Runners, especially those new to the sport, are often torn between the various schools (aka ‘religions’) of thought regarding where and how the foot should land when we run: on the heel, flat, on the ball, the toe…I recently worked with a new runner who landed on her toes…what is sometimes referred to as the dressage school of running! She also made a big effort not to let her heels touch the ground…ever!! When I reacted in mock ‘horror’ at her way of running she confessed she’d taken a Pose running class and this was how she understood what she was supposed to do.
At the other end of the spectrum we see runners who have adapted their walking gait to their new sport and land heavily with an exaggerated heel strike. Both patterns will likely soften with time but why risk injury waiting for experience to sort things out…?
In a little book from 1975 entitled “Running With Style” the question of how the foot lands is addressed, succinctly and clearly. Where you land is related to how fast you’re running. If you are sprinting, the foot first touches down on the outside edge of the sole high on the ball of the foot…what many people mistakenly refer to as ‘running on your toes.’ The book is very clear on the fact you should only land here if you are sprinting!! Slower paces (5000m and up) the natural place for the foot to land is on the outside edge of the arch between the heel and the metatarsus…in other words basically flat. So for most recreational runners, this is where your foot will land naturally unless you make “a conscious effort to plant the foot in some other way.”
Bottom line: run slow…land flat…run fast (sprint) land further forward towards the ball of the foot.
When this isn’t happening we need to ask why, especially if we want to improve and avoid injury. I’d like to offer a few reasons why runners land poorly, in ways which are inefficient and may cause injury:
First reason is poor posture. Sitting badly all day at work does not lend itself to running like a Kenyan….poor head balance, a collapsed spine, weak hips and fallen arches are not part of a good stride and may well contribute to a poor landing. Postural improvement, as any Alexander Technique teacher will testify, brings immediate improvement to your overall movement pattern including how you land.
Secondly, incorrect ideas of how we are meant to run in the form of bad advice eg “land on your forefoot”, misconceptions such as lengthening the stride (meaning put your foot further in front of you) or a misinterpretation of good advice such as being told to run lightly leading to a tip-toe type of stride can all create havoc with a runner’s foot plant.
The third cause of a poor foot plant is lack of awareness. FM Alexander is quoted as saying “the hardest things to change are those which do not exist.” May runners are not aware of how they land and are shocked to see what’s actually happening on slo-mo video replay. When we land, our foot is on the ground for less than 3/10’s of a second which is not a lot of time to notice what’s going on in that key moment. Stiff ankles, clenched toes and collapsed ankles also contribute to a lack of awareness. Similarly, if a runner is not in the habit of listening to his feet will let a lot of bad habits slip by unnoticed.
I won’t go into my rant about headphones and music contributing to the separation of mind and body but suffice it to say that actually being there when you’re running is a great way to improve and maintain good form.