Performance Running: Foot Strike and Knee Drive

 

Some runners argue they don’t need to work on form. They have all kinds of reasons: I’m not serious enough to need to learn; nobody taught me how to run in the first place; I’ve been running fine for years; my body runs as it should. I understand. But why not challenge yourself; see how good it can feel to reinvent your run form. Also, if you’ve been suffering from aches and pains and even injuries associated with your running, there’s a reason, and one of the root causes is likely poor form.

 

Our bodies are designed to move in a certain way, common to all of us, and because of this, I fundamentally believe there is a single “best” form to run. Yes, some may have more innate ability to do so than others (just like in other sports). But with the proper instruction in form, you can learn to run to the best of your ability, with the greatest efficiency.

 

Not to be cute, but I describe the ideal of running form as “performance “ because “form” is at the heart of the word. Without form, there’s no performance.  Everything in proper form begins with the foot, specifically the forefoot. Landing there, as you see in this video, is the first line of stability in your stride. The toes, especially, the big toe, engage the ground. The arch then fires, and you are creating a stable base that brings the knees and hips into alignment. By landing on the forefoot, your ankle, which should not extend past the knee, provides some shock absorption as your heel follows down. Striking with the forefoot also helps prevent you from overstriding (though it’s no guarantee) and allows for a quicker cadence.

 

The right shoes are critical to developing proper forefoot strike. Shoes with a built up heel and thick outsole keep the heel and calves from engaging fully. This stops your calves from firing well, causing you to lose power and elasticity, throwing off your muscle equilibrium.  Once you switch to a flexible, more natural shoe, you’ll really feel those calves working, as they should.

 

Foot Strike Technique and Awareness

  • Strike the ground first with your forefoot
  • Keep your ankle under your knee. Don’t ever let your foot reach so far out in front that your ankle is in front of your knee.
  • Regardless of speed, the forefoot’s strike in relationship to your body should not change.
  • Your shoulders should stay in line with your hips; don’t lean at the waist.

 

Drills

These drills are critical for you to understand proper form and to experience how good form should “feel”. They also serve to help you practice and reemphasize good form, creating the right muscle memory. As you progress, they can be performed as a warm up before a run—and even during runs to get the right feel back.

 

  • Barefoot Jumping In Place: This drill allows us to understand and feel the foot strike from the forefoot.  Runners should strike first with the forefoot and then allow the heel to hit.  The faster we run, and the stronger our feet become over time, the more the heel can stay elevated off the ground.  But when first working on form, and when running slow, you should allow the heel to drop to the ground after the forefoot.
  • Barefoot Running In Place: You really can’t run wrong while running in place.  Without coaching or instruction, you’ll do it well, especially when running in place fairly fast. We will naturally strike the ground with our forefoot, bring our knees out in front of us, and drive power directly into the ground.  When running for real, the only thing that changes is that we angle our foot to the ground to propel us forward, rather than up and down in place. This is also a perfect drill to understand how we should drive through the ground and lift our knees in front of us.

 

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Comment by Jill Brennan on November 27, 2012 at 12:30am

Thanks Eric for the tips.  I tried using shorter strides downhill today and it did help, so did switching on my core.  I forgot about the bike analogy so I'll try remembering that next. 

I find I'm running a lot slower than the rest of my running group (who aren't making the switch to minimalist running!).  I tried focusing on my arms today, on letting my elbows go high at the back and that seemed to help with speed and just overall 'flow'.  I've been running with a forefoot strike for about 2 months now and my calves aren't hurting like they did which is a relief.  But even when I try to run faster I just don't seem to have the power with each step. Is that normal?  Does power build once my body fully adjusts?

Comment by Eric Orton on November 21, 2012 at 3:09pm

Jill - sometimes you have to slow down to speed up.  On dowhills I coach my athletes to focus on good foot strike in training so your body can continue to benefit.  To do this, focus on running downhill with a fore foot strike and imagine pedaling a bike.  This will help you to not overstrike.  As you get better, your speed will improve.  In races, do the best you can but this also is the time to go your fastest and you can let form slip a little on the SHORTER races.  The longer the race, the more you should always focus on good form.

E

Comment by Jill Brennan on November 19, 2012 at 11:01pm

Eric, what about running down hill, especially on trails.  Should I still aim for forefoot strike?  This seems to make my downhill running a lot slower but it could just be because I'm still getting it used to it.

Comment by Remko Tronçon on November 19, 2012 at 1:46pm

Eric, thanks for the tip, and it makes total sense! I somehow picked up the idea that bent knees = good, so I probably was keeping them bent too much. My knees seem to feel much happier now that i'm taking your suggestions into account. Thanks a bunch!

Comment by Carri Wullner on November 9, 2012 at 10:03am

Nice video Eric! I think it is very helpful to try running barefoot as it will help you feel the correct form.  It is hard to run in bad form when you run barefoot, so practicing this on a track is great. Then work hard to do it as much as you can, it takes time to build up strength as so many of us have run in bad form for so long, especially if never having done track in school or doing running specific sports.

Can't wait to try the B2R shoes!

Comment by brendan wild on November 8, 2012 at 10:19pm

Great video Eric, really shows how to practice having good form. I, along with a group of others have been getting coached this year and the main emphasis has been on form and posture, the drills we have been doing are all very similar to what you have on this site, and everyone's form has improved out of sight and some of the members are very experienced athletes/runners and their times have improved too, with no injuries to boot. My own form is vastly improved and I can now run for longer distances without any soreness at all, I'm loving it. So good form does need to be taught  as you suggest so keep up the good work.

cheers Brendan

Comment by Martyn Standing on November 8, 2012 at 2:56pm

Thank you, that´s so useful. I´ve recently been out for a month injured with a hairline fracture of the metatarsal. This was probably due to bad form so this is a good opportunity to reassess and try to get it right.

Comment by CrazyDave on November 8, 2012 at 7:17am
Awesome and inspirational. I did my 1st half marathon last month. And your instruction and fluid form always provides motivation to improve and do more.
Comment by Lisa Ingram on November 8, 2012 at 12:41am

Jim Stanton thanks for your post. I have that sort of foot - something new to try to see if it fixes horrid horrid high ham tendinopathy (who knows what links to what!) as I am about 12 months into it & at the point where the sports docs said 'go away and keep progressing your rehab for the next 18 months". (wah wah). I have progressed to skipping at last, so Eric your vid was so timely in making me feel I am on my way back. Maybe. In 2015. cheers, Lisa

Comment by Dennis Naillon on November 7, 2012 at 4:07pm

Remko - I have struggled with knee pain as well.  The inside of my right knee always hurt after a run.  Eric had a previous post on over striding where he listed some points about the running stride.  One of which really seemed to help with my knee pain was about extending the stance leg.  Focusing on extending my stance leg really seems to help with my knee pain.

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