer and balance yourself.
    • You need to find the root cause of the slow cadence, rather than just force it to increase.
      • If you force the increase, you will likely just get tired more quickly.
  • Getting a running analysis can be very useful when assessing cadence.
  • A really good test would be going to a treadmill and measuring your cadence when running at a normal pace in normal shoes.
    • Then take your shoes off and run again barefoot.
    • You tend to get a lot more control from this additional sensory input, and you start landing beneath your pelvis because you would really feel it if you weren't. You've also removed the instability element of the shoe.
    • If your cadence picks up, you know where your problem is coming from - you know the instability of the shoe is causing a problem.
    • If your cadence remains relatively slow, you know that it's probably your hip mechanics or the way you're thinking about the landing (e.g. being told you should absorb energy and sit down).
  • Every single world record from 800m up to the marathon has been broken with cadences ranging from 179-210.
  • There is also the famous Jack Daniels study where he analysed elite runners in a marathon and found that all but one had at least 180 spm cadence.
  • It's important to still have a high cadence on your slower endurance runs too.
    • You're trying to spend as long on your feet as you can.
  • If I can give the best piece of advice for anyone working up to a race distance (e.g. marathon), stop measuring distance! Just measure time on your feet.
    • Measure the amount of steps you're taking.
    • You're trying to condition the lower legs to take more steps.
    • You're not developing your aerobic system, you're conditioning those tissues.
  • You want to think of endurance runs as training a skill. You're not trying to get anywhere faster because you're not in a race.
    • Take more steps if you've got them available.
    • For example: as you come to a hill, keep the intensity low by taking lots of little steps.
    • Each step is improving the tissue resilience.
  • I want people to feel what happens, and learn what the recoil of energy actually feels like.
    • That can be achieve in doing barefoot running, which is fantastic for that.
    • Alternatively, using a responsive shoe so you feel the impact.
    • If you only run in highly cushioned shoes (e.g. Hokas), you may have a slow cadence because you don't sense anything.
    • Once you understand that feeling, you'll find you still have a fast cadence on your long easy runs.
  • 180 cadence is relevant because the longest legged/longest achilled runners will have been at this mark.
    • The really short guys will be around the 200 mark.
    • It's all related to release frequency, which comes down to the length of your spring.
    • On long runs you're trying to get as many of those tendon releases as possible.
  • Slow isn't a bad thing, but we should never be lazy.
    • We should always focus on having good form.
  • Alistair Brownlee can be running as easy as he wants to but will still have a fast cadence, and he still has great posture.
  • You're trying to train a skill, and the best way to do that is to train in the same way as you would execute that skill.
  • Purposeful practice to make any progression.

Running shoes for triathletes

13:55 -

  • I'm not a fan of the maximalist shoe because of the instability they promote.
  • The foot is generally wide and it conforms to the ground as it moves - it's an amazing structure.
    • If you put a thick unstable thing underneath it, you're just going to create problems.
  • Thick soles can absorb some of the impact energy, and if it absorbs enough that's okay.
    • However, most people find when they run in those shoes that their hips start hurting, and I see a lot of tendon issues from these shoes.
  • For what they give in terms of impact, they take away in instability, which we must try and avoid.
  • We have a stable foot, we don't want to create an unstable platform by putting an unstable shoe underneath it.
  • Maximal cushions also wear very unevenly.
    • Galan Rupp reported this recently in a Nike shoe that was very cushioned. He found towards the end of the marathon he felt unstable and actually lost a lot of speed because the shoe had compressed unevenly throughout the distance of one marathon.
  • The same but opposite goes for minimal shoes. Having no cushion at all isn't good either and actually makes you slower.
  • The optimal cushion is between 1-2cm, with the right width for the forefoot.
    • The research backs this up and suggests it's the most economical.
    • It reduces the slightly nasty impact of the tarmac that can sensitise the foot, but it doesn't provide too much cushion which would become unstable.
  • I believe there is no logic or need for a heel drop.
    • If you spend all of your working day in a heeled shoe you may initially need a heel drop in your running shoe to cope with it.
  • Often people think heel drop relates to achilles but it doesn’t, achilles problems are three dimensional problems often related to cross over more than heel drop.
  • If you can walk around barefoot with your heel on the group without wanting to go to tip toes, you should have no problem with a zero drop shoe.
  • It's all about the depth of the cushion. It should be the same the whole way across the shoe.
  • Altra models 'Solstice' and 'Vanish R' are good examples of shoes with the best amount of cushioning.
  • If you look at Japanese brands, their best shoes are often saved for the Japanese market.
    • Even Adidas have certain shoes only sold in Japan which have 1-2cm cushioning, foot shaped around the forefoot/big toe, low down, good uppers and they're light.
    • Companies like Mizuno do models like the Hitogami or Ekiden which are also great.
  • This may be controversial, but you have to stay away from brands which are inherently narrow and cushioned.
    • ON Cloud are probably the worst for this as the rubbering underneath deteriorates rapidly.
    • Newton have the same problem with the activator lugs.
    • As do Hoka's with the cushioned sole.
    • They are fine when they were brand new, but they deteriorate after a short amount of running and quickly become unstable.
    • Instability has to be avoided at all costs as you won't gain balance when you are landing and will struggle to get back off the foot again.
      • You will waste a lot of energy, and won't get the activation of the muscles working either.
  • If a shoe has to be broken in, or if it weighs more than a couple of hundred grams (for a male shoe), it's too heavy.
    • 100g at the end of each foot is 1% of energy.
  • For my speed, build and height my shoes vary.
    • I have a 75g pair of racing flats that I've used for a marathon that are cushioned enough. They save weight in the upper because it's like a thin sock.
    • If I compared these shoes to my pair of 250g shoes in terms of physics, the heavier ones could cost me 5-6 minutes in a marathon.
  • At the end of an Ironman you don't want extra weight on the end of your legs, but if you go too minimal that shoe will compress too much.
    • Every shoe will compress as you run a marathon, but you want a shoe that will be cushioned the whole way through the race.
    • If it's too minimal, it'll feel dead by halfway through the race.

Barefoot running

21:16 - 

  • I love barefoot running on grass because it's a training method.
    • It doesn't mean you're going to run in Vibrams on the road - we're not designed for that.
  • The sensory input you experience from running barefoot on grass can sort a lot of form and muscle issues out naturally.
  • Barefoot running is a training tool - similar to wearing paddles to correct your stroke when swimming.
  • I advise all my runners, particularly over summer, to find a patch of grass and walk and jog barefoot to get the foot moving again.
    • It enhances balance and control, and can really enhance your running.
  • For example, if you do track workouts in the summer you can do warmup drills and laps on the grass barefoot before starting the session.
  • People have been doing this for years! Every track coach for the last 50 years will have got track runners to practice this.
  • A famous quote is "take any injured athlete and one of the best things to do is walk barefoot on dewy grass".
  • It enables the foot to move again but also the brain to re-sense things. 
  • Percy Cerutty, the coach from Australia who has had great success, encourages barefoot running on beaches and sand dunes.

Running related quick-fire questions 

24:06 - 

  • What is your take on the Pose method?
    • I don't like anything that tries to conform. Generally when people do the pose method they get slower because they're trying to force a change. Don't think about forcing a change in form, just address those issues (see part 1 of this interview) and you will run naturally.
  • What is your take on Chi running?
    • Same principle as above. Some of these things can help people learn certain movements and techniques, but generally trying to conform to a certain form isn't how the body works.
  • What do you think about various devices that suggest they measure running biomechanics in different ways or provide some analysis on this?
    • I use the Runscribe a little because they provide an accurate assessment of that movement around the foot to basically show if someone is being screwed up by their shoes.
    • Beyond that I don't really like a lot of technical metrics in running beyond occasionally measuring cadence. I run without a Garmin or anything.
    • I don’t like running power meters because I don't think running is like that. It's not like cycling with a slow application of force, there are too many different variables.
    • I've got a running power meter and I've found it doesn't even fit a pattern for me, and it doesn't for many of my clients either.
    • When it comes to running, I want to relax and enjoy the environment.

Rapid fire questions

27:23 - 

  • What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to triathlon or running, or endurance sports in general.
    • I advise every one of my athletes to read Carol Dweck's book Mindset. It's a psychology book, best book you could ever think of. It will take every swimmer that says they're a bad swimmer and put the word yet in there: "I am not a good swimmer, yet. I will be."
  • What is your favourite piece of gear of equipment?
    • Probably my bike. I ride a Cervelo P4 and I think it's probably the best bike that's ever been made.
  • What do you wish you had known, or wish you had done differently at some point in your career?
    • I wish someone had told me that with my really long legs, and my hips that don't work properly, triathlon may not be the best sport for me. I'd have gone back and just been a runner.
    • I'm stuck in triathlon now, I'm addicted to it like everyone else is!

Key takeaways

  • Get a stool instead of a cushioned chair if you spend a lot of time sitting at work.
  • High cadence is really important, even on easy runs. Ideally 180 or above at all times.
    • Its so easy to check this using either a running watch or a metronome while on a treadmill.
  • Learning how to teach your body to run is a great way to train.
    • You want everything to line up so your body can start to run the way it's meant to run.
    • It's not about actively trying to make lots of changes to your technique.
      • This is especially important to consider when reading articles about intricate changes you can make to your run.

Links, resources & contact

Links and resources mentioned

Connect with Dr Tom Hughes

  • Tri-mechanics website
    • Leeds based athletes can access Tom's studio for running analyses, details on the website. 
    • For athletes further afield, Tri-mechanics offers a remote analysis looking at videos. It's not as comprehensive as what is covered in the studio but it can offer an idea of areas to start working on. 
  • On Twitter: @trimechanics 
  • On Facebook: @Trimechanics
  • Tri-mechanics podcast

Connect with host Mikael Eriksson


Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show. 

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Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments below. I'll be here to reply and take an active part in the conversation, so don't be shy! 

Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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