Switching to forefoot striking

19 September 2013, 11:04

As you know, I’ve been a runner for quite some time, and during the entirely of that time, I’ve just run how I run, with no guidance on form or footfall other than just putting one foot in front of the other. For me, that meant that my heels struck first, and out in front of me. Even though I racked up some pretty good speeds, in photos I still always looked like a “shuffler”, and my hips and knees were definitely baring the brunt of my sessions.

In short, I felt that I could probably be running smarter somehow, to both protect my body so I can run well into my old age, but also so that the effort I’m putting in translates into faster speeds. For this I turned to Barbara at Energy Labs late last year. I’d seen her as a physio for a hamstring niggle during Amsterdam training last summer (still, to date, my only running “injury” ever, if you could even call it that) and I was super impressed then. I’m still only half joking when I say she’s a witch – she really is the real deal and worth every penny and pound of sweat.

So after a few months hiatus for a nasty bout of shingles, we properly started on improving my form and switching me over to forefoot striking in April. We roughly followed a four step plan, which looks a lot easier to read than it actually is to do!

Step One – increase cadence


Cadence is the number of times your feet hit the ground in a given amount of time. The magic number is somewhere around 180-190 beats per minute. I had been having far too reaching of a stride and moving my feet much slower than this, even at speed. For several months, all I did was move my feet faster (still heel striking and changing nothing else).

Step Two – the lean


Except it’s not really leaning – it’s more throwing your centre of gravity forward a little as you run, so that you almost feel like you’re about to fall and your feet move underneath you to try and counter it. You can try this by standing up straight, leaning forward a bit (don’t bend at the waist!), and falling forward til your feet do a little quick-step to catch you so you don’t face-plant. This is also where the actual forefoot striking comes in, because as your feet will now hit the ground underneath you instead of in front of you, it’s almost impossible to heel-strike.

This step probably took the longest to get used to – at the start, it takes a lot of effort to keep your centre of gravity forward at all times when running (and doing it downhill is scary!), but eventually it becomes second nature and I saw a big speed to effort ratio bump when I got this down.

As for the forefoot striking itself, I definitely had to build this up gradually – I started with only doing it for shorter runs, then I could get up to about 10km before I’d have to switch back to heel-striking, and some days my feet could only take it in short doses. I never had the awful calf pains so many runners complain of, but instead the stabiliser muscles on the sides of my lower legs ached pretty much continuously for months until they and my ankles learned to cope with the new supporting role they had to play. Eventually that faded away, though.

Step Three – heel lift


Once I got the basics down, it was time to start lifting my legs in the back so that my lower legs form a right angle as I lift my heel. This is something I’ve definitely found easier to work on during speed sessions than slow runs, and I still have trouble in getting my weaker left side to lift as much as my stronger right side. Focusing on only lifting one side at a time for short distances helps, though it does feel really weird to run unevenly like that. Targeted hamstring pulls before a run also help to “wake up” the hamstrings and remind them to lift, though since the cat attacked my resistance band it’s become a bit more challenging!

Gait comparison
Stills from videos shot at Energy Labs in April & July 2013 that show my differences in form in only a few months!

Step Four – knee lifts


I’ve only really just started this step, but it completes the full circles your legs go through as they move in space while you run. I’ve found that a few of the drills we do at track really help to make my legs aware of what they need to do, but it’s still very much a conscious effort on my part. I’m hoping that, like the other steps, this one will become second nature over time, too.

So where am I now? Well, five months in and I’m definitely faster, lighter on my feet, and and awful lot stronger. I’m still injury-free (touch wood), and I’ve only just started switching to a pair of minimalist/barefoot trainers from my old faithful (and incredibly cushioned!) Asics Kayanos I’d run in for 8+ years. But I’m still battling awful blisters and callouses constantly. I’m told this is because my feet are too weak to react and push off on impact, so they slide instead, creating blisters that even Body Glide can’t prevent! I’ll admit the home spa pedicures I’m giving myself are nice, but I’d really rather be blister-free, so I’ve got some foot-strengthening homework to do over the next few weeks.

If you’re thinking of switching to forefoot striking yourself, a word of advice – do NOT just got out and buy minimalist shoes and start running your usual mileage in them without someone to watch your form. I tried this briefly and shredded my calves so badly I could barely walk for the next few days (and I just looked like a prancing pony because I had no idea what I should be doing), but you could do much, much worse damage. Get some advice, and expect the process to take the better part of a year.

And of course, if you heel-strike and it’s working for you, then don’t feel you have to change, or believe the barefoot choir saying that heel-striking inevitably leads to injury and ruin. In the end, running is meant to be enjoyable, and I personally made the switch so that I can run for decades and decades, until I’m that little old lady in the fast pen of the race next to you. It’s an investment in your running that isn’t about cost, but time. I definitely feel like I’ve invested the last five months into my future running self, and races further on the horizon.

Comments:

  1. Interesting, as I have been trying to change from front to back strike! Mostly as being a fighter, I used to run on the balls of my feet, and when I first started my heels never touched the ground at all.

    I’d be interested in a post later on how you get on with the minimalist kicks, as I still fancy changing to those. While I spar barefoot, don’t think I’ll get rid of the shoes entirely when running…


    Stray Taoist    19 September 2013, 11:13    #

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