What is ‘proper run form’?


image I was talking to a friend today about the slo-mo camera I use to analyse run form and he asked me what was the ‘proper’ way.

There’s a question!

How is the foot supposed to land during running? This question evolves out of the discussion of shoes. vs barefoot running, and is often at the heart of discussions on running technique. Very often, debates of “technique” tend to start from the feet, jump to the knees (“lift your knees”) and then skip to the arms, and that’s about it!

I’m sure you have seen quotes like this before:

Leaning forward places a runner’s centre of mass on the front part of the foot, which avoids landing on the heel and facilitates the use of the spring mechanism of the foot. In other words, landing on the heel is bad, to be avoided… (Wikipedia)

Or the there’s this one:

Running equals springing through the air, landing elastically on the forefoot with a flexed knee…(Pirie)

BUT, what do they mean? Is it faster? More efficient? Less injury-prone? The fact is, the word “better” is used without studies specifically looking at any single one of these aspects. And the ‘prudence concept’, as applied to science, says that you cannot say something is “better” unless it’s been studied and compared to the alternatives. Unfortunately, the science lags behind in this regard.

So for example, above you have the quote that you are supposed to land elastically on the forefoot. That implies performance and efficiency, which might be true for short exercise, lasting a minute or two. But in an event like the marathon, are we sure it remains the “better” option? If you went out and ran 2 hours today, landing on your forefoot instead of landing as you’ve always done, what would be the likely outcome? Chances are, you’d be hurting for a few days, with calf muscles that you had perhaps forgotten you had! Worst case scenario, you’d be injured for months with an Achilles tendon injury. That is certainly not a desirable outcome. So there are problems with making sweeping statements about landing patterns.

The research

A Japanese study of elite runners in 2004 found that contrary to what we might expect, they were mostly all heel strikers.

A study done by Cunningham et al (2009) found that

Although humans appear to be specialized for endurance running, the plantigrade posture of our feet, in which the heel contacts the substrate at the beginning of a step, seems incompatible with economical running.

Or Williams et al (1987)

It appears that no single variable or small subset of variables can explain differences in economy between individuals but rather that economy is related to a weighted sum of the influences of many variables.

So, who do we believe?

My thoughts

Personally, I think there is a degree of genetics to foot strike in running. Unless it’s causing an issue or injury, I think there are much easier things that can be done to improve running economy.

  • correcting stride length – ensure you aren’t shuffling /over striding
  • corrcting upper body posture to ensure you are upright, with no extra pressure on the spinal column through hunching
  • ensuring the arms are correct, parallel and not crossing over the torso.
  • strength work to build muscle groups for effective power

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