This is a question I often hear from patients. Usually, a runner will have read an article in a popular magazine that claims “better performance” or “injury prevention” with proper running form. Or, she will have heard someone in her running group who claims that race times improve with a new type of shoe that promotes a different running form.
Whether for faster race times or decreased risk of injury, certain elements of proper running form will help most runners feel better, avoid injury, and look more like the runners at the front of the pack. One of the key elements to proper form is landing with the foot underneath the body. You may have heard it this way: not overstriding or not heel striking.
How can you know if you are striking the ground with your heel? An easy way to tell is to look at the bottom of your running shoe. If the outer edge of the back of your shoe is worn more than the rest of your shoe, you are probably landing on your heel. Don’t feel bad about this. Most of us land this way when we run for distance unless we are sprinting. It takes learning/training in order to change this pattern. When you try to correct this on your own, you may end up landing on your forefoot or your midfoot, which is not ideal. It is difficult to properly adjust your stride without video analysis.
One simple way to promote landing with your foot underneath your center of mass is by increasing your running cadence, or the number of steps that you take every minute. There are free metronome apps available that will help you work on improving your cadence. A good place to start is 170 steps/minute. If you go for a short run either on a treadmill or on the road, listen to the metronome and try to match your foot falls to the click of the metronome at 170 beats per minute. For most people, this is an increase in their normal running cadence. Though it may require extra energy when you are adapting to this new cadence, the quicker step rate means that you will be required to land underneath your body in order to match it.
The benefit of this increased cadence–and thereby landing with your foot underneath your body–is that you spend less energy over the course of the run because there is less “braking force” to overcome. See the first picture below. Here the runner is landing with his foot in front of his body, and there is a large braking force that he must overcome in order to keep moving forward. Then look at the same runner who is matching the cadence of 170 steps per minute. He has less braking force and will be able to continue in a forward direction with less energy.
Should you work to change your form? The benefits far outweigh the difficulty of learning something new. First, you are less likely to suffer an injury (Heiderscheit et al 2016). Second, once you adapt, you will notice that, all other factors being equal, you are able to run farther due to less wasted energy. Finally, your race photos will start to look a lot better!