Updated: March 12th, 2013
Learning To Run Gently

In a recent blog post, I referred to the concept of learning to ‘Run Gently’ in order to reduce much of the unwanted impact and loading on the body’s joints and soft tissues, experienced with each running stride we take.

To paraphrase a great quote from Chris McDougall, author of Born to Run, regarding running form and footwear choices: ‘if you learn to run gently, you can run wearing whatever you like on your feet’.

In response to my previous post on pronation, a reader commented asking for clarification of what I specifically mean when referring to leaning to run gently.

I want to use this article to expand a little further on the topic, providing some practical advice readers can go out and use today.

What Do I Mean By ‘Running Gently’?

Firstly it’s important to appreciate the forces acting upon a runner, as the foot contacts the ground.

Research tells us that the majority of runners are heel strikers. So let’s use the classic over striding, heel striking technique as an example. The video below shows this well, with the associated force plate data it shows.

Notice how on the graph, there are two distinct peaks to the curve showing the magnitudes and rates that Ground Reaction Forces acting upon the body as the foot is in contact with the ground.

The larger, second of the two peaks shows the point at which the body experiences maximal loading, as the foot passes under the body through mid stance. This is always going to be the larger peak, as you fundamentally have to take the full load of your body on one leg as it passes under the hip.

The first peak however, called the ‘Impact Transient’, is the point I’d like to focus on. You can see that while it doesn’t reach as high a peak in terms of magnitude of loading, it shows a much quicker rate of loading, still of a significant magnitude.

This Impact Transient on the graph is essentially a visual representation of the thump you feel as your heel hits the ground. In terms of impact and injuries, this is one of the more destructive points in running gait.

Learning to run gently (as a general term) is all about learning to significantly reduce this thumping Impact Transient.

Interestingly, you’ll see from the videos below that runners who adopt a barefoot type midfoot or forefoot style, all but remove this Impact Transient.

See the videos below.

Does Running Gently Require Running Barefoot?

Don’t be too quick to jump on the barefoot or forefoot running bandwagon. Consider the following first…

Personally, I run with a forefoot running style. However, as a coach I appreciate that it’s not right for everybody, and that some heel striking runners are truly better off developing a more efficient, lighter heel strike.

Getting this right will result in reduced loading for their body to cope with every time the foot hits the ground, still with the familiar heel striking pattern. This works brilliantly for runners who are training for longer distance events.

While the above videos make a pretty compelling case for making the change to running with a barefoot style technique (forefoot or midfoot, shod or barefoot), consider this “gentle heel strike” as an achievable compromise for a runner starting out with a heavy heel striking, over striding running gait pattern.

Three Steps to Running Gently

  • Increase your running cadence (stride frequency) by 5% for a chosen running pace.
  • Feel for a shortened contact time of the foot on the ground. This is inextricably linked to the point above. As running cadence increases, contact time decreases.
  • Hold your hips high and run tall. This simple cue will help align your center of mass closer to over your landing foot.

Get these points correct, and you’ll feel a lighter contact on the ground. The sound you make as you hit the ground gives a great form of feedback. Aim to land the foot on the ground softly, rather than strike loudly.

Is There A Method To Teach This?

Sure, there are branded methods such as Chi Running, Pose Running, Evolution Running, each of which claim to help make you run more efficiently through teaching ‘better’ form. Each of these have their own benefits.

However it’s unlikely you’ll find a world class running coach such as Alberto Salazar, that calls themselves a Pose Coach, or a Chi Running Coach etc… These top coaches mostly appreciate that running isn’t sport in which a one size fits all, branded approach will work!

Instead these professionals rely on the appropriate application of sound biomechanical principals to improve the form or runners as individuals. You can do the same!

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