So you want to change your running form? It is not uncommon for runners to explore changing how they run. Whether it’s exploring different training methods, switching shoes, or adjusting how their foot contacts the ground – some runners will try anything to improve performance and minimize pain and injury risk. In this article, you will learn common running forms, running specific exercises, when shoes matter, and how to change running form safely.
What Are The Common Running Forms?
What is so unique about running is the fact that almost everyone runs differently than one another. I believe that movement analysis of running is so popular because of this, everyone has different mechanics and nowadays runners want to know more about their running form. So on that note – is there such thing as a ‘common’ running form?! In regards to ‘running form’, we are going to highlight and discuss footstrike position as this is a little more black and white (literally see the image below)
Why Does Foot Strike Pattern Matter?
Roughly 90% of runners are rearfoot (heel) strikers whereas the other 10% of running form is made up of midfoot and forefoot strikers. However, it is not uncommon for distance runners to change their strike pattern as time goes and even some runners demonstrating side-to-side differences in their running form. Foot strike pattern matters in regards to running form as it affects something called Ground Reaction Forces (GRF), load rate, and impact peak. If you’ve ever heard someone say running can impose forces on your body up to 3x your bodyweight, they’re referring to the vertical GRF that occurs during running when your foot makes contact with the ground. What’s important to understand is how fast this happens with different foot strike patterns
- “Impact Peak is the greatest force seen during the initial landing. This small peak before the main landing is often only seen on Rear Foot Strike landing.”
- “Active Peak is the greatest force detected during foot strike.”
- “Loading Rate is how rapidly the forces build up and can either be averaged over parts of this section of the graph or an instantaneous peak can be used. This is a measure of how steep the curve is during this initial landing.”
As you can see, rearfoot strike running form creates a high impact peak very quickly as compared to a forefoot strike. This induces stress on the body, particularly joints and bones, especially if the muscles are not doing their job (think of that person who is very LOUD running on the treadmill). There is nothing wrong with a rearfoot strike running form considering it is the most common form, however having adequate lower body strength, trunk control, optimal running mechanics, and the appropriate dosage of mileage is very important to minimize the risk of pain and injury with running.
“You must be fit to run, not run to get fit” – Dr. Christopher Powers, PhD, PT
Exercises For Heel Strikers
Stress fractures and other stress-related injuries are important to avoid. Other than overall running and training volume, two important considerations with heel strikers I always look at are active shock absorption and over-striding.
Here is a simple exercise that focuses on active shock absorption and optimal running mechanics, meaning optimal alignment throughout the kinetic chain. Active shock absorption happens during eccentric muscle contraction such as the hip and knee bending after the foot contacts the ground. Leg stiffness is inversely related to active shock absorption, think the stiffer your leg is – the louder the noise your foot makes when it contacts the ground.
A study by Teng and Powers in 2015, concluded increasing forward trunk lean and hip flexion during running can decrease the energy absorbed at the knee. Here is a bounding exercise to promote active shock absorption with hip and knee flexion, and a forward trunk lean. The best cues to use are land softly and stay quiet! The less sound you make, likely the more active shock absorption you are doing! You can find more great running exercises here
If you don’t want to change your running form in terms of your foot strike but your knees are bothering you, try this!
🙋♂️Got a cranky knee that bugs you when you run? Try increasing your step rate (how fast your move your feet) to take pressure off that knee! 🙅♀️While not a solution for faulty mechanics, weakness, or muscle length issues, changing your step rate on your runs is an effective and fast way to decrease the load on your knees and hips, potentially even reducing your pain. A study in 2011 by Heiderscheit et al found that by increasing your step rate by 10% (at a consistent speed), it significantly lowered the amount of mechanical energy absorbed at the knee (a 34% decrease!!) and hip! Even a 5% increase in step rate decreased load at the knee by 20%!
This happens because as STEP RATE INCREASE, the STEP LENGTH DECREASES. Think about it, if you are moving your feet faster, but staying at the same speed, then the amount of distance you cover per step (step length) has to decrease. Because the step length decreases, it means that your heel is closer to your center of mass and the amount of force (braking impulse) the joints must absorb from the ground is reduced.
❓Does increasing my step rate 10% mean I will have to work harder/breathe harder❓
NO. Greater oxygen consumption is required when step rate is increased by more than 10% of preferred, while increases less than or equal to 10% of preferred reveal minimal change in metabolic cost.
❓If I run at a faster rate than normal with an increased step rate, will I still have less loading on my joints❓
NO. The decrease in energy absorption is due to the decrease in step length, not necessarily the rate.
I Want To Transition To Barefoot Running
Barefoot running is the same running form as the forefoot strike pattern. Studies have shown when you run in a minimalist shoe it is similar to the mechanics of barefoot running. What are minimalist shoes? These type of shoes weigh very little, are very flexible, have minimal to no cushion, no motion control or arch support, no midsole, and feature a zero drop. The intention is to mimic the feel of barefoot walking/running while still protecting your feet from the outside world.
Barefoot running form tends to decrease stride length and increase stride frequency compared to heel strikers. So in regards to the initial loading rate and the impact peak we covered earlier in the graphs, both are lower with this running form compared to heel strikers. This running form can be beneficial for trying to avoid injuries related to high vertical impact loads. However, it is imperative to understand switching to this running form will increase the amount of work required at the ankle joint. According to a study by Williams III et el. 2012, transitioning to a barefoot running form shifts power absorption from the knee to the ankle. This can expose structures at the ankle and foot including the Achilles tendon, the gastrocnemius and soleus muscle complex, the posterior tibialis, the arch of the foot, the plantar fascia, and even some of the foot bones (metatarsals).
A proper transition to barefoot running is neccessary
BUT, running with miminalist shoes can provide direct benefits to the muscles of the foot as well as the arch of the foot. Think about it, if you don’t use it you lose it! If we always have our feet stuffed in thick, padded shoes or we are relying on inserts, we may lose a sense of body awareness with our feet and the mind-body connection with our feet muscles. Deconditioned feet are prone to musculoskeletal issues like plantar fascia and arch issues.
Appreciate the layers of intrinsic foot muscles!
Barefoot Running Form Exercises
Having adequate intrinsic foot musculature strength and size is essential to transition safely to barefoot running! A proper program allows a safe transition. Featured below are barefoot running form specific exercises targeting these muscles. Some of these exercises also strengthen the extrinsic foot muscles, which are more commonly known as the calf muscles! When programmed correctly with progressive overload, there is evidence to support these exercises to significantly increase intrinsic muscle foot size and strength.
So what is the program referenced? Runners performed strength training that included some of the exercises below. These exercises were performed for at least 5 days/week for 8 weeks. The exercises got progressively more difficult through the 8 weeks. What is interesting about this study is that the participants were asked to continue running with their traditional shoes and traditional running form.
It is important to perform these exercises barefoot
Also referred to as the short foot maneuver or short foot exercise, the goal of this exercise is to literally make a dome shape of the foot by activating the intrinsic and extrinsic foot muscles. When performed correctly, the medial longitudinal arch will raise in height and the foot will actually shorten in length. I like to perform this exercise with at least 3-5s isometric holds for 2 sets of 15-20 reps. It is important to feel the foot muscles burn and work these muscles to fatigue. This is the only way to impose adaptation and improve muscle endurance! Be sure to have sound on for additional cues and instructions!
Foot curls are a great barefoot running form strengthening exercise to work on the intrinsic and extrinsic foot flexor muscle group. The goal of this exercise is to literally curl the toes while still making a dome shape of the foot. Strengthening the toes can help with the dexterity of the foot, I like to think we should be as dexterous with our feet as we are with our hands! Same parameters as above apply, I like to perform this exercise with at least 3-5s isometric holds for 2 sets of 15-20 reps. It is important to feel the foot muscles burn and work these muscles to fatigue. This is the only way to impose adaptation and improve muscle endurance! Be sure to have sound on for additional cues and instructions!
Toe Spreading is a great barefoot running strengthening exercise to work on the intrinsic and extrinsic foot abductor/adductor muscle group. The goal of this exercise is to literally spread the toes while still making a dome shape of the foot. When performed correctly, the medial longitudinal arch will raise in height and the toes will spread apart from one another. It is very challenging to not flex or extend certain toes, especially your big/little toe (as you can see I am not perfect) but do your best! Same thoughts and rules apply in regards to improving the dexterity of the foot and exercise parameters!
Double Leg Heel Raises
Double leg heel raises are another great barefoot running form exercise. When performed barefoot, we can pay closer attention to arch integrity and any compensatory strategies that may occur when performing in a closed, padded shoe. Notice how I still dome the foot prior to performing the heel raise, and I make sure to maintain this as I lower down. This exercise is not only great for intrinsic muscles but also extrinsic foot muscles. Extrinsic foot muscles contribute to ankle motion (plantarflexion and dorsiflexion). As noted earlier in the article, making the transition to barefoot running form increases stress on the foot/ankle/Achilles complex. Thus it is essential we train the calf muscles to prepare these structures for the stresses to come!
Double Leg to Single Leg Eccentric Heel Raise
Similar to the exercise above, however a small but very important progression. After performing a bilateral heel raise, transition to one foot, do not lose any height and slowly lower the heel down to the ground. The slow, single leg eccentric portion of this exercise is so important to running. What we know from running analysis and running mechanics is that the ankle is responsible for eccentric work every time the foot makes contact with the ground. It would be silly not to train the calf in this fashion!
Single Leg Heel Raises
This is a progression from the double leg heel raise and the double leg to single leg eccentric heel raise. It is important to maintain a straight knee while performing this heel raise variation so that the gastrocnemius is targeted! Again, perform the foot dome (short foot maneuver) prior to initiating the heel lift and maintain it!
Doming + Single Leg Box Jump Progressions
After building a solid base of intrinsic and extrinsic foot strength, it is time to introduce jumping exercises performed barefoot. Some individuals may be able to tolerate these immediately, however, it is so important to program these correctly and monitor overall training volume. Some researchers have suggested running only 10% of your regular running volume when transitioning to barefoot. I would suggest the same when it comes to performing barefoot jumping exercises for the first time compared to normal jumping exercise volume with shoes on. 10% may be too low, however starting with a few sets of 5-10 reps of just one jumping exercise would be wise and then build up your tolerance from there.
Demonstrated in this video is doming with a box jump progression. Why jump up onto the box first? Actually jumping up onto an elevated surface will induce less ground reaction forces compared to jumping down from a box. As long as the individual can jump high enough on one leg, this is an appropriate starting point. After getting comfortable with this and having success, the goal is to progress to a drop jump off of the same box. Try to maintain the foot dome before and after each jump, especially with the landing! As you can see, I have my work cut out for me.
Doming + Single Leg Hop Progressions
Demonstrated in this video is doming with single leg hops in place, and doming with linear single leg hops. Running is a single leg sport, need I say more?! Of course, this isn’t what running looks like, but just like any other good training program, you have to build brakes before power AKA working on landing and decelerating. The stationary doming with single leg hops could be introduced before/after doming with single leg box jump, I just think it comes down to which exercise is able to be performed with an optimal landing. Again, focus on that arch position with each landing!
Doming + Multi-Directional Single Leg Hops
Demonstrated in this video is doming with multi-directional single leg hops. This is a progression of the doming with linear single leg hops that now has lateral movements. This is a specific exercise from a barefoot strengthening program that has been cited below in improving intrinsic foot strength, however, I also added another box. IMO it is important to perform both boxes on the same foot as performing hops in the medial and lateral directions relative to the foot will impose different forces on the foot that the muscles have to resist. Again, focus on that arch position with each landing!
How Else Can I Strengthen My Feet?
Simply walk in your minimalist running shoe! Some researchers from the same group referenced above compared a foot strengthening program to minimal footwear use on intrinsic muscle size and strength. They compared the groups after 8 weeks, the minimal footwear use group simply progressed walking distance over the course of 8 weeks. The exact details of the foot strengthening program and walking program are not included, however, both groups were successful! The group concluded, “Exercises that target the intrinsic and extrinsic foot muscles are effective in increased strength and size of the muscles. However, similar increases in strength and size can be obtained by progressive walking in minimal footwear. Combining both these approaches may have an even greater effect. Stronger feet may offer greater protection against overuse injuries such as plantar fasciitis.” You can find the study here
Free Barefoot Running Training Program
Want the entire program featuring some of our other favorite running-specific strengthening exercises? Click below to gain access to phase one and phase two programs for FREE!
What About My Running Shoes? Does it Matter?
So we covered minimalist shoes and how that is coupled with a forefoot strike pattern. What about other shoes? Well, one thing is for certain, comfort matters! It is true, some of the best advice you can give to a runner is simply picking a shoe that is comfortable. For the average runner, there is no perfect algorithm! I typically recommend in the clinic starting with a neutral shoe, you can learn more about running shoes here.
What about shoes that are specifically tailored towards your foot type? Well, a study by Knapkik et al. 2010 assigned shoes to Air Force Basic Military Training recruits based on the shape of the bottom of their feet. The study concluded assigning shoes based on this had no influence on injuries. Curious about your arch type? Try the Wet Test
What if I Recently Had An Injury And Want To Get Back To Running?
Injuries are unavoidable. $HiT happens! Whether it’s your knee, ankle, or hip, you need to follow a systematic return to running protocol to ensure that you’ve built up the adequate strength to run. Returning to running after an injury without a plan is like running a marathon without building up your mileage. It puts your body at increased risk of future re-injury! Follow these easy steps and you’ll be back to running in no time!
- Peter Larson, Erin Higgins, Justin Kaminski, Tamara Decker, Janine Preble, Daniela Lyons, Kevin McIntyre & Adam Normile (2011): Foot strike patterns of recreational and sub-elite runners in a long-distance road race, Journal of Sports Sciences, 29:15, 1665-1673
- Teng, H.-L., & Powers, C. M. (2015). Influence of trunk posture on lower extremity energetics during running. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 47, 625–630. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000436
- Heiderscheit BC, Chumanov ES, Michalski MP, Wille CM, Ryan MB. Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011;43(2):296–302.
- Williams DS 3rd, Green DH, Wurzinger B. Changes in lower extremity movement and power absorption during forefoot striking and barefoot running. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012;7(5):525–32.
- Ridge ST, Davis IS, deVries TD, Myrer W, Johnson AW. THE EFFECTS OF A FOOT STRENGTHENING PROGRAM ON INTRINSIC FOOT MUSCLE SIZE AND STRENGTH – A PILOT STUDY. http://asbweb.org/conferences/2015/abstracts/457AE–The%20Effects%20Of%20A%20Foot%20Strengthening%20Programs%20On%20Intrinsic%20Foot%20Muscles%20Size%20And%20Strength%20-%20A%20Pilot%20Study–(Ridge).pdf
- Ridge, Sarah & Bruening, Dustin & Jurgensmeier, Kevin & Olsen, Mark & Griffin, David & Johnson, Aaron & Davis, Irene. (2018). A Comparison of Foot Strengthening versus Minimal Footwear Use on Intrinsic Muscle Size and Strength. Foot & Ankle Orthopaedics. 3. 2473011418S0040. 10.1177/2473011418S00406.
- Knapik JJ, Brosch LC, Venuto M, et al. Effect on injuries of assigning shoes based on foot shape in air force basic training. Am J Prev Med. 2010;38(Suppl 1):S197–211.