Let’s Talk About Running Form
Let me know if this sounds familiar:
What a great run this is turning out to be!
Well, wait…there’s that nagging pain again. On the outside of my [insert body part here].
“I thought the doc said this would get better in four to six weeks?? As long as I kept up with my cross-training, rest and recovery. But it’s back!? What the heck did I do all rehab for then? I don’t think I did anything wrong…I for sure didn’t take any shortcuts.
Damn it’s not getting any better — I better walk. Shit.
We’ve all had this conversation with ourselves in one form or another. Pun intended. Injury, unfortunately, is a common side-effect of the sport we love. While the severity generally differs, odds are injury of some sort knocks on your door eventually.
Let’s work to reduce those odds.
Running is a high-impact activity, placing enormous stress on the body from consistent, repetitive pounding. This pounding sends large amounts of ground force up your legs with each footfall — “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. You can thank physics for that. I’m currently “thanking” physics as I recover from some lingering pain in my left foot.
Good running form is injury prevention 101. By running properly, by running efficiently, by being mindful of how you’re running, you can drastically reduce your chances of injury.
When most people think running form, they think foot strike — the part of the foot that impacts the ground first upon landing: the heel, the forefoot, or the midfoot.
While the general consensus is that a mid foot strike is most effective for injury prevention (harvard.edu), no one has been able to definitively state that one method is better than another. Everyone’s body is different. We have diverse running goals and aspirations. What works for you may not work for me, and vice versa.
That being said, I tend to favor and recommend a midfoot strike. Along with reducing injury risk significantly, the midfoot strike makes the entire running experience, just…better. Easier. More fundamental. More fun.
Heel striking results from your foot hitting the ground heel first, slightly ahead of your center of mass. Most recreational runners naturally default to a heel strike, due in part to the high stack height (heel height) of many name brand running shoes.
Heel striking is the worst. It’s the least efficient and most dangerous way to run. I’ve encountered more individuals who’ve endured injury due to heel striking than anything else. The reasons for this are numerous:
- Chronic knee and shin problems are more likely, due to high-impact forces being absorbed by the bones of the lower legs. Which is NOT what they’re meant to do. That’s what muscles and tendons are for. Stress fractures abound.
- Tendonitis can flare up at any time, common culprits being Iliotibial Band Syndrome (IT Band Syndrome) and Achilles Tendonitis, among others.
- Footfall occurs ahead of your center of mass. The lower legs come to a complete halt as your body rolls through its stride, essentially acting as a brake, disrupting your natural rhythm and making you work harder for every inch. Energy efficiency takes a nosedive.
- You’ll run too upright. A slight forward lean is preferred for maximizing energy usage and decreasing your reliance on the legs to propel you forward. Running is a full-body movement, combining the efforts of your entire body. More on that later.
A running injury is, typically, a result of poor biomechanics. Heel striking combines a multitude of poor biomechanics into one. It’s what keeps sports physiologists and orthopedics in business. Avoid at all costs.
Don’t touch the ground with your heels when you run? You’re a forefoot striker. You’re up on the balls of your feet 100% of the time. You’re probably a sprinter, middle-distance runner, elite marathoner, or team sport athlete, like a basketball player.
You’re not placing any load on your heels, and thus not stressing the bones of the lower legs. This is obviously a good thing. You’re avoiding (most of) the chronic injuries associated with heel striking since flexible tissues are working to absorb the impact as opposed to hardened bones. You’re using the muscles of the lower legs to propel you forward.
But…and I mean a BIG but,
- Forefoot striking doesn’t significantly negate injury risk. Maybe only slightly. Problem is, you’ve shifted all those ground forces to your calves, achilles tendons, plantar tendons and shins. These tissues now have a propensity to become overworked and fatigued, which can lead to all sorts of issues. To put it bluntly, you’ve swapped out one set of injuries for another.
- You lose energy efficiency. Forefoot striking increases energy efficiency only at high speeds. Ever watch Usain Bolt run? He seemingly glides over the ground, his toes making little to no contact with the running surface. But that’s at 28 mph. For us mere mortals, spending too much time on the forefoot can lead to the braking effect discussed with heel striking. Our leg turnover simply isn’t fast enough to flip that switch. We see no significant return on our energy investment.
Like Goldilocks, we’re always looking for what’s just right. In this case, what’s just right is the midfoot strike. Not too hot, not too cold.
A midfoot strike is when you land — you guessed it — on the middle part of your foot. Where your forefoot and heel impact the ground simultaneously (or in some cases, when your forefoot lands a split-second before your heel). There are several reasons why I (and others) are of the mind that a midfoot strike is the cornerstone of good running form:
- You’re least likely to develop an injury. The ground forces are distributed evenly through the entire foot, and as a result, distributed evenly through the entire leg. This greatly minimizes the impact force on any one area. And considering 90% of all running injuries occur below the knee (chirunning.com), taking care of the lower legs is absolutely critical.
- Muscular / joint health improves. We’ve talked a lot about injury prevention, but muscular and joint health is not something to be overlooked. By distributing stresses evenly throughout the lower body, your muscles and joints will take on less stress and require less recovery. Imagine if you could up your weekly running volume (over time) simply by changing the way your foot contacts the ground?
Since you’ve made it this far, I’ll reward you with an additional tidbit: maintaining a midfoot strike will not only help you run faster, but run faster with less effort.
But Scott, how is this possible? Effort and speed are inexorably linked, everyone knows this. How can one not only increase without the other, but actually increase while the other decreases?
You use gravity to help pull you forward.
Remember when I said running is a full-body movement? With a midfoot strike, your footfalls take place directly under your center of mass. Include a slight forward lean, and your footfalls take place slightly behind your center of mass. You start to “fall forward”, with your legs catching you each time, providing momentary support in between footfalls rather than acting as the main source of propulsion.
You’re now using gravity to help pull you along, allowing you to run with much greater energy efficiency. You’ll be to able to run longer and faster using the same amount of energy. You’re not simply relying on the musculature of your legs to move you from A to B, you’ve engaged one of the fundamental forces of nature!
This is a game-changer. My friends over at ChiRunning go into great deal about the benefits of a midfoot strike and its application.
Apply changes to running form slowly
Ok — you’ve decided to evolve your running form. You’re going to become a midfoot striker, minimizing your injury risk while running farther and faster than you ever have before. Great!
The body does not adapt overnight. Especially with something as significant as changing your physiological mechanics. You will need patience and humility in spades over the coming months to make the adjustment properly.
You will be using muscles barely touched in the past. Your body will ache. It will rebel. It will cry out.
Be patient and endure.
Make changes over time. On your 4 mile run, start striking with your midfoot one mile at a time. Then two. Then three. You get the idea. Don’t attempt too much too quickly.
Listen to your body. Recovery is essential during this transition. Don’t force yourself to run when you know you shouldn’t. Fatigue leads to injury.
During the first few weeks / months of your adjustment period, you’re going to be slow. Really slow. Not only will you be slow, your mileage will decrease dramatically as your body adjusts.
Embrace this change. Understand you’ll be slow. Really slow. Accept that your mileage will decrease. Dramatically.
You won’t be able to hang with the group at first. Don’t worry, you will. In time. If yours is a legitimate crew, they’ll understand the changes you’re making, why you’re making them, and will do what they can to support you. If they don’t, you may want to consider finding a different group.
Stay the course!
Find what works for you
Most importantly, make form adjustments based on what works best for you and your lifestyle. If you’re a sprinter or athlete, you’re going to want to focus on building and strengthening the muscles of the lower legs to provide the speed and power boosts that are required.
If you’re a long distance runner, speed and power are less important, replaced by endurance and durability. A midfoot strike is most likely going to work best.
Pretty much everyone can (read: should) avoid the heel strike method. It’s just…bad.
Evaluate your footwear
There’s enough to say about footwear to fill an entire series of articles, but the gist is this: there is more quality footwear than ever supporting the running form you’re looking to emulate. Do your research. Read reviews. Talk to an expert at your local running store. There are plenty of resources available to assist you in making an informed decision.
Adjusting your running form is a major step towards a long and healthy running career, but it’s not bulletproof. If you’re tired, you’re tired. Back off. I’ve known runners with perfect form and preparation to succumb to injury because they refuse to give their bodies adequate rest and recovery.
Commit with every step. Be mindful of your form with each and every footfall. Make necessary adjustments on the fly. Make them often. This may seem tedious at first, but it’s essential to maintaining good running habits long term. Eventually your new form will become second nature, but you’ll have to work to get there. And even then you’ll still constantly evaluate and adjust.
Fix your footstrike. Apply changes slowly. Be patient. Be humble. Find footwear that works. Be mindful.
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