Form Does Matter

Running coaches have long instructed their athletes on proper form or technique, but for some reason when it comes to recreational runners, the idea that there is a correct way to run to enhance performance and enjoyment and reduce the chance of injury has been replaced by a heavy emphasis on the proper selection of highly structured running shoes based on foot type. Increasingly, this approach is considered flawed. Anatomical differences result in variations in form, but just as is the case with a swimming stroke, a golf club swing, or a tennis serve, certain basic rules that are the building blocks of running-specific biomechanical efficiency apply across the board. They can be effectively taught, and learned and adopted by all runners from beginners to elite competitors.

“People are talking about running form again.  In any other activity—golf, swimming, badminton—it’s all about technique; it’s all about form.  Only in running were you told ‘well just buy some shoes’ “

— Christopher McDougall, author of “Born to Run.” 

A lesson on proper running form best begins with a comparison between running and walking. Running is a series of jumps with an airborne phase, while when walking at least one foot is always in contact with the ground as support is alternately shifted from one leg to another. This difference determines the optimal way that the foot lands; specifically what part of the foot should initially contact the ground. When jumping, humans naturally land on the ball of a slightly plantarflexed (downwardly angled) foot with a bent knee. This allows the foot, ankle, and knee to flex and absorb the impact force. In contrast, a straighter leg with a heel landing works best for walking, where impact force is not a concern. Conventional running shoes are actually more suited to walking than running. With an elevated heel and cushioning, they encourage a more forceful heel‑striking running form, while running in minimalist shoes or barefoot encourages a more efficient and forgiving forefoot landing. In 2009, Harvard Evolutionary Biology professor Daniel Lieberman published a study in the journal Nature that examined the differences between barefoot and shod runners in terms of running form, efficiency, and impact forces. Heel striking, even with the force mitigating effects of shoe cushioning, resulted in a braking effect with each step, and a pronounced impact spike. Barefoot runners landing on the forefoot did not experience an impact spike and transmitted less force up their legs, instead converting more of the impact force into rotational energy that produced forward momentum. The rate of force loading, thought to be a primary cause of overuse injuries, was less than half in the barefoot group compared to the heel‑striking shod runners (30 bodyweights per second vs. 70 bodyweights per second). Furthermore, Lieberman found that the barefoot runners compensated for the hardness of the surface they were running on by adjusting the flexing of their knees and ankles, thus experiencing the same impact forces on hard and soft surfaces.

“Running is a skill, and there are better and worse ways to run.”

— Dr. Daniel Lieberman, Harvard University Professor of Evolutionary Biology.

The three components of proper running form are posture, cadence, and a forefoot landing. Run tall—lined up from the head to the ankles, no leaning forward at the hips. Run relaxed—particularly in the neck, shoulders, and ankles. Your feet should be aligned forward, and your arm swing should be compact, not crossing the body centerline, with the elbows maintained at an angle of 90° or less. Running cadence refers to steps-per-minute. By forcing you to very quickly put your feet down and lift them up, a faster cadence from 175–185 steps-per-minute helps to prevent the overreaching of the forward leg that results in heel-striking. A metronome that can be easily clipped to your waistband is an effective training tool for resetting your cadence.

“The forward foot moves toward the track in a downward, backward, ‘stroking’ motion (not punching or pounding) and the outer edge of the ball of the foot makes first contact with the track.”

— Fred Wilt, track coach, writing in “How They Train.”

A forefoot landing avoids braking action and the associated impact spike. Land under the hips on the ball of the foot or the forefoot area of the foot, letting the heel come down and lightly touch the ground. (If you’re sprinting or running up a steep grade, your heel will not come down.) Then quickly lift the trailing foot; don’t push off with the toes. When running downhill, maintain the same cadence but bring the rear foot up higher. The drawings below illustrate correct and incorrect form. Click on them to enlarge.

To conclude, biomechanical efficiency cannot be achieved by purchasing proper footwear. It arises from correct form and technique that must be learned and practiced. The role of running footwear is to provide the needed level of protection with the least amount of interference with the natural function of the foot.

©2013 Kenneth Hopes

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