Is there a correct way to run?

May 2, 2010

Landing on the forefoot
Landing on the forefoot. (Photo courtesy of Mikebaird/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

How do you develop a better running style and reduce your rate of injury? There is lots of advice out there about the best way to run, but is it any of it backed up by scientific studies?
The topic of “barefoot running” has certainly been a talking point in running magazines and forums for a couple of years. Its backers say it is more efficient and easier on the body. But how is this so? And how do you run barefoot along hazardous urban streets?
One recent study (as discussed in this article) seems to back up the idea that we’re built to run barefoot, and that this is a more natural way to run. And there’s no doubt it places less stress on the body when done correctly. This is partly to do with the way the foot impacts the ground when running barefoot.
This is something you can begin to experiment with, if you read a little further on.
The most common way to run is what we call “heel-toe” (see image, below). Your front foot lands in front of the body, and the heel strikes the ground first. You then push off with the toe. This has many drawbacks. It slows us down, applying a braking force. And in so doing it also puts more pressure through the joints of your leg than is necessary.

Most runners land on the heel. (Photo courtesy of Sheffield Tiger/Creative Commons Attribution licence)
Most runners land on the heel. (Photo courtesy of Sheffield Tiger/Creative Commons Attribution licence)

When you land on your heel in this way, it makes sense to try and reduce the impact by wearing trainers with thick soles. And so people will always caution you – when you start running – to buy proper running shoes with big thick soles.
But you can reduce the stress of foot impact by adopting a style of running where the forefoot lands first. Your foot lands underneath your centre of gravity (underneath your hips) and so it doesn’t interrupt your forward momentum. So there is far less stress and shock put through the leg. This is quite well illustrated in the photo at the top of this post, of two women running on a beach.
This forefoot-landing style is one that many people find greatly reduces their rate of injury and makes running easier and more efficient. It’s also one of the key reasons for the purported benefits of barefoot running, and is used in modern methods of running instruction like ChiRunning.
But you can benefit from these principles without resorting to actually running barefoot (a bit risky in my neighbourhood) or splashing out on pricey shoes that mimic the effects of running barefoot (MBTs, Nike Frees and so on).
There are subtleties of posture and so on that this article doesn’t cover but you can get a taste for this forefoot-landing way of running by trying the following:

• Stand, reasonably upright, looking ahead
• Raise one heel off the ground, then the whole foot, bringing it underneath (or a little behind) the hips and place it down again. Then raise the other foot off the ground in the same way
• Try making this transition more quickly, raising one foot while lowering the other (a bit like a hop)
• Do this continuously, as though running on the spot

Next, you can take this into running:
• While running on the spot in the above way, try to maintain the length of the body (i.e don’t hunch or bend forwards at the waist) while allowing the whole body to tip forward.
• Instead of simply falling on your face, allow one of your feet to break your fall and take you into a run

There are practical difficulties that many people struggle with when adopting this kind of approach. It always makes sense to run in an intelligent way, where you’re listening to your body, stopping and adjusting your technique if you encounter aches and pains.
Not only that but habits are very persistent, so you may find it hard to consciously adopt this running style. After a few steps you will possibly have reverted to what feels familiar – the way you run normally.
Objections to this forefoot-landing style of running tend to focus on the fact that most people will not be accustomed to doing it, so there is a risk of injury when starting out. And it has been associated with Achilles tendon injuries. But in my experience it works very well if you take it gently at first.
At my own running workshops, I use this approach in conjunction with Alexander technique principles to help people correct defects in their posture or overall style of running that may be causing problems. We explore various drills and practices that can help you prepare for this forefoot-landing type of running while also helping you improve aspects of overall running posture (although we hate the word “posture” as it implies fixing things in the right position – not exactly the route to free, spontaneous, joyful movement. But that’s another topic).
My own interest in running was rekindled a few years ago when attending seminars presented by Malcolm Balk a Canadian long-distance runner and Alexander technique teacher, whose ideas are the source material for a lot of the concepts discussed here. Balk has written an interesting book called Master the Art of Running and has a web site here.

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