Since the 2012 Paralympics, running blades have been put into the spotlight, with people now able to recognise what they are used for. With more and more people being offered or exploring the opportunity to run with a running blade, I thought I would explore the facts. Are there different types? When would you use one? What’s the grip like?…all will be answered!

The different running blades

If you asked a small child to draw a running blade, I imagine that they would draw a stick person with a curved shape at the bottom of the leg. The truth is that there are tonnes of different running blades with lots of different looks- from sprinting to marathon blades, blades used for mountaineering and those used for both walking and running.

Most running blades can be fit into two categories - back-mounted or centrally-mounted. A back-mounted blade will be fixed to a socket (the bit that the rest of your leg fits into) and they tend to be longer. Back-mounted are the types of blade that you generally see sprinters use - it’s simple mathematics (long levers etc).

The type of blade that you use will depend on a number of factors: How tall you are (or how much space you have to fit in a running blade), your activities, your intentions and unfortunately, how much money you have/the support you can receive. Running blades really aren’t cheap and don’t tend to be covered under the NHS but there is loads of support out there with charities and organisations.

Can you walk on a running blade?

For most blades, you can’t actually walk on them as well as run. This has to do with the length of a running blade.

Typically, running blades are longer than usual legs. If you imagine that a blade is quite springy, as soon as you put force through the blade, it compresses, making it much shorter. A running blade has to be longer than a usual leg, to make sure that when it compresses, it’s actually in line with a biological leg. Simply lengthening the blade can actually stop any back difficulties, stopping the runner from limping but it can make walking quite tricky.

As a general rule, a blade which is designed for sprinting is generally longer than those designed for marathons due to the extra force exerted while sprinting.

The other factor which makes running blades typically difficult to walk in is the bio-mechanics of walking. Most humans walk with their heel hitting the floor first, followed by the rolling of the foot. Most running blades don’t have a heel component so you are forced to walk on your ‘toes’ (imagine walking on your tiptoes - it’s pretty tricky). Having said that, the running blade I use actually has a heel component so it’s possible to walk on.

How about uneven terrain?

Now if you try and imagine running on a trail, without being able to bend your ankle or twist your foot - that’s what running with a blade is like on uneven terrain. With my blade, because of the heel, I am actually okay with uneven terrain but I know lots of amputee runners don’t have the same luxury.

It takes a while to understand how the blade will move on different terrains and even when you’re used to it, you still need to be looking at the floor to understand which direction your blade will turn, when you step on a twig or rock.

Some running blades allow you to wear a shoe over the top but most don’t. Unfortunately, with those fancy trainers you just saved up to buy, you can only use one (unless you find another amputee with the opposite foot or donate them). If you can pop a trail shoe over the top of your blade, then grip shouldn’t be an issue. My blade has fantastic grip on the bottom, which lasts me for almost 1,000 miles whereas other blades grips may only last a couple of hundred miles - but then you can easily swap them out for a spiked bottom, for track running…the options are almost endless!

Which blade is the best?

I’m sure if there was a definitive answer to this question, other blades wouldn’t be on the market. But how do you know which blade is best for you is a different question. Prosthetists (the people who make the legs) are always the best to go to first. They are likely to know you individually and what you are capable of (or at least they have an idea). Some centres will have better relationships with prosthetics companies so choices could be limited with a certain organisation - there’s nothing stopping you from ‘shopping around’. Most centres will give you the opportunity to try a specific running blade for a few weeks to see if it suits your running style. If you aren’t keen on it, you probably won’t be motivated to go out running on it so try some more!

Are running blades regulated?

I’m sure a lot of us have heard about Oscar Pistorius’ court case (the running blade one, not the murderous one). There was a discussion as to whether having two running blades offered him a competitive advantage over able-bodied runners. Now although the rules only really matter with high-level competitions, there are strict rules within running blades. A competitor must not be seen to have a running blade which shows an “unrealistic enhancement of stride length". This only really counts when an athlete has two running blades because the length of both legs can be increased, giving an individual an advantageous stride length. Because of this, athletes are only allowed prosthetic limbs or feet that add a 3.5% margin to their estimated height.

The debates surrounding a competitive advantage really do continue but they also tend to only look at one race length, on a flat surface. The reality is that running with a running blade, outside of a running track is pretty tricky - skin blisters, the level of concentration required, sores, the inability to occasionally train due to pain/discomfort/ill fit of a prosthetic.

I have a running blade, is that it now?

For amputees who may have had their amputation quite a few years ago, they may require one socket every few years however for a very active or new amputee, they may require a new socket every 6 months. I have personally made my way through quite a few sockets in the last few years.

A blade, often made of carbon fibre, should last quite a while. I have run about 5,000 miles now and I am on my second running blade. Having said that, I normally run about 600+ miles a year through knee-high mud, through water obstacles and while climbing walls and cargo nets - my blade gets quite a beating!

Does it matter which trainers I use?

Although most people may think that having a blade that doesn’t need trainers doesn’t actually impact which trainers you can wear but it actually does! Because of the height difference, it’s important to always use a trainer with a consistent height. This means that my trail, speed and long-distance shoes all have the same step height - anything different and i’m completely thrown off!

How about uphill and downhill?

Going uphill is pretty tricky for anyone but especially those with a running blade. The difficulty comes from two factors - the fact that you don’t have a calf to push up (although the spring of a blade does help) and that mobility is restricted with a running blade. In my blade, I am not able to get a right-angle with my leg as I need the stability to keep the blade on. Because of this, small and steady steps are easiest for going uphill. The same goes with stairs, in that they are quite tricky to do confidently.

Downhill..…now that’s a different story! Because those with a running blade don’t have the flexibility from a biological foot, it can be really difficult to slow down. I often allow a lot of space between myself and the runner in front because if they were to suddenly stop, i’d likely run straight into the back of them, unable to stop quickly. It is the same situation for changing direction or turning a tight corner - biological ankles are incredible creatures.

Final thoughts

Running blades are just fantastic. While I would love to try every running blade and give a critical analysis of them all, there isn’t enough time. I use the Blade XT and it is perfect for everything that I need - it’s comfortable, springy, able to tackle any terrain, able to walk on and looks pretty awesome too.

I hope that more people have the opportunity to have a running blade, as I would completely feel lost without mine.

If you’re looking at getting into running and you have any questions, please do get in contact - I’m here to help!

written by

Jamie Gane

Teacher of Mathematics from Basingstoke

Age group: 25-29

track & field trail obstacle race