Thanks to Nike and the performances of American athletes Messrs Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine in the 1972 Olympics, since the 1970s recreational jogging has become one of the most popular forms of everyday exercise – and with good reason. It has so much to offer, from meditational benefits, to how it can help us explore nature and connect with our community (via running clubs), to the simple fact that it allows us to sweat out our stresses. Most of us, however, were never taught how to run properly. What’s more, in recent years, the majority of footwear on the market has encouraged us to develop all sorts of bad habits by overprotecting our feet.
To get the most out of our runs, we need to be conscious of each step we take. If you love your thick, cushioned shoes, of course I’m not about to tell you to stop wearing them. But, like anything in life, using a variety of training methods and getting back to the basics allows us to adapt and employ proper techniques so that we’re not unconsciously making bad choices.
Landing on the ground with your forefoot is probably one of the biggest improvements that you can make to your run, one that lowers the risk of running injuries down the line. Why? Because if, when we walk, each step loads the knee with around two to three times our body weight, when we run it’s more like 10 times. If we then land on our heels, where we have no natural padding, it sends a shock wave through our body, up our calves and shins, then into our knees, without allowing our quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes to properly engage and stabilise.
There’s a simple demonstration of the logic of a forefoot strike – just take off your shoes and start to run barefoot. Immediately, you will begin to land on your forefoot. Your body won’t even let you strike the ground with your heel because it knows it’s dangerous. It’s important to take these natural cues from our bodies and the wisdom we already hold within. If we can consciously train our feet, then it’s less important which shoes we wear. Our natural proprioception (that is, our awareness of the position and movement of the body) will help our bodies react how they’re meant to. Much of this process is about getting back to how our bodies function naturally. While there are deeper and more holistic ways to condition our entire bodies down to our literal core, the following drills and exercises are a great way to retrain our feet, legs and brains in how to run in a healthy, mindful and conscious way to prevent injury and promote longevity in running.
Whether you’ve always been a forefoot striker or you’re starting over, this is a great warm-up exercise to get your body used to the feeling. The more you can make landing on the forefoot a natural subconscious behaviour while running, the more you’ll be able to focus on other aspects of the run such as breathing, pace or simply taking in the sights and sounds of your surroundings. As you can see here, I land forefoot first, and then let the heel drop. This fires up all of the leg muscles, starting with the feet and ankles, up through the calves, quads, hamstrings and glutes. Proper motor recruitment, activating the neurons and muscle fibres in the right order to complete an action, is crucial in stabilising the knees, and not only allows us to run more efficiently but is vital to preventing injury. These ankle jumps are a good way to start retraining from the ground up.
Gluteus stability is one of the most overlooked aspects of running. It’s important in providing power to the stride, to help us climb uphill and stabilise ourselves, from the glute down to the iliotibial band, quad, hamstring and knee. The focus of this skipping movement is to consciously practise enough that the glutes start to automatically fire every time we take off. With each skip, you will integrate the forefoot landing into the stride and, as one leg drives up, consciously fire up the glute in the opposite, grounded leg.
Running on the Spot
Running in place for two or three sets of 30 seconds is a good way to get the heart pumping and energy flowing. It also reinforces our stabilisers before we head out for a real run. When we run on the spot, even with shoes on, we can’t help but land on our forefoot – it’s nearly impossible to heel strike while doing this drill.
Whether sprinting is a part of your Hiit workout or your marathon training, it’s an amazing way to move your body, push yourself and have fun. I’d recommend the beach, grass or a track for sprinting if possible, and even better if you can do it barefoot. You’ll find that your body naturally goes straight into forefoot striking from running barefoot. As well as being a great way to burn fat and stimulate faster twitch muscles, it’s a great way to fully integrate all the aspects of proper forefoot running while stimulating your metabolic system, increasing endurance, strength and speed.
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