Run Softly Over Hard Surfaces & Train on Uneven Terrain

Leave the first response November 2, 2009 / Posted in Mindful Running, Oz on Injuries, Oz On Marathoning, Running Form & Style, Running Injury Prevention, The Running Mind, Uncategorized

Tara Parker-Pope wrote an interesting article this week in the New York Times Well Blog: The Human Body Is Built for Distance. She talks about Christopher McDougall’s book on the Tarahumara Indians of Copper Canyon: Born to Run. What follows are some of my reflections made years ago as I championed and continue to champion the teaching of proper running form and style as taught by two friends I love and respect for their unwavering dedication in this area of teaching right form and style: Nicholas Romanov and his Pose Technique and Danny Dreyer and ChiRunning and ChiWalking.

With both of them it is a dedication of their entire families and the many coaches they have inspired and trained.

It is a slow process to get the world to realize that heel strike is the problem, However I know the tipping point is somewhere in the future. It will occur when we get in touch with the atavistic part of ourselves that is unlearned after our first serious fall that takes place somewhere between the age of 3 and 8. From my clinical research of over 25,000 individuals about one in 40 needed stitches to their chin. The way we walk and therefore run after that day is imprinted with the fear of falling.

What Pose Method, ChiRunning, and the Franklin Method are attempting to do is summed up in a statement I’ve made for years: Running is a dance. You can do it gracefully or clumsily. Go for the grace!


In running the problem is not the hard ground but the force at which one lands on the hard ground. In running the problem of sprained ankles is due to the overuse syndrome of running on flat surfaces. As the Maintainer of the FAQ for Rec.Running when it was focused on helping fellow runners, I wrote about the Flat Surface Overuse Syndrome (FSOS pronounced F-Sauce) as a major cause and contributor of sprained ankles. The muscles giving the ankle its range of motion are trained to adapt to uneven surfaces. Flat surfaces do not allow for that adaptability. When someone overuses flat surfaces, uneven surfaces become problematic. So you hear the statement often: I can’t run on uneven surfaces because I’ll sprain my ankle.

Run Softly Over Hard Surfaces & Train on Uneven Terrain
c. 2000, 2009 Austin “Ozzie” Gontang, Ph.D. & Conal Guan-Yow

Conal Guan-Yow Ho wrote:

“If you have to pick either, the street is the one to run on because the pavement is typically made of concrete which is a very unforgiving surface.”

“Roads are typically made of asphalt and they’re more forgiving. In addition, you’re constantly climbing up and down sidewalks because they’re not continuous. Your wife is doing the right thing (i.e., if she has to pick either one). Most running sources don’t recommend running on the pavement because it’s too hard.” Conal

I think I disagree. Let me take you down to where I’m going to. If you are running on concrete, pavement or the compacted sand on the beach, none of them give. So in my mind’s eye all three are all unforgiving surfaces.

I recommend running on pavement be it concrete or asphalt with proper running form and style. You land lightly because you only land on the surface of the hard surface. Your center of gravity doesn’t follow into that point of contact but is already moving on from the planted foot.

The issue for me isn’t the hardness of the surface, street or sidewalk. The problem is the vertically vectored force at which my foot hits or touches down. That impact, hard or soft, depends on the vertical movement of my center of gravity and where its impact point is on the surface of the “hard” surface.

If I land only on the surface of the hard surface by counterbalancing the impact of the planting foot with the upward lifting of the opposite knee and the same sided elbow swinging forward and up, my center of gravity impacts the ground very lightly. I have counterbalanced it.


Place several paper or Styrofoam cups on the ground upside down.

a. Jump up and come down with one of the cups under the planting foot and pop the cup. You should feel the jar as rest of your center of gravity comes down on the planted foot.

b. Lift one knee so that the foot is above another unpopped cup. As you allow the foot over the cup to come down smashing and popping the cup

i. Lift up the planted foot as quickly as you are stomping down on the cup.

ii. Allow your foot stomping cup popping foot to land only on the surface of the hard surface. That is achieved by counterbalancing the stomping foot with the planted foot lifting it equally and opposite to the stomping foot.

This is how a martial can break a brick through a piece of paper without tearing or ripping the paper.
His/her fist stops at the paper touching the brick but the energy goes through it. The power transmitted to the brick shatters it but the paper does not tear.

However if I lift my body up vertically and come down on the planting foot, I can get 2 or more times gravity impacting at the point of foot contact.

If you’ve watched a cat jump up to a ledge, there’s no clump or hard landing since it cushions the landing. You or I can run up a set of steps clomping each step or quietly on cat like feet.

However, the reason I run on soft surfaces like grass or dirt surfaces like Strawberry Fields is not because the surfaces are soft. I run on soft surfaces because they are uneven and allow the muscles controlling the foot and ankle to move through the full range of motion they was created to move through.

So that’s what it’s all about. It is my view that running on hard flat surfaces creates an overuse syndrome where the foot/ankle is never allowed to do the adapting it was created to do after a million years or more of adapting to moving over uneven surfaces. People strain their ankles not because the surfaces are uneven. Rather they sprain their ankles because the muscles of the foot overused by continuous running on flat surfaces don’t know how to adapt to the uneven surfaces.

Also the reason many people sprain their ankles severely is because they are used to overstriding in addition to the “Flat Surface Overuse Syndrome.” (Remember where you first saw this term. Shortened to FSOS or pronounced F-Sauce) So when they come down on the foot, the whole weight of the body comes crashing down on the bent or bending everted ankle…and the muscles on the outside of the foot (peroneus) are not able to take the overstretch and give allowing for the ligaments of the ankle to be strained or torn.

If I’m not overstriding when my ankle everts, my center of gravity has already passed over the spraining foot and the spraining foot doesn’t take the full impact of the body’s weight. This saves the ligaments and tendons from bearing the full brunt of the body on the tendons and ligaments.

So remember, Nothing is real. It’s a word. So there’s nothing to get hung about. Just practice running lightly on uneven surfaces as if you could run over Strawberry Fields. Forever.

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