Balanced Runner Keys Series: Actually, Don’t Lean Forward from your Ankles–Part 2

In an earlier post I explained some of the basics about why and how to lean forward when you run. Now it’s time to go more into depth on this lean – how to do it, when a “bad lean” is actually a good lean, and why I now recommend you actually don’t lean forward from your ankles (or at least don’t think about it that way).

The problem with the idea of 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. I clarify this in a YouTube video on running downhill:

So if you’re not using “from the ankles” as an indicator, 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:

Even though you don't lean forward from the ankles when you run, you actually do to initiate running.

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 moving my pelvis backwards nor rounding my back (a.k.a. slouching) – both of which things we could call “bad” leans. The people who tell you not to lean are probably saying that to prevent you from making those mistakes.

A runner who leans from the ankle can clearly feel her pelvis passing her standing foot as she starts to run. A runner who slouches or moves her pelvis backwards won’t feel this; instead she’ll feel she bends forward and sticks her butt out, or that only her shoulders and head pass her foot, but not really her pelvis. If you feel either 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; you’ll get a lot of improvement with this free mini-course.

I demonstrate all of this in this YouTube video:

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 the picture above 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 making the mistake of leaning by moving your pelvis backwards. 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.

Sitting Back Behind the Stance Foot--three ways to make this mistake when you lean forward

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.

I demonstrate these mistakes in my YouTube video on runner’s knee:

Look at how these three runners don’t lean forward from their ankles in this point of the gait cycle. They all have their hips directly over their ankles, meaning that even though at this moment it looks like they’re sticking their butts out, 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).

Three world class runners--they don't lean forward from the ankles in this image, but they lean forward perfectly.

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! And be sure to give these free resources a try.

5 thoughts on “Balanced Runner Keys Series: Actually, Don’t Lean Forward from your Ankles–Part 2”

  1. Hi Jae,
    Since your session at the Scottish Barefoot Run and Conference last month and now these two blogs I’ve been thinking about lean almost all the time I’m running! However I find it hard to tell if I’m getting it right and whether I’ve gone from originally sitting back in my stride to leaning too much. If I’m leaning from the ankles properly is it possible to over-lean? When I go really slow should I still be leaning? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Donald. My apologies for the very slow response, somehow your comment slipped by me when I was away on holiday. It is possible to over-lean; doing your best to follow all of the Balanced Runner Keys will tend to prevent that, though, since they affect each other and tend to move your form towards optimum. You should lean at every speed but if you’re going slower you lean less than if you’re going faster. Over-leaning tends to slow down your stride rate below 170 and cause you to overstride excessively, so you can tell you’re over-leaning if your stride rate goes down and if your hip is behind your ankle in midstance… that’s Key #3, which I’m writing about this weekend. Read the post over when it goes up and see if it helps answer your question. If not, let me know and I’ll see if I can clarify further. Thanks for asking, and enjoy your running.

      Reply
  2. I found your info very helpful it was the last key in my puzzle, i had everything comfortable but with no speed stride length and cadence were low. When i put the lean in my brain seemed to take over the rythem, and my speed when i say speed i mean the same as most recreational runners just increased without a conscious effort to increase.
    Thanks now i can keep up with my friends
    Regards
    Ian
    North Yorkshire England.

    Reply
  3. Thank you so much for these articles on the forward lean and the start-stop drill that helps with the correct forward lean as you run. I’m 3 weeks out from my first marathon, and I read these this weekend. I cannot tell you how much easier it was to run this morning. We did a 55 minute mid-week run, and our average mile time was 0:19 seconds faster than our best run since we started our training. And since we are tapering to the big day, you know we are in shape, so 19 seconds shaved off is a lot. The amazing thing is I could have gone faster and held back – pace discipline :-)

    I’m truly grateful and very happy! Thank you!

    Reply

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