The 5 Elements of Good Barefoot Form

5Elements Banner 300x127 The 5 Elements of Good Barefoot FormA Means to an End

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.

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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.

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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.

image thumb9 The 5 Elements of Good Barefoot Form

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).

Exer­cise: Puppet-on-a-String

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.

image thumb10 The 5 Elements of Good Barefoot Form

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).

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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

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  • @erikneves

    Cadence is a key ele­ment on run­ning form. Attain­ing a 180–190 spm is dif­fi­cult because of the old habit of run­ning on shoes. Using a metronome is quite bor­ing and you prob­a­bly won’t buy an elec­tronic one and carry along. As almost every­one these days have a portable music player, music is a great rhythm keeper. I wrote a post about a free soft­ware that lets you fine tune the beat of the music to the desired cadence on
    It’s a very use­ful read.

    • Clyn­ton

      Yes, music can be a great way to go. Thanks for the link — filled with great ideas for how to use music to guide a good run­ning pace!

      • @erikneves

        Thanks for the com­ments here and on my blog.

        If you have a twit­ter account and you feel those tips are worth it, do tweet about that post. My blog is pri­mar­ily in Por­tuguese (I’m in Brazil), but I haven’t heard of that idea before any­where, so I wanted to spread the word, hence the Eng­lish post.

        And if you do have a twit­ter account, let me know what it is so I can fol­low you.

        • Clyn­ton

          I down­loaded Pace­maker so will give it a try soon. I’m @RunningQuest on twit­ter. Let’s connect!

  • Tim Miller

    Good advice Clyn­ton. I’ve found that inte­grat­ing back­ward runs, shuf­fles, skips, and butt kicks into my dis­tance runs helps me main­tain my form bet­ter in sub­se­quent jaunts. Recently, I tried singing and talk­ing to myself to stay loose. It worked pretty well, despite the fact I looked even nut­tier than usual for run­ning bare­foot while mut­ter­ing non­sense to myself.

    • Clyn­ton

      Thanks Tim for those great activ­ity sug­ges­tions. I’ve come to the con­clu­sion that to run cor­rectly I need to be com­fort­able look­ing “odd”, as it requires quite a few things that look dif­fer­ent than the way most peo­ple run. :)

  • ReRunnr

    Very good infor­ma­tion! I strug­gle myself with using my ham­strings to pull my legs up, to not push off. I have a hard time wrap­ping my brain (and body) around that con­cept. But I keep on try­ing.

    • Clyn­ton

      Thanks! My Cross­Fit and run­ning coach at Cross­Fit San Mateo told me that it can take a few months for the leg mus­cles to adapt to and remem­ber the right way to engage. One thing that has helped me is to men­tally focus on pulling my heal straight up towards my butt, keep­ing the foot loose on the upswing. If we keep prac­tic­ing and get­ting some feed­back we’ll get there!

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  • Paulb323

    Great post with a lot of good com­mon sense advice!

    • Clyn­ton

      Thanks man!

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  • Ready to Run!

    I am new to run­ning, so don’t know if I will be run­ning bare­foot any­time soon, but thanks for the great tips! Hope­fully one day, after I run a few marathons (ha!) I’ll try it out!

  • disqus_f2c66mDNKJ

    Com­mon Mis­take: No heel strike” — i’ve been through every shoe imaginable…trying to stop the tight­en­ing of my ham­string while run­ning. i love run­ning with “min­i­mal­ist shoes” ie the NB 110’s but after 10 miles or so my ham­strings tighten up so badly i have to stop. so i went back to the cush­ioned run­ning shoe and have run sev­eral ultra runs with no vir­tu­ally no pain…but i really love the feel of the min­i­mal­ist type shoe because these types of shoes make run­ning feel so right. i just ordered a new pair of NB 110’s to give it a try again and while research­ing about proper ways to run bare­foot i found your blog… wow. i real­ize the mis­take i’ve been mak­ing all this time is i haven’t been allow­ing my heels to hit. this makes per­fect sense. in the bulky run­ning shoes there isn’t an option to not let your heel strike, but in a min­i­mal­ist type shoe or bare­foot run­ning there is.
    Thank you for this post.

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