Plantar fasciitis or fasciosis, achilles problems, runner’s knee, lower back pain… improving your form by working to change your footstrike is supposed to help with these problems and also make running feel better. But your footstrike is only part of the story, and trying to change it without making a few other key changes generally doesn’t work.
The reason for this is that footstrike is only one third of what your foot does when it’s on the ground. After footstrike comes stance, which is when your weight is on your foot. And after that comes toe-off, or the process of taking your weight off your foot and your foot off the ground again.
If you only change how your foot strikes the ground without addressing the rest of your ground contact–your stance and toe-off–very little is going to improve.
Furthermore, you can’t change your footstrike or overall ground contact without changing everything about how your body is moving. Your feet land where and how they have to to keep you from falling or (as much as possible) from hurting yourself.
Not only is adjusting how your whole body moves critical for making your footstrike truly different and better–these whole-body changes may be the real reason people feel better and their running improves.
Here’s a video I made for one of my online clients to illustrate all of this. I did it barefoot so you can really see what my feet do at footstrike, stance, and toe off as well as the relationship to the rest of my body.
Important things to bear in mind about this video are that it’s natural for your footstrike to vary throughout a run as well as at different speeds. What I’m showing is the standard version, but at various times you might land with a flatter foot or more on the outside, or with quite a lot variation if you’re running on a rocky trail. For a deeper dive into that, read this.
Also, if you’re running in conventional running shoes with a heel that’s higher than your toes, you almost certainly will not experience your heel coming down to kiss the ground because the elevated heel will make you feel like it’s already touching the ground. So you’ll probably just feel that most of the time your foot hits the ground pretty flat and more on the outside.
You can and should, however, pay attention to relaxing your shins, the tops of your feet, and your big toes in the air so that you’re not keeping them lifted all the time. You’ll likely find that doing this moves your footstrike farther forward on your foot, away from your heel. Check in with that once or twice on each run, and read much more about that in my post on “American ankles.”
As for the whole-body changes that are fundamental to a healthy ground contact phase, the video is very brief. That’s actually the real meat, and what you should be working on.
If you haven’t done it already, try my free one-week “Mind Your Running” Challenge for a good introduction that will help you feel rather than just intellectually understand what your body should be doing when you run. That way you can really start to make some changes for the better–in your footstrike and everything else.
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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.