Proper running form is something that is highly debated and analyzed. Over the last 50 years, running has gained popularity not only as a method of staying in shape but also as a means of competition. Most people’s athletic careers end once they graduate high school. However, thanks to sponsored road races, running acts as a competitive outlet for those still looking to train hard and compete. Unfortunately, over that same period, we have lost our innate ability to run, due to decreased activity levels, fewer opportunities for play, and poor footwear designs inhibiting proper foot function.
You don’t have to go to a 5k to watch horrendous running mechanics. Pay attention to any person awkwardly hurrying across a crosswalk, any parent uncomfortably chasing after their runaway toddler, or even just someone running through your neighborhood. You’ll see plenty of overreaching, egregious heel striking, hunched over upper backs, shoulders shrugged, and feet kicking out to the side. The most disheartening part is most people are completely unaware they’re doing anything wrong. Over time we have lost what used to come naturally. Sedentary lifestyles and terrible shoes have changed our body’s physiology so much that we have developed compensations for our body’s reduced functionality. These compensations can lead to overuse injuries. This blog is written to give others a better understanding of basic running mechanics and possibly influence the physical environment in which people raise their kids.
Initial Contact Point
The first thing I am going to address is where your foot contacts the ground when running. If your foot hits the ground anywhere out in front of your body, that is biomechanically a braking mechanism.
Think of it from a physics standpoint. If you want to move forward, you need to apply force backward. Also, you need to apply some force vertically, to counter gravity. Therefore, with each stride, you need to expend the minimal effective amount of force vertically, and the desired amount of force backward for how fast you want to run.
Each time your foot makes contact with the ground out in front of your body, you halt your forward momentum. That contact usually results in a jarring force, sent up the leg to the pelvis and spine. By taking hundreds of repetitive steps like that during a run, that jarring force compounds and can lead to injury.
Things change a bit for sprinting vs distance running, but the takeaway is the same. Don’t make contact out in front. When sprinting, you are less likely to deal with a jarring force sent up your leg, but rather a strain on the hamstring. The muscle is likely going to be over-stressed having to both apply force vertically to keep you upright and horizontally pull your foot back underneath your body. To do those two jobs, your hamstring must flex the knee and extend the hip. Asking one muscle group to be responsible for both joint actions at high speeds often leads to strained or pulled hamstrings. Conversely, when your foot strikes directly under your center of mass your vertical force will be in line with the resistance of gravity, your glutes can take care of hip extension, and your hamstrings can exclusively flex the knee.
If you look at the point of contact as it relates to energy expenditure, making contact in front of your center of mass requires more energy. When your foot strikes out in front, you’re forced to absorb all of your forward momentum through your lead leg, pull your foot back underneath your center of mass, and then finally apply force backward. All of that work to once again hit the brakes with your next foot contact. No wonder people think running is so hard.
An ideal foot strike or initial contact point is directly underneath your center of mass. That way your initial force is applied vertically on contact to keep from falling, and as your leg extends behind your body, your force is transitioned to a horizontal vector to move you forward. Depending on your anatomy and the kind of running you are doing, your center of mass may vary. If you are accelerating into a sprint, that contact point is likely under your hips and well behind your shoulders. If you are in a full-speed sprint, your center of mass should be in a direct line under your shoulders and hips. If you are on a long-distance run, your center of mass is somewhere in between, because your posture should be somewhere in between a perfectly upright torso and a 45-degree lean.
The next piece of the puzzle comes from what part of your foot should make contact with the ground. If you watch most recreational runners, you will see a shocking amount of
them strike the ground with their heels. The truth is your foot and ankle are not designed to apply or absorb force in that way. If you want an easy way to test this, try jumping in place on the balls of your feet (forefoot) as if you are jumping rope. Now try doing the same thing on your heels. You hit the ground with a thud and don’t bounce back up. Your ankle is designed to function as a class two lever. In order to do so, you have to apply force through your forefoot. Another test that usually opens people’s eyes is if you go out and run on your street barefoot. It will not feel very nice if you heel strike on concrete. To take advantage of our anatomy and run efficiently we should be striking with your forefoot directly under our center of mass.
We now know that when running your heels should not touch the ground, but rather you should be taking advantage of ideal biomechanical positions and the spring-like design of your foot and ankle, and strike with your forefoot. The question then turns to, why are so many people running incorrectly? It is important to first acknowledge that the human body will always find the path of least resistance. Your body will do what it has to, to get the job done. Therefore, whatever way someone figures out how to run, their body is doing it for a reason. In most cases I’ve seen, that reason comes from weak feet and tight hips.
Weak feet are a common trait for most people who do not otherwise work on them. It stems mostly from our choice of footwear and negligence to the fact that the muscles of our feet should be doing something. The same way your legs and glutes work when you walk and run, your feet should be too. The short and long flexor and extensor muscles in your feet should be working to absorb and apply force any time we are walking on them.
However, most people spend the majority of their day in fashionable or comfortable shoes with a massive padded sole or heel. Go look at any shoe on Nike’s Website. They are all designed with a large padded heel for shock absorption. If your shoe is made to do all of the work for you, and you wear your shoes all day every day, then your feet are never working. They become dormant inside your sensory deprivation shoes. If your shoes are heavily padded, then why not just recklessly throw your leg out in front and violently crash onto your heel with each stride? Although that impact may not be felt through your feet, the jarring force is still sent up the legs and impacts the hips and spine.
Unfortunately, as the old saying goes “if you don’t use it, you lose it”. If you exclusively rely on your shoes for shock absorption and propulsion, then you lose the ability to do so effectively with your feet and ankles. Most people are born with fully functioning foot and ankle muscles. If you watch a toddler run, they will display a perfect contact point, directly under their center of mass, and maintain exclusively forefoot support. No heel striking, no overreaching, and no crashing with each step. Even the way they look like they are about to fall with each step is just execution of excellent running efficiency. They are using gravity to help maintain their forward momentum, and only allotting the minimal amount of force to stay upright. Sadly, as we jam children’s feet into cushiony shoes and force them to sit still at a desk at school for 7 hours a day, that ability is lost. Sometime around first grade is when you start to see compensations come about.
While the rest of our body continues to develop and our ability to use our feet for absorption and transfer of force goes unused, the more drastic our deficiency becomes. If you are not conditioned to using the muscles of your feet and ankles, you will not magically figure it out in one running session. It is not as simple as trying to run differently. As mentioned before, your body will do what it has to, to get the job done. You cannot ask your feet and ankles to support your weight while running if they do not have the ability to. It will take some time building up their strength to match the rest of your lower body’s output. Various calf-raise holds, heel unsupported training, and time spent barefoot can be effective ways to train for stronger feet. A slow and steady progression of running on your forefoot will help break old habits and transfer the newly developed foot strength. The key is to take baby steps, or better yet, steps like a baby