Two weeks ago I explained some of the basics about why and how to lean forward when you run. Take a moment to go back and read it if you haven’t. Now it’s time to go more into depth on this lean – how to do it from the ankles rather than the hips, and when is a “bad lean” actually a good lean.
The problem with really feeling certain whether you’re leaning from the ankles is that your legs move when you run! They rhythmically go in front of, underneath, and behind you. Obviously you’re not always leaning forward from the ankles. So how do you know whether you’re leaning correctly?
The easiest way to check your lean is by noticing how you initiate running. This is the one moment in running that yields a very clear-cut lean from the ankle. Here’s a picture of me transitioning from standing into my first running step:
As you can see, my body forms a straight line from the foot that’s on the ground through to my head. I’m neither bending at the hips nor slouching – both of which things we could call “bad” leans. The people who tell you not to lean are probably doing it to prevent you from doing these things.
A runner who leans from the ankle can clearly feel her pelvis passing her standing foot as she starts to run. A runner who leans from the hips won’t feel this; instead she’ll feel she bends forward and sticks her butt out. If you feel the latter of these things, the first thing to check is whether your calves might actually be too tight to allow you to lean forward. If you have really tight calves you’ll have to lengthen them to lean properly; work on this with Feldenkrais lessons and do this warmup before every run.
If you’re leaning correctly once you’re fully underway you may be able to visualize a line of force like the line my body makes in this picture during each stride. It will happen as you move through late stance, towards toe-off. Sometimes runners can actually feel this line of force being generated by the pushing of their leg against the ground, moving up through their body and out the front half of the top of their head. Give it a try; if you can feel it, it’s a helpful image to check in with from time to time as you run. It will help you run faster.
Another way to feel whether you’re leaning correctly is to check whether you feel like you’re “sitting” back behind your stance foot or not. In other words, when you’re in midstance (with the feeling that you’re really “on” your leg at that moment), if you feel like your pelvis is slightly behind your foot as if you were sitting, then you’re leaning by bending forward at the hip joints rather than from the ankles. If you feel like your hip is right over your foot, you’ve got a good lean. This is actually Balanced Runner Key #3… the thing about these keys is that they all fit together and reinforce one another, and that makes it a bit tricky to write about just one at a time.
These runners are each sitting back behind their stance foot, but each is doing it in a slightly different way.
The first woman has her back arched and her hips flexed (another way of describing it would be that she’s got her pelvis tilted forward but the rest of her spine upright). The second woman has a slight forward lean through her whole spine but her pelvis is behind her foot perhaps because she’s a fitness model and it’s her job to clench her abs. The man in the third picture paced Anna Hahner to a 2:26:44 finish in the Berlin marathon last week, doing a remarkable job of helping her PR and keeping her spirits up while running fully upright and sitting behind his feet in midstance. He has my full respect.
These runners all have their hips directly over their ankles, meaning that even though at this moment it looks like they’re leaning forward from their hips rather than ankles, in fact they all have very good leans. This shouldn’t be surprising since they’re some of the world’s greatest distance runners (read the blog post I originally created this collage for here).
Bear in mind that in distance running the more you lean the faster you go. So on your average run, unless you’re between 5-6 minute pace, you probably won’t lean quite as much as these runners. The other Balanced Runner Keys will help you regulate your lean so it’s right for the speed you want to go, so stay tuned for explanations of the rest of them over the course of the next few months.
Did this two-part series on leaning forward clarify the issue for you? Please leave a reply with any questions!
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.