Running Technique, Midfoot Strike and Foot Landing Options
Recently there has been much discussion and debate about running with respect to foot strike. The advice ranges but it is in general focused to how to land the foot. Much of the advice is also purist in nature – meaning a position that there is only one ‘right’ way to land properly for all people and all running situations. There is probably more to it than that; for example the position of the leg/foot when it touches the ground and the direction the foot is moving when it touches the ground may also be important factors.
But Foot “Landing” is still only one component of foot strike. A second important component is Foot “Loading” or more generally how you load the body’s weight during each step’s point of support. This is likely where most of the repetitive impact or stress can occur which results in inefficiency and injury.
So let’s review the “Landing” options first, again making it clear these are choices we all get to make:
Heel Strike: There are numerous running studies tainting the dreaded full heel strike with or without a locked knee. This Landing Location is highly related to Landing Position (see below); it is likely a heel strike is combined with the foot landing in front of the body.
Front of the Heel: This is when while running you land in between the heel and landing completely flat or Fullfoot (midfoot). This is how many people land when they run and many more when they walk. The ChiWalking technique suggests a very slight front of heel to toe roll for a subtle forward momentum.
Fullfoot (Midfoot): This landing allows your lower leg, ankle and foot to be as relaxed as possible. The entire foot touches down at the same relative time which distributes the load and permits the structure of the lower leg to do most of the work. This is a key component of the ChiRunning tehcnique as it reduces muscular effort in the lower legs and limits any resistance to your forward fall.
Forefoot: This is when while running you land up on the balls of your feet. This engages the lower leg, ankle and foot; and potentially asks a small part of the body to do a very big (repetitive) job under tension. Note: There is advice that suggests the foot’s elastic recoil provides a higher level of efficiency; but these statements rarely consider overall efficiency, risk to injury or objective (sprinting vs. endurance running).
Toes: This landing is right up on the front of the foot, between the metatarsals and the tips of the toes. This also engages the lower leg, ankle and foot; and puts a lot of pressure on a very small surface area under tension.
In Front of the Body: According to physics, landing in front of the body results in a brake or resistance to your forward running motion as you oppose a very big force of nature – the Force of the Approaching Ground. How much resistance is likely related to the level of tension in the foot, ankle and lower leg; and also the Landing Direction (see below). Combining this landing position with a locked knee can add pressure on the knee joint.
Under the Body: Landing under the body allows cooperation with that big force of nature. This reduces resistance to your forward momentum; and allows the Landing Direction and other factors to enhance this cooperation. This is a key ChiRunning technique and ChiWalking technique concept; “never step passed your hip”. In general your knee will not be locked if your foot lands under the body.
Moving Forward: If your foot lands when it is moving forward, it further opposes that very big force of nature. This can lead to more impact via a horizontal force in the feet, legs, knees, etc.
Moving Rearward: If your foot lands when it is moving rearward, the motion further enhances cooperation with that very big force of nature. This is a key Chi Running concept to move with an external force.
So these are a few concepts to consider when you decide how to land your foot. Note that some are related and in cases one concept might reduce the effect of another concept. For example, you might be able land on the ball of your foot in front of your body – and reduce the potential impact (braking) by running relaxed or having your foot move rearward as it lands.
And now let’s review the “Loading” options. These are similar to landing with two distinctions below. Loading is likely where much of the potential stress exists since this is when the body is managing the other very big force of nature – Gravity.
Via Structure and Soft Joints: If you load your aligned structure you use the strongest material in your body, your skeleton, which can be very efficient. This postural alignment also allows higher levels of relaxation which can result in less resistance to your motion. A soft joint can result in less stress; a locked or stiff joint can be easily stressed. Alignment (Posture), Relaxation and loose joints are all key components of Chi Running and Chi Walking.
Via Muscle: If you load your body using muscle, this is generally less efficient. The isometric contraction (or tension) will also likely create some resistance to your motion. Examples are any deviation from aligned posture but also things like knee ‘sag’ – overly loading your quads or supporting your body weight with muscles in lower legs, ankles and feet.
The effects of Loading can be greatly affected by other factors such as Cadence and Focus. A higher cadence means you are in the air more; a lower cadence means you are on the ground supporting your body weight more. Looking/thinking down can make you heavy; looking out and thinking up can make light. So again there are additional factors that make a ‘purist’ position shortsighted in my opinion. And we have not even discussed how your running goal (ie. speed) at a given moment can affect your choice of landing and loading.
Now let’s look at this visually. Here is a graph of my choices for landing and loading. My running “objective” focuses on endurance mainly at the Marathon and Ultra level. I focus on form first, then distance, and then speed indirectly – as a result of technique.
As you can see, I have decided to land and load almost exclusively fullfoot (midfoot). If I am going to load fullfoot, I also want to land fullfoot to support the highest possible level of relaxation.
There is a case where I might land on the front of my heel. This is when I am going down a very steep hill. The Chi Running technique in this case is to use a subtle front of heel to toe roll under the body at a very high cadence to reduce any impact. There are also cases where I might land on my forefoot. This is when I am on a technical trail and need to dance along a few roots or rocks. The forefoot landing under the body is short in duration and as soon as possible I go back to fullfoot (midfoot) and a focus on relaxing the lower leg, ankle and foot. Another case for forefoot landing is outright speed, perhaps at the end of an event – or if I ever find myself be chased by a saber-toothed tiger (a true “fight or flight” scenario).
But these are ONLY my choices. The point here is … decide. The suggestion is – be informed and be conscious of how you are using your ‘vehicle’. Apply your scenario, your objectives and weight the risks.
“It is not running that is hard on your body, it is perhaps the way you run that can be very hard on your body”. – Danny Dreyer, Author of ChiRunning®
Please share your thoughts and any questions in a comment below.
ChiRunning®/ChiWalking® Certified Instructor
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