Saturday, September 10, 2011

The 5 Ele­ments of Good Bare­foot Run­ning Form

Running is a mix of flexing and relaxing; a harmony of strength AND elasticity. Running is defined as 'a stride that results in both feet being off the ground at one time'.  The beauty of being off the ground is there's NO impact.  When it's time, and it should be brief, for your foot to land on the ground you get to choose how it lands and how long it's on the ground.  Let the foot fall, dont force it or push it.  As Gordon Pririe says in his "Running Fast and Injury Free", "Instead of looking for padding[in your shoes], learn to run properly, so that you stop punching holes in the ground with your feet."

1. Foot Placement (think of how a jet airliner comes in for a landing, the best pilot touch all three sets of wheels at once, you also have three set points in your soles and they all must touch down for a landing)

Per­haps the most doc­u­mented ele­ment of good run­ning form is a fore­foot strike. Daniel Lieber­man (click for the link of his famous shod running paper) has shown how land­ing on your fore­foot or mid­foot results in less shock than land­ing on your heel first. Whether you land fore­foot or mid­foot seems to be a mat­ter of pref­er­ence. When­ever you read fore­foot or mid­foot, just think ‘not heel’ first.

Exer­cise: Run­ning in Place

A good way to get a sense of what a foot landing feels like is to run in place. You’ll find it’s very hard to land on your heels first. Go ahead, try it. It’s just not effi­cient to land on your heels when you run in place. Your body nat­u­rally lands on its fore­foot when your feet touch the ground.

Com­mon Mis­take: No heel strike.

Now it might seem con­trary to this whole ele­ment to say that the com­mon mis­take of work­ing on fore­foot strikes is to not heel strike. The prob­lem with talk­ing about a fore­foot strike is that peo­ple think they are to only touch the ground with the fronts of their feet, run­ning ‘tippy-toed.’ This is not the case at all. If your heel doesn’t touch the ground at all you’re in for a world of hurt, in your calves and quite likely your achilles. You should land on your fore­foot first when your foot is strik­ing the ground, quickly fol­lowed by your heel touch­ing the ground for a split sec­ond. Only short-distance sprint­ers never let their heels touch the ground. As Michael San­dler puts it, let your heel ‘kiss’ the ground.  When I am 'at speed' I feel a bit like my feet are paint brushes stippling the ground beneath me. 
CIMG0611 thumb The 5 Elements of Good Barefoot Form

2. Slight Lean (relax your ankles as if it's a game of trust and you're falling while maintaining good posture.  Avoid Folding at the waist or eye contact with the ground in front of you - either will cause you to work harder)


Another impor­tant ele­ment of a good run­ning form is a slight lean for­wardby relaxing your ankles. The Pose tech­nique of run­ning, as taught by Dr. Ramanov, explains why lean­ing for­ward is an impor­tant part of run­ning effi­ciently. The idea is that by lean­ing for­ward you can use grav­ity to your advan­tage rather than fight­ing it. Instead of hav­ing to push your­self for­ward, you already have for­ward momen­tum when you work with grav­ity. It’s just a mat­ter of mov­ing your foot under you again as you ‘fall’ forward.

Exer­cise: Part­ner Lean (or Wall Lean if no partner)

Have some­one you trust (or who at least isn’t hold­ing a grudge against you!) stand in front of you a few feet away. Have them hold their arms out so they can place their hands on your shoul­ders when you lean a cou­ple of feet for­ward. Prac­tice lean­ing into them a few times to get the dis­tance right so they catch you just after you pass the “point of no return.” Then, look­ing straight ahead, body in a straight line, lean for­ward. Get used to how far you have to lean before you reach the point where you have to put a foot for­ward to catch your­self. Lean a lit­tle beyond this point, with your buddy catch­ing you. This will help you learn how to lever­age a lean to pro­pel your­self forward.

Com­mon Mis­take: Bend­ing at waist, not ankles.

Watch runners whenever you can (and if possible record yourself!). You often see run­ners hunched over, bent at their waist. This is caused by fatigue as well as a mis­un­der­stand­ing of what a lean should look like. If you bend at the waist you put a lot of stress on your lower back. It’s also not as much of a lean if only your top half is tilted, result­ing in a less effi­cient means to for­ward momen­tum. Make sure you are lean­ing at your ankles, not your waist or neck.
image thumb9 The 5 Elements of Good Barefoot Form

3. Cen­ter of Gravity

When your foot lands on the ground it should be under your cen­ter of grav­ity, not out in front of you. Land­ing with your foot in front of your cen­ter of grav­ity results in many problems:

  • Your leg is locked out, this negates the use of your springy tendons in absorbing impact.  When your knees are locked and leg is in front of your center of gravity the only impact absorption in in the small cushions between your bones, they're not designed for that!
  • Vector mechanics: you can't fight against physics!  A foot landing in front of you creates a force vector that includes absorbing your weight and braking your momentum (aka inertia) - why ADD to the force that your mass and gravity have offered? Landing under your body creates a force vector that contains ONLY your mass * gravity.  It is therefore the same regardless of your speed.

Exer­cise: Puppet-on-a-String

As you take a deep breath in, imag­ine that a string, pulling from your spine through your head is lift­ing your whole body straight up. As the string gets taut, your hips and feet fall into place so they align under your head. Now, the imag­i­nary string is let loose and you col­lapse. Do this exer­cise a cou­ple of times, pay­ing atten­tion to how it feels to have your head directly over your shoul­ders, your shoul­ders back, your chest up, your hips in a neu­tral posi­tion (not tilted for­ward nor back­ward), all rest­ing on your forefeet. Go ahead and stretch up onto your fore­foot as the string pulls you even higher. Then exhale and “crum­ple.” Do this sev­eral times.

Com­mon Mis­take: Being too tight, not bend­ing legs.

The above exer­cise helps you feel what hav­ing your whole body in align­ment over your cen­ter of grav­ity feels like. If you run like this, though, you will obvi­ously be too rigid and thus break­ing the car­di­nal rule of being relaxed. As you run, focus on land­ing your foot under your cen­ter of grav­ity, yet don’t for­get to be relaxed in your neck and shoulders.

image thumb10 The 5 Elements of Good Barefoot Form

4. Bent Knees

Our knees are meant to be bent upon foot landing. This allows all of our leg mus­cles to engage, result­ing in less shock to the rest of the body. You wouldn’t even con­sider jump­ing off a table – or even a sin­gle step – and land­ing with straight legs, would you? We need to make sure our legs are bent when we run, too. It makes for a much lighter land­ing with each step.

Exer­cise: Two-Foot Jumps

Place your feet next to each other, slightly apart. Then jump a few inches up into the air and land back in the same place. Were your knees bent or were they locked? I bet they were bent. Doesn’t even the thought of land­ing with locked knees give you the shud­ders? Ouch. The body knows to soften the impact by bend­ing your knees. Next, jump a foot in front of you. Over-exaggerate how bent your knees get after impact. Now jump two feet in front of you. Swing your arms and fin­ish your land­ing in the squat posi­tion. Try and land as softly and smoothly as pos­si­ble, like a cat does. You’ll notice that the more you bend your knees the softer you’ll land.

Com­mon Mis­take: Push­ing off with feet rather than pulling up legs. (It is obvious when someone is pushing off before lifting their foot as they tend to have more bounce, watch a woman's ponytail or head bounce of someone on a treadmill.  Any vertical component in your stride is wasted energy - you only get credit for the energy that propels you forward!)

Running is lifting your foot off the ground, not pushing up using toes or your calves.  Think of which leg muslces are the biggest/longest and use them first! So land with bent knees (which fires your quads) and use your ham­string mus­cles to lift your foot back off the ground (if you feel like your head is bob­bing up and down more than an inch, you’re push­ing off).  I always say in my head "pop-pop-pop-pop.." to the beat of lifting my heel towards my butt.  It's one of the few concentric (or tightening) muscles firings we do while running.  
CIMG0648 thumb The 5 Elements of Good Barefoot Form

5. High Cadence

This seems to be the tough­est con­cept for peo­ple to imple­ment. For what­ever rea­son, we have a much too slow cadence burned into our brains. Your cadence is the num­ber of times your foot lifts off the ground in a set amount of time, usu­ally a minute. No mat­ter your height or what speed you’re trav­el­ing at, 180 foot strikes per minute is about right. That’s 90 times your right foot hits the ground and 90 times your left foot hits the ground in 60 sec­onds. An easy way to count your own cadence is to count how many times your right foot lifts off the ground in 15 seconds.  A goal would be 22-23 counts.  

Note: I suggest counting foot lifts not footfalls because focussing on footfalls could cause you to plant your foot in time with your counts negating a gentle placement.

One rea­son this is so impor­tant is because your feet and legs can store energy after impact for a short period of time before that energy dis­si­pates (a sort of resonant frequency of the springyness in our legs and body). This Ele­ment is so impor­tant because it is in aid of each of the other Ele­ments. With a shorter stride you’re more likely to land under your cen­ter of grav­ity (#3), with bent knees (#4), and with a midfoot landing (#1).

Exer­cise: Baby Steps with Metronome

Use a metronome – there are many apps for this you can down­load to your cell phone – and set it at 180 or 90 beats per minute. Now run in place to the beat. Once you have a sense of what this feels like – how often your feet need to be tap­ping the ground – try adding for­ward move­ment by lean­ing for­ward. You’ll find that after awhile you can hear the beat in your head and don’t need to actu­ally lis­ten to it on a speaker.

Com­mon Mis­take: Run­ning faster, with long strides.

A higher cadence doesn’t mean you need to run faster. Just shorten your stride. In fact, you shouldn’t change how many foot-strikes you have per minute, no mat­ter what speed you are run­ning at. Over-exaggerate how short your stride is when run­ning to begin with. Think baby steps. This will help you keep your stride short.  Many runners new to this complain that it takes more effort to maintain 180 stride per minute - this too shall pass! The quick cadence takes practice and proper muscle sequence to learn 'not to fight it' stay loose and slowly notice 

Wanna Take Part in a Barefoot Running Survey?

Attention barefoot runners!  The University of Delaware Running Laboratory would like to invite you to take part in a web based running survey in order to better understand the habits of the barefoot runner.  Your participation will involve 15 minutes of your time each month to fill out an online survey.  You will fill out one survey a month for a year, upon which your name will be entered into a raffle to win a GPS!  To qualify for this opportunity you must be relatively healthy, between the ages of 18 and 50 and run more than 10 miles/week.  You also must have been running barefoot for more than 6 months, and at least 50% of your mileage must be done completely barefoot.  Please contact Allison Altman at for more information.