When we hit “pause” three months ago, our runner was just landing…hopefully with feet right below the hips, with the hips right below the shoulders, and shoulders right below the head. The foot/leg about to land had started its backward momentum right before it hit the ground, making for an efficient transition into the next stride.
In this article, I will discuss the portion of each stride when your support leg is in contact with the ground, which is better known as “paw-back.” This includes landing, stance, and push-off.
In order to create a mental picture of the paw-back motion, please visualize running on a non-motorized treadmill that you need to keep in motion without changing the speed. Visualize the muscles needed for this job. Visualize how much energy it would take to run a marathon on such treadmill. Keep in mind that it is only when your foot is in contact with the ground that you are able to generate force to maintain a constant forward motion (remember high school physics?).
We will focus on your foot first and how it contributes to a more efficient running style and lower risk of injuries. I am going to start by asking you to also visualize yourself barefoot (we can put the proper shoe on a little later).
Landing on the ball of the foot or mid-foot is most efficient. Michale Yessis, Ph.D. wrote in his book “Explosive Running” that “at the moment of landing the muscles and tendons that support the arch of the foot are the first to come into play. They undergo a quick, forceful stretch and gain tension for initial shock absorption…as a result of this, they accumulate energy, which is then given back in the push-off. This is the ideal scenario.
The most energy efficient action comes when the structure of the foot is equally resilient and strong. As the foot lands, the arch should absorb some of the force of landing by flattening some, but quickly return to a dome shape to be able to transfer the energy absorbed at the moment of push-off…so that you experience the feeling of resiliency and springiness on each stride.”
This takes a split second, but if you think about how many steps you take during a 5K, 10K, or a marathon, you will start to think of your feet as amazing structures that should be kept in “tip-top” shape.
When the muscles and ligaments of the arch and foot are not strong enough, they tend to flatten excessively and absorb all the forces generated at landing, thus leaving the rest of the muscles and joints that help with landing and support to do a tremendous amount of work to provide the energy during support and push-off. Picture yourself trying to run on a mattress. Your feet will have a harder time using the arches to store and then transfer energy, leaving the job of propelling you forward to your mid-section and upper-body.
In biomechanical terms, this is the fraction of a second that you are using the ground to propel you forward. At this point, the energy stored in the ligaments and muscles of your arch are being transferred up your leg, first to the Achilles tendon and then the calves.
As our foot is busy doing the above, your pelvic region, glutes, lower back, and quadriceps are also busy stabilizing your mid-section so it continues to move forward as a unit. Your swing leg should have just crossed your mid-section. Remember the cue “run tall” from the previous article? It should pop up right here.
The major “tell-tale” during the stance phase when I analyze someone’s running form is the position of the hips. If I’m looking at you running away from me, ideally your hips should stay as close to a horizontal line as possible. If the lower back and pelvis area or the stabilizing muscles of the legs are weak, I will see a drop on the hip of the swing leg, which could produce a cross over of the feet/legs and thus challenge the ideal forward motion.
The strength of your push-off will depend in part on the speed at which you are running, but your ability to maintain a proper push-off comes down to how strong your feet are, how much energy the muscles and tendons of your foot arch are able to absorb, store, and deliver at each step.
The one biomechanical visual that I suggest to runners when it comes to push-off is that your big toe should be the last thing to leave the ground instead of, for example, your “pinky” toe or the ball of your foot.
And this brings us back full circle to the beginning of my last article (March issue), with knee slightly bent, ankle extended, and big toe last to leave the ground.
Practice makes perfect when it comes to running form. And small improvements over time will translate into fewer injuries and faster times. In general, it takes about six to eight weeks to change any habit, and changes in neuromuscular adaptations, strength, and soft tissue release are no exception.
As with most advice, remember that we are all different, so it is important to pay attention to the issues that arise from every new factor you introduce (new orthotics, shoes, running surfaces, as well as changes in training workload, weight, and lifestyle, to name a few examples).
Carmen Ayala-Troncoso is a nationally known athlete who has been coaching Austin-area runners since 1987. Carmen received her Masters of Exercise Physiology (minor in Kinesiology) from the University of Texas in 1985. She has been running competitively for 30 years; during that time, she has qualified for three Olympic trials (1992, 1996, and 2000) and represented the United States at four World Cross Country Championships (1994, 1995, 1999, and 2000). As a Masters runner, Carmen made the United States Cross Country open team in 1999 and 2000 and qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 5,000 meter in 2000. She has won numerous Masters and age group championships. She is currently coaching a small group of elite runners at Rogue Running.