I was talking recently to my longtime friend Bruce Wilk, owner of the Orthopedic Rehabilitation Specialists physical therapy practice and the Runner’s High running store, both in Miami, FL. The subject of our discussion was the current trend in the running community that everyone should be using a forefoot striking running style. This is being promoted by many coaches as well as shoe manufacturers. What does this mean? The idea is being promoted that the only way to run fast is running on one’s toes. Bruce asked my thoughts on this and I had to confess that I hadn’t really thought much about it. This may make some sense for a sprinter, but I feel that there are other factors of running form that are more important, especially for a distance runner.
Leg turnover when running determines the frequency, the “when”, of foot strikes. In observing other runners I notice that far too many recreational runners have a slow, loping gait that has them rocking side to side as they “fall” from foot to foot. These runners also tend to reach forward with their lead foot, causing a heel strike on their fully extended leg. This is a solid invitation to knee injury. Just like the cyclist that grinds along, slowly turning a hard gear, increasing the cycling cadence and the running leg turnover can increase efficiency and help prevent injury. As in cycling, a turnover of 80-90RPM is a good number to aim for. This would mean that the right foot will strike the ground at least 80 times per minute. Most music stores sell small electric metronomes (about the size of a small mp3 player). Some click, some have an earphone jack, some both. One of these in your pocket set at 80bpm will give you an audible signal to keep your feet moving. Adjust your speed and effort by altering your stride length, not your turnover.
Next thing to make note is “where”, in relation to your moving body, your foot is striking the ground. Ideally this point should be directly under you, not in front. I tell my athletes that if they look down while running their foot should disappear a split second before it hits the ground, as their body moves over and blocks their view. If one’s foot hits the ground ahead of the body it exerts a braking force, slowing one down with every foot strike. If one maintains proper running posture (shoulders relaxed, body upright with a bit of a forward lean, eyes focused and drawing to a spot 8-10 meters ahead),then the foot should land under the body. As the body moves over the foot the leg fires, driving the foot against the ground and accelerating the body forward. If the foot strikes the ground too far forward we have the previously mentioned braking effect plus the foot is on the ground longer as it waits for the body to catch up before it can push forward. If it strikes too far behind, the full force of he leg firing is not accessible and hamstring injury is at risk.
And this brings us to the “how” of just how the foot should strike the ground…forefoot strike? midfoot strike? heel strike? Since our discussion I have paid careful attention to my own foot strike, without trying to consciously change anything. What I have observed is:
1) At LSD (long, slow, distance) pace I tend to land on the outer edge of my foot, but basically neutral or what is referred to as “mid foot”. As I run a little duckfooted(turned out)this seems natural and when my body moves ahead, my foot rolls in and onto the ball of my foot, pushing off with my big toe.
2) Now, as I pick up the pace my foot is on the ground a shorter time, my forward lean increases, and my footstrike becomes a little more to the forefoot since my body is moving faster over the planted foot.
3) Also, when running hills I find myself using more forefoot strike uphill and neutral, sometimes even a bit of a heelstrike, when running down. I attribute this to the ground ahead of me being higher going up and lower going down. This probably affects my ankle position at the point of impact.
This indicates that for the same person(myself), the foot strike can change with speed and terrain. I have studied some video of elite runners and triathletes, and observe that almost universally they have a fast leg turnover and a foot strike directly under their bodies, yet I saw forefoot running, midfoot running, and yes, even the dreaded heelstrike. I attribute this to different degrees of flexibility and elasticity in the leg and ankle. It seems like an exercise in futility to focus on trying to run on one’s toes all of the time, especially if the run can be better improved by these other things. By paying close attention to posture, leg turnover, and keeping the foot landing and passing under one’s moving body, the rest will take care of itself based on speed, terrain, ankle flexibility, and body structure. If the “when” and “where” are in place, the “how” doesn’t really seem to matter.