In my mind, running barefoot is a means to an end. And that end is a better running form. A form that leverages what I was born with, reducing the risk of injury and increasing my overall efficiency.
But what exactly is a good running form? And how does running without shoes help that form? This is the key question that prompted me to create a running workshop.
It’s interesting that many of the different types of running programs, techniques, and philosophies, such as Chi, Pose, Evolutionary, Natural, and barefoot, talk about a correct form in basically the same way. It’s reassuring to see such an overlap in the descriptions of what a good running form should be, even when coming from a variety of different expert sources.
While everyone’s body is unique and therefore their form should be too, we can learn a lot from descriptions of a good form. We can also learn a lot from watching each others’ form. This is one of my tenets for the Introduction to Barefoot Running workshops I put on (most recently at ZombieRunner in Palo Alto, CA). Watching others run and having them give us feedback after we run can be a good way to improve our form.
As a structure to the Introduction to Barefoot Running workshop I use The 5 Elements of Good Barefoot Running. It’s a synthesis of what I’ve learned through personal experience and a whole lot of reading, watching, and analyzing. I am sharing the 5 Elements of Good Barefoot Form as a way to help you think about your own form and hopefully improve it. I suggest you find a partner to do the exercises with. Someone who can watch you and give you good feedback, and vice versa, as you can learn a lot by teaching others.
The Cardinal Rule: Run Relaxed
It’s so important to be relaxed when you run. Tense muscles can be easily pulled, strained, and even torn. There’s an inherent danger in talking about and focusing on any specifics of your running form, though. Call it a catch 22 or an ironic twist, but too much thinking can impede one of the best assets you have when you take off your shoes and socks: the ability to feel the ground, or, said another way, to get very detailed feedback on how your running form feels. It’s called proprioception, and it’s your friend. The problem is that if you think too much you don’t feel as well. You can focus so much on doing something right that you tense up. Remember to check in with yourself regularly to ensure you are relaxed. Take a deep breath and let tension wash away from you from time to time. No running form is correct unless you’re relaxed.
The 5 Elements of Good Barefoot Running Form
While this article talks about good barefoot running form, it is written with the belief that running barefoot is only a means to the end of a good running form – running stronger, more efficiently, with less chance of injury. So, these 5 Elements will help you become a better runner, whether done barefoot or not. That being said, if you don’t go barefoot, you won’t be able to fully understand what a good form feels like, from the feet up.
1. Forefoot Strike
Perhaps the most documented element of good running form is a forefoot strike. Daniel Lieberman 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 forefoot strike 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.
2. Slight Lean
Another important element of a good running form is a slight lean forward. 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 heels.
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.
3. Center of Gravity
When your foot hits 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 wasted energy because you have to wait for the rest of your body to “catch up” before you can pull your leg up again. Landing with your foot and leg out in front of you will also result in a braking action as your body rolls up and over your leg. This is especially the case when you land on your heel, out in front of you with a straight leg (see Element number 4).
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.
4. Bent Knees
Our knees are meant to be bent upon impact. Even the slightest amount of impact. 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.
For some reason it’s often easier for people to get used to the idea of landing with engaged leg muscles than it is to imagine raising the leg by contracting those same leg muscles. Instead, they push with their feet. If you stop and think about it, it makes much more sense to use our large, strong hamstrings to pull your leg up off the ground than to use the much smaller foot and calf muscles to push ourselves forward. When we are leaning forward (see Element #2) we don’t have to do any pushing. So land with bent knees 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).
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 strikes 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. 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. 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 forefoot-first strike (#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.
Photos by Calypso Orchid, Unknown, Clynton Taylor, Unknown, David Levene, Clynton Taylor