A Runner is Born: How to Get Started
If you're a runner you would probably love to get a one-on-one consultation with an elite runner like Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall, right? Our "Everyday Athlete" Bill Hayek was lucky enough to pose some questions to Ryan — here's their conversation:
Bill Hayek: Do you promote the forefoot-strike style of running vs. heel-to-toe? Why do you prefer one or the other, if you do?
Ryan Hall: Bill, thanks for these questions; I hope my answers can help you on your journey. Let me start off by saying I am not a scientist so I am not going to get into the science of this topic, but I can speak from what I have experienced and observed amongst the best runners in the world. My intuition is to say that I am a supporter of a forefoot striking in running. I am a forefoot striker and always have been, which I would wager to say is true in 90 percent of professional runners.
However, there are exceptions to this rule, like Jim Ryun, for example. Jim is a huge hero of mine and I remember going to his running camp as a high schooler and being amazed to hear that Jim was a heel striker. I couldn't even imagine hitting on my heels first, yet Jim was able to get a silver medal and set world records in the 800 meters and mile. I could only imagine if Jim were to have read an article that said heel-striking is bad, and thus changed his foot strike, what injuries would have resulted.
My point is that there is a reason why Jim is a heel striker and I am a forefoot striker. What we both have in common is that we both listened to our bodies and ran in a natural way. So to answer your question, I think the best foot strike is what comes naturally to you. I wouldn't recommend changing your form unless you believe your foot strike is causing you injury. With that said, when I am teaching kids how to run properly I will teach them to hit on their forefoot, but if I adopted a 13-year-old who was a heel striker I wouldn't change their form.
Bill: What do you recommend for someone who has never run as the best way to get started?
Ryan: This is a great question because a lot of people assume that running is so simple that you don't need to really pay all that much attention to how to get into the sport, which is far from the truth. Like most things, the success you experience in beginning your life as a runner has almost as much to do with how you get into the sport as how much talent you have. A quick example to illustrate my point: When I was a kid I hated to run. Why? Because my teachers used running as punishment. I was never taught that running was fun, but was forced to run if I did something bad.
This brings me to my first and most important point: Running must be fun! Once I began to love to run I was blessed to have my dad for a coach; he did an excellent job of making sure running was always a joy and not a burden. One day a week, instead of going for a run we would play "speed golf" on a football field, in which we would have one hole at both end zones and see who could go back and forth the fastest 18 times. We didn't care how many shots it took us to get the ball in the hole, we just wanted to finish first. While speed golf wasn't the safest thing to do (imagine golf balls flying back and forth everywhere; it felt more like a war zone than sport) it was fun and we were getting a great workout without feeling like we were going for a traditional run. Find games that making running fun or beautiful places to explore on runs or in training groups that make you enjoy the process of running.
My other recommendation is to start small and build. As I write this now I am nowhere near my peak fitness. I am only running about 6 miles a day, but I know that 3 months from now I will be able to run 20 miles a day. It's amazing what the body can do when we take small, incremental steps. Running is fun when I am successful, and I am successful when I have training runs and goals that are attainable. Today, if I were to jump right into my hardest training runs that I do to prepare for a marathon I would be so discouraged and dreading my runs that there is no way I could make it. My goal is to first run 100 meters at race pace and then work up from there. There is amazing power in small, achievable goals.
Bill: How important is a running partner or training group?
Ryan: The answer to this is going to vary from individual to individual and will even vary within an individual's personal development. Let me use myself as an example here: I typically enjoy training on my own for my hard workouts. I like to run with others on easy days but when I am going hard I like to be the one to control the pace so I can ensure I run the proper effort level and don't get into competing with teammates.
However, I realize that at this point in my career it's becoming more important for me to have training partners to work with, like I had in college, so I can continue to improve. So now I have my little brother Chad to work out with; he's a great person for me to run with because I am not competitive with him and he isn't with me so we help each other out on workouts without taking it personally if one of us is having a better day and running faster than the other. This is the first step in my beginning to work out with others.
My next step will happen this winter when I go to train in Kenya with the amazing marathoners over there, which will be the same guys I will compete against in my upcoming marathons. The key is that I am not jumping straight into a situation that will be too challenging for me. First, I have to learn to work out with someone I am not competitive towards, then I can graduate to working out with my competitors with the hope of being able to keep that competitive energy at bay till race day. So my number-one caution to you is to keep yourself from competing in workouts. Save it for race day. I was always amazed when I was at Stanford that we would have a group of 20 guys who would do every workout together for 3 months straight, yet when race day came we would finish as much as a minute apart from each other over 10K. What I learned was it isn't who does the workout the fastest, but who does the workout at the right effort level. Winning workouts means nothing.
On a more positive side of things, if there is one thing that makes running beautiful it's sharing life with others. I have developed so many amazing relationships through running, including meeting my wife, and that is what I will look back on and treasure the most when I am at the end of my journey. Life is meant to be experienced together. Community brings so much more joy to running than doing it alone, so I would urge everyone to have a training partner or group for both the performance side of running and for the overall enjoyment of running.
For more of Ryan's answers to common running questions, click here.