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

When I was a dancer trying to learn how to run, my first great breakthrough was when I suddenly discovered how to lean forward from my ankles. 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.
On horseback, the faster you go, the more you need a forward lean

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:

When a dancer extends her leg behind her, she will arch her back rather than lean forward fully.

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.

In the next couple of weeks I’ll write a more in-depth post 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.

Meanwhile, you can take a deep dive into everything about the forward lean–even how breathing is involved!–by watching my YouTube playlist on the topic:

8 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.

  2. I think all runners lean forward, sort of proportional to their speed. They may not be aware of it, or where the lean is coming from, but the centre of mass must be forward of the foot drive backwards. That drive moves the legs forward. In the absence of lean, the legs end up in front of the torso and you fall flat on your back. With a forward lean, the torso falls forward, and the legs catch up, so everything has moved forwards… you are running.
    In this, gravity (as a vertical force) cannot have provided any energy for your horizontal movement.

    • You’d be surprised. The consequences of *not* leaning forward aren’t always so stark as falling backwards, as long as there is enough muscular effort going into pushing forwards with the legs. You can find runners with a very prancing gait–especially common in the early days of the barefoot running movement, but also for some reason especially common in British runners. You can also find runners who use their glutes and hamstrings to push the hip forward in late stance/toe off. Combined with an upright torso, this results in a head that bobs backwards and forwards with every step. There are a couple of other strategies for upright running as well. Look around carefully and you will see it.

  3. Thank you Ms Gruenke for this video series and blogpost. They are most informative and I so look forward to more from you.

    I am 57 and have been jogging a bit since March since Doctors have advised me to up my Cardio. Bought a sports watch and got too enthusiastic with the jogs , ended up with knee pain under my kneecap that bought me to you on youtube. Have been following the MEAT recommendation and signed up to your mailing list to know more.
    The one thing that kept the pain off I discovered was substituting the jog for walking up stairs that helped but I could still feel my knee the next day though it hurt 50% less than after a jog.

    After that I stumbled upon a video of running backwards as a way to keep pressure off the knees. I tried that and the pain was down by 90%. As a bonus my Hamstrings bulked up and Glutes got rounder and perkier (happy days).. I am running backwards 90% of the time these days in a nice empty soccer pitch. My knee pain is gone down to about 5%

    Will your rules apply to running backwards too ? To make the world a perkier place would it be okay to just keep mostly running backwards for the future ? Look forward to hearing from you..

    Warmest regards,

    • Viviek, these principles are for forward running and don’t apply to running backwards. However with my materials–my free lessons that you can find in the video descriptions on YouTube, and even better my online camp ( it shouldn’t be too hard to get rid of your knee pain and be able to run forwards again. It has helped many, many runners with similar knee pain.


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