Should I be a mid foot striker? A forefoot striker? Should I have a forward lean? Why do I get passed on downhills? That’s what I look like when I run?! So many questions with so many different answers. There is a lot of information out there on how you should run and it can be overwhelming to sort through with all the books, articles, and branded techniques in endless supply. Makes you want to forget about all of it and just cancel your internet service doesn’t it? Take a deep breath and let’s break down the basics of proper running form.
I’m sure many of you can spot your running partners off in the distance just by their form. Everyone is put together a little differently, and everyone has a unique running style. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s perfectly natural, and understanding that is an important step to knowing how to improve your form while accepting yourself as a runner. I want to go over two key components to help you run more efficiently and give clarity to the complicated and contradictory subject of running mechanics.
Let’s start where the rubber meets the road with one of the hottest topics in the running community – foot strike. What type of foot strike should I have is one of the most common questions I hear from people. Forget about that for a second and let’s reframe the way we think about this issue. I’m not concerned with what part of your foot you contact the ground with. I’m concerned with where your foot contacts the ground as it relates to the rest of your body. This is the real question you need to ask yourself, and once we get that sorted out the foot strike issue becomes irrelevant.
The two are certainly related, and to a degree they can be different methods of addressing the same problem, but I prefer to treat the problem rather than the symptom. If the problem is over striding then a symptom may be how your foot contacts the ground. You want your feet landing under your center of gravity; essentially your feet should land directly underneath your hips. It is possible to have a heel strike and still do this, so let’s stay focused on the problem.
If your feet are landing out in front of you, your body is in a braking motion until your hips move over the top of your foot. This is inefficient. It slows you down and increases the stress on your body. We want your hips to over the top of your foot on contact. This will also increase your number of foot strikes per minute (you’re looking for a total number close to 180), improving efficiency.
On the Hills
Okay, so feet underneath the hips, got it. What if I’m running uphill or downhill? Interestingly enough, the terrain shouldn’t affect the way your feet strike the ground. Hills will change the way you position your body, but not your feet. If you remember back to October I discussed hill training and mentioned how to use uphill running to improve your ability to run with your feet underneath your hips. It’s very hard to over stride uphill, but it’s very easy to over stride downhill.
Even downhill you want to think about your feet striking the ground underneath your hips, and this will require a conscious effort as its counter to most people’s instincts. Doing so makes you a more efficient runner and reduces the high impact of downhill running, especially the quad beating downhills that can ruin a marathon.
The key to effective downhill foot strike is your body position. You want to think about leaning with the hill so you are putting your body at a perpendicular angle to the ground. If you’re leaning back and hammering on the breaks you’re increasing the load on your lower back and slowing yourself down. If you need to slow down take shorter steps, but avoid leaning back and over striding.
Running uphill isn’t much different. You want to focus on leaning into the hill from the ankles up making sure you are remaining upright in your torso. Remember, you’re not leaning from the waist into the hill, but from the ankles. Leaning over at the waist will restrict the diaphragm and inhibit your ability to utilize the entire lung for respiration, the very thing that will be stressed the most running uphill. Increasing respiration while restricting the diaphragm is not a good combination, so be sure to stay tall up top.
To understand proper running posture we need to address two things. The first is similar to hill running in that you want an upright torso, from your hips through your spine and head. You want to keep your spine in a neutral position with minimal lower back curve. A key cue here is to think about keeping the spine as long as you can. This will keep you tall with your eyes up without over accentuating the curvature in the lower back.
Secondly, to find your proper position try standing barefoot on the ground. You want to feel your weight evenly disbursed throughout the foot. If you feel more weight on your heels then drop your sternum forward a hair until you feel even disbursement throughout the foot. This is your proper running posture.
These tips take practice and having someone video you will help to understand your foot placement and running posture. I know that thought is horrifying, but I promise you’ll survive and be better for it. Focus on these two simple things and take a break from sifting through all the endless information on running technique.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the December 2013 Issue of Running Journal