Running technique has evolved the past 40 years and in some ways has come full circle. When I was competing as a teenager in the 70s, our running cleats were little more than a leather skin protecting our bare feet as we raced in the mile and two mile “long distance” events (we have come a long way!) Then jogging became a national sport and the wisdom was that sprinters land on their forefoot and distance runners should land on their heel. Expensive shoes have been created to cushion the blow of an almost fully extended leg on the heel. Thirty years and billions of biomechanical miles later, we are back to exploring the benefits of running without shoes. Let me explain.
Whether you are trying to improve your speed, distance or time, the way your body is aligned as you run and the way your foot strikes the ground will help or hurt your ability to achieve your goals and remain uninjured. Here are some technique tips to try.
1—Before beginning to run, do a gentle body alignment stretch to feel the proper posture in your body. My favorite warm-up before any run is to walk a short distance, shaking out the kinks. Then stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, bending knees slightly. Feel the heaviness of your head as you let it relax forward and down. The neck, shoulders, arms and spine follow until your hands are touching your feet. Gently grasp your feet with your hands and straighten the knees with the head still down and close to your legs. Hold for 5 seconds. Bend and straighten your knees 3-4 times then allow the spine to roll back up to standing tall on a long stretched spine, the head resting naturally on top of your neck, shoulders down and relaxed.
2—With your tall and naturally straight posture, lean slightly forward from the ankles until gravity pulls you forward. The head is looking forward, not down at the feet. Shoulders are relaxed and traps are down, elbows are bent and arms are close to the sides, with loose relaxed hands. The knees are always slightly bent on both legs, with the leg in the air bent behind the center of gravity. Feet should lightly land on the mid-foot, with the foot pointed forward on the ground. Don’t let the toes swing out or toe in, as this will cause eventual injuries from over-pronation or over-supination. Your foot strike should be right underneath the center of gravity (your slightly leaning forward pelvis). The biggest change in the past 5-6 years is the controversy over heel strikes vs. mid-foot strikes or forward strikes near the toes. Although popular opinion and several training programs such as Chi-running feel that the mid-foot strike is naturally superior to the heel strike, some runners point out that research has not confirmed this conclusively. (Golden, TGB.com 3/14/12). On the other hand, biomechanics expert Dr. Thomas Miller states that
There is no debate whether heel or mid-foot initial contact is more efficient….step forward making contact with your heel. Take a look at your leg: It has to be straight. So how is the impact of contact to be absorbed? The answer is up through your skeleton.
Repeat that motion thousands of times on a run and eventually injury will occur. If you need to change your footstrike technique, do it GRADUALLY so the body can adjust.
Changing your running technique is as difficult as changing any other lifelong habit, but it can be done with training and determination in three weeks. With your fitness, speed, time, or distance goals in mind, try these drills that Thomas Miller, PhD and athletic performance consultant, explains how utilizes to improve technique.
The first drill is to start walking barefoot around your house, track or gym, paying attention to how your foot naturally lands. Correct any toeing in or out issues and concentrate on the foot landing straight with the foot facing forward. As it is difficult to watch your own feet without dropping your head from its forward position, you may want to try this at a gym with mirrors or have a friend videotape you on their I-phone. On your outdoor run use store windows as a mirror to check your running technique. For those who have issues with germs and foot protection, wear minimalist shoes (the leather skins or jazz shoes) so you can feel all the muscles and tendons in your feet.
Now slowly run barefoot. Land as naturally and relaxed as possible. Imagine your feet as pebbles skipping lightly across a pond as you run. If you watch elite long distance runners, they seem to almost float above the ground rather than pounding down into the ground. Rather than push-off, think rebound. As you try to land more naturally on your midfoot under the center of gravity, you will notice that your knee is slightly bent on impact, cushioning all the joints and tendons. The energy of impact is spread across the tendons and rebounds as elastic energy which is used as the foot pushes off with a quicker turnover, increasing speed.
Here is a technique drill to improve your stride or turnover frequency. This means how quickly your feet are striking the ground. Jog 1 minute to warm up. Take a slow run for 30 seconds, counting each time the right foot strikes the ground. Jog 1 minute to relax. Run the 30 second drill again, this time trying to increase the number of right foot strikes by one. Complete this drill 3-4 times a week.
The best technique is running naturally slightly leaning forward from the ankles, landing on the midfoot with a quick turnover. Refining running technique is a lifelong pursuit and continual small adjustments will be needed as your running form is perfected