Balanced Runner Keys Series: Lean Forward from your Ankles – Part 1

This post is part of the The Balanced Runner Keys series.

When I was a dancer trying to learn how to run, my first great breakthrough was when I suddenly discovered how to lean. That was when I went from bounding along uncomfortably to feeling smooth and enjoying myself.

My second great breakthrough was when I suddenly learned how to lean even better. I felt like someone had removed a wall I’d been pushing against without even knowing, and I was suddenly set free to fly.

I doubt any breakthroughs I’ve had since then equal the impact of these first two.

There’s a great deal of confusion around this because people use vague images like “run tall” to teach running form. But it is a fact that you need to lean forward from your ankles (in Danny Dreyer’s great phrase) to run comfortably and easily. There are two reasons:

  1. Falling forward is the easiest way to initiate movement, and creates a great deal of momentum. If you’re interested in the technical information in this, see chapter 50 of Nicholas Romanov’s book, Pose Method of Triathlon Training, where he explains how gravity drives running when you allow yourself to fall forward. If you’re less interested in the nuts and bolts but just want to run better, try my Stop Start Game and feel how easy falling forward makes running. Easy = coordinated = correct.
  2. Running requires you to push yourself upwards and forwards with each step in order to cover ground while maintaining a gait that includes a moment when neither foot on the ground. When you’re running well you probably don’t feel the push – that’s how it should be – but it’s there. If you line up the rest of yourself in the best position to be pushed, running is much easier than if you keep yourself vertical. This is a principle that applies to much more than just running; take a look at this set of photos of horseback riders: one walking, one jumping and leaning forward, and one jumping who didn’t lean forward. You’re like the first rider when you walk and the second rider when you run. Don’t be like the third rider.
similarities between riding a horse and running

And while we’re making comparisons with other sports, take a look at the difference between how a ballet dancer coordinates herself when she extends her leg behind her and how a runner does it:

the key difference between ballet and running

As a former dancer, I had to go through quite a learning process not to run like the middle picture, automatically arching my back as I felt my leg pass behind me. When I figured out how to lean forward instead, like the third picture, that was when I had Breakthrough #1. There was some faith needed for the transition, since I’d been told in no uncertain terms that runners were supposed to be upright and roll through their feet from heel to toe, and for that reason I certainly wasn’t trying to lean forward. (That was the bad old days, long before Born to Run.) But when my Feldenkrais lessons resulted in my doing it with increasing regularity and it felt so much better, I realized it was right.

Just today I had a text from a client whose lean I helped improve, telling me that he ran his race today much faster than expected. That’s what mastering your lean does.

Next week is the Berlin marathon, and I plan to blog about it if I see anything interesting. But the week after that I’ll go into more depth on exactly how to lean and when a so-called “bad lean” from the hips instead of the ankles is actually biomechanically correct. If you’re wondering what the circumstances were that lead me to Breakthrough #2, you’ll have to wait till the post after that, when I explain how to move your face forward.

4 thoughts on “Balanced Runner Keys Series: Lean Forward from your Ankles – Part 1”

  1. I just finished a marathon yesterday. In my training I’ve been learning to lean. I beat my previous marathon by just about 15 minutes. I know a better lean will significantly improve my time. However, I now have significant back pain. This is why I searched out your website. I will be putting these activities into practice. Thanks for the help.

    • That is important for sure, Phil, and leaning well does give you that. Definitely go read the next post, though, as it goes in another very important direction.


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