If you could have one superpower what would it be? My unofficial poll as a Pine Cove Camp Counselor over the years sampling 6th and 7th graders shows that the 2 most common answers are flight and super speed. Why not both? By definition, when you run, both feet leave the ground in what is known as the “flight phase” of running. You can fly. Guess what? That also makes you move faster. Boom, runners are superheroes. The problem is, so many runners do not tap into their superpower.
I recognize that what I am going to say might sound controversial to some and could rub some the wrong way. I am not trying to change you or tell you that what you are doing is wrong. Just that there may be better options for you, and hopefully you see my reasons and understand where I am coming from by the end of everything. This is something I have observed over the years and more so in the past few weeks watching other people run. I’m a runner and a physical therapist. I totally watch you run and analyze things, but I’m not a jerk so I don’t shout at you to fix things. That’s what this post is for.
There are three main running patterns that people develop or use: heel strike, midfoot strike, and forefoot strike. These terms relate to which part of the foot hits the ground first when you run. Far and away the most common is heel striking. Studies of marathon runners have shown >90% of runners heel striking during the later stages of their marathon. However, speed and experience were shown to be a big component with faster runners demonstrating a lower percentage of heel strike. There are also degrees of heel strike that you can see when you look at the articulation of the foot and the ground. The more the toes point up when the foot hits, the more extreme the heel strike is. Why does this matter? Physics.
“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In running, we call these ground reaction forces. Without putting you to sleep, force is a vector quantity because it has magnitude and direction. The direction is the important part here. Heel striking is commonly associated with an increased reaction force directed backwards. This is a breaking force. It’s the break. It slows you down. If you want to move forward, you want to minimize the amount of force that is slowing you down. To do that, you need to land less on your heel and more towards the middle of the foot. Said differently, you want the foot more underneath your body and not reaching out in front.
“Zach, are you saying we shouldn’t ever heel strike?” No. What I am saying is consider the role your foot strike plays in your performance and ability to run. Do you get exhausted when running? We all do, but it could be partly due to your mechanics slowing you down and making your muscles work harder than they need to. Running is all about efficiency and minimizing extraneous work to maximize your forward movement. I am also saying, if you have ankle, knee, or hip pain when running your foot strike may (probably does) play a role.
Mid and forefoot striking is not for everyone, and I know that. However, the physics and the mechanical advantages can not be ignored. Heel striking puts the brunt of the impact on your tibialis anterior, and while it is not a small muscle, it’s got nothing on your calves (gastrocnemius and soleus). Landing with the weight on the mid and forefoot recruits these large muscles more which helps decrease the impact forces on your knee and hip. It also causes more knee flexion at landing which brings your big ol’ quads into the game more. Your muscles are pretty good shock absorbers when you let them be.
When I say “get your foot off the break!”, what I am saying is to get your foot down sooner so you aren’t reaching so far out and hitting as much with your heel (or not at all). This will help you keep that forward momentum with each step, which will in turn help you run faster and easier. Some common running cues to improve your heel strike degree is to “run quiet” or to “run on your toes”. 98% (unoffical stat) of the time when I tell someone to “run on their toes” they do not actually run on their toes. They move from an extreme heel strike to a mild one or midfoot strike. It feels like a more drastic change that it actually is.
If you feel you would benefit from adjusting your running gait there are a few things to do and consider. First, this will take time. Running is an automatic process that you do not actively think about. It will take a lot of gradual practice and strengthening to make the shift and make the run feel natural. Second, you will need to strengthen your muscles in new and different ways. You will be placing an increased demand on your gastroc/soleus muscles which in turn will increase the forces on your Achilles tendon. You will probably also notice an increase in quadriceps activity as you do this as well. This translates to: “you will probably be sore”. A good way to ease into this transition is to make changes 1 minute at a time during your run. Example: run the first minute with “quiet” steps then the next 9 minutes just run like you normally do. Try that every 10 minutes during your run. Do that for 3 runs a week the first week. The next week, try 2 out of 10 minutes for 3 different runs. Keep adding 1-2 minutes each week until you are doing 1-2 whole runs per week with your adjusted gait mechanics. It may seem ridiculous to go that slow, but you need to give the muscles and tendons time to adapt to their new jobs.
Mechanically, there are other changes to your running form that will occur when you land with your foot more underneath you. Your knee will rise more, your cadence will likely increase, and your posture will likely change a little as well. These are all good things. When you take your foot off the break, you are letting your body go and run. It can be awkward at first, but eventually it will feel natural and you will likely find that you enjoy running even more after. You’ll be running faster and flying more.
***One big caveat*** If you are actively training for a race in the next 3 months, consider waiting until AFTER your race to make a change. You can dabble, but cross the finish line first, then look to start making changes.***