That First Step: What Every Runner Needs to Know

No matter what level of runner you are, chances are good that you don’t know how you start running. In fact, if you close your eyes right now and imagine starting to run, I bet you’ll find you’re not sure exactly what you do. One minute you’re walking or just standing still and the next you’re running.

Why does this even matter? Because, as the old saying goes, “well begun is half done.” Get started well and the run will go well, and in fact be much easier than if you start poorly.

Running is a cyclical activity. This means that what happens with your gait at any moment is mostly a product of what came right before it and produces the movement that will come right after it. Your ability to change your movement is limited once you’re in motion.

This makes how you start very important. It determines a great deal of what will happen during your entire run.

So let me tell you how a well-coordinated runner starts.

Let’s assume a standing start–not a race, where people crouch and take a position they feel will help them spring forward as soon as the gun goes off. That’s a whole other topic which I’ll tackle some other time. Here we’re just looking at a normal everyday run.

The Shift

You’re standing on two feet and you think to yourself, “okay, time to start.” Your first need is to free one foot to take a step. You do this by shifting your weight sideways onto the other foot–let’s say it’s the left, since that’s what most runners do. Then you can lift the right to take your first step.

In doing this you’ve begun a very important process: you’re starting to generate the ground reaction force that will shortly get you airborne. Shifting your weight from two legs to one increases the weight on the left leg and compresses it slightly, so that it returns a small amount of spring as you then move off it.

The Fall

You begin to fall forward off the left leg as you swing the right forward to catch yourself. That’s a step but it’s not a running step yet. The right foot usually hits the ground before your left leaves the ground, and in running there are never two feet on the ground at the same time. However this isn’t a walking step either because your right knee is quite bent when you land on the right foot, and you’re leaning forward considerably. So let’s just call it the transitional step.

In landing on your right foot you load that leg with a bit more than your full body weight because you’ve fallen onto it. You probably won’t notice that because it’s not exaggerated or awkward-feeling, but you’ve just created more ground reaction force than you did when you first shifted to your left leg, and you’re about to achieve flight.

The Launch

When you landed on your right foot with a bent ankle, knee, and hip, and then lifted your left foot from the ground to swing through, you made your first actual running action. Your right leg is in stance and your left is in swing, and anyone who glanced over at you then would know immediately that you were running rather than walking.

Again, that compression on the right side that you created when you landed on it, plus the momentum you have from falling off your left leg and then swinging it forward, together create enough spring to launch you into the air for your first flight phase, pushing off from your right leg so you can next land on your left.

Now you’re running.

This video I made of myself shows these three phases. I’m walking rather than starting from a standing position, but a walking step is analogous to the sideways shift of weight from standing, so all the phases are still there.

When Things Go Awry

Go outside now and start and stop a bunch of times and study how you do it. Maybe reading this has interfered with your spontaneity and you’ll feel confused about how your normally do it, but if you try it enough times you’ll be able to tell what feels natural to you and what doesn’t.

Anything other than the process I’ve just described for a standing start is a sign that things are not going to work as smoothly as they should in your run.

For instance, if you have trouble leaning forward because of limited flexibility in your ankles, neck, or hip flexors, or because tension elsewhere means swaying forward doesn’t feel safe or under control, then you’ll have to create the ground reaction force some other way. This is the problem I most often see with standing starts.

Some runners do a sort of hop or skip on the left leg instead of falling forward, and use the ground reaction force from that hop to immediately start running. Those runners usually find they struggle with the ability to lean forward throughout their run.

Others will accelerate the right foot towards the ground just as they start to fall, as if stomping, to create a big ground reaction force. Often they stomp their first few steps. Those runners usually find they sit back with the pelvis behind the feet throughout their run, since the stomping action is done with the weight held back in that position and sets up a cycle perpetuating that alignment.

Other runners slouch, rounding their backs, instead of falling forward with a neutral spine. Their first step onto the right foot is a short one, not much ground reaction force is created, and their run tends to feel very heavy and slow.

Those are the three main ways I’ve seen standing starts go awry. What do you notice in your own standing start, and what does it tell you about your running form?

Leave a Comment