There has recently been a great deal of debate over footwear for running, especially with the rise (or return) of the minimalist running shoe. Until now, the debate has always been about different types of shoes for different types of foot alignment issues, but the focus has always been the same: how can we get people to use proper running form? Perhaps the issue then is not with the shoe, but it is simply that many individuals have not learned that there is a proper way to run. After all, it is rather difficult to see yourself when you run.
Let’s start with a common running form that has been adopted by many, and that is encouraged by the high heel-toe height difference seen in most running shoes. There are a number of issues with this form, the first of which is heel striking. Heel striking is simply during stride, you land on the heel and then roll to the toes before pushing off again for another stride. This is all good for walking, since walking is low impact and the heel-toe method is necessary for maintaining balance, but landing on the heels when running puts excessive strain on the chain of joints leading up to the hips, and is also very inefficient. It also goes against nature’s design: watch any child running barefoot and you will see that they do not heel-strike, because the heel is designed to bear weight, but not impact.
Another problem with common running form that stems from the use of heel striking is over-striding. Over-striding occurs when a runner reaches out with their foot and has it land in front of their body. This is inefficient because the legs are now trying to pull the body along, causing a great deal of collapse in the joints of the feet, stress on the knee (usually on the outside) and a collapse or drop in the hip joints. Another issue that can be observed with common running stride is that with the heel-toe method, there is not much time during a stride with which to swing the feet back and forth. This means that with common running form, a lot more energy is required to run inefficiently and so to say, dangerously from a risk of injury perspective.
Proper running form then must be opposite to everything that has just been mentioned. Instead of heel striking, the best way to land is in the middle of the foot, and this landing should occur when the foot is underneath the body. This alone reduces the risk of injury substantially, and in turn helps to promote proper striding and cadence (step rate) when running, limiting stress-time on joints and dividing the force of each impact. Further to this approach is running exclusively on the forefoot. This also eliminates many running form problems, but is very strenuous on the calf muscles and therefore, not recommended for those attempting to switch from heel striking. When running, one should also assume an upright posture from the base of the skull down and focus ahead of where they are running. Adding a slight forward lean also helps to prevent over striding, and assists with development of a good cadence.
Allow me to give you a quick rundown of what proper running form looks like then. Assume an upright and slightly forward posture with the arms at the sides, elbows bent to just under 90 degrees, and the arms swinging naturally with the opposite leg stride. Since we already know that the midfoot is where we want to land, we can look at the touch-off and forward swing. To stride properly and efficiently, one should push off with the mid to front of the foot, lift the foot back behind them towards the butt, and then allow the whole leg to swing forwards. Doing this encourages a higher knee at the peak of the stride, followed by extension of the lower leg and landing on the midfoot again as it passes underneath the body.
An excellent way to work on developing good running form is to use the ABC’s of running. They are simple exercises or drills designed to promote the lifting of the hind leg, the forward swing, and the midfoot strike.
Altogether, proper running form allows for a more efficient stride that is not damaging to the runner’s joints, and is much better for the leg and hip muscles. Note that changing the running form stresses areas of the body that may have had poor adaptations thus far. If done right, the result will include some soreness. Making these changes too quickly can result in excessive soreness of injury, so it’s recommended that the changes be made at a rate of about 10% per week, so 10-12 weeks of consistent, gradual adaptation should be sufficient. The results will include decreased stress to the hips, increased speed and efficiency, and may clear nagging running injuries.
By Coach Kevin Hehr