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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Skill Development and Footstrike: What Runners Can Learn from Dancers

I am frequently asked about forefoot striking and the related running form methods (POSE, Chi, Evolution, etc.).  While I certainly do not disagree with the basic theory of a forward footsrike, the application of such methods is usually flawed.  If a runner is not already running with “good” form, there is usually reason.  A “bad” footstrike can be the body’s way to create stability, much like a piece of duct tape can offer temporary reinforcement to an object.  Duct tape might not be pretty but it holds the object together.  If you want to remove the duct tape, you better offer another way to stabilize in its place!

Landing on the heel offers a wider base of support for the body.  It might not be the fastest way to run, but given a runner’s individual physical limitations it may be the best option at the moment.  Many forefoot runners "cheat" stability with a painfully short stride resembling a fast walk.  When someone puts on a pair of barefoot shoes and shuffles along, their body really says, "I don't have the stability to survive with a longer stride, so I need to shuffle to protect myself from my body’s limitations."

In running, a forefoot strike is something earned by demonstrating appropriate mobility, stability, and coordination…it is not something that comes with a purchase of barefoot shoes, doing a few drills here and there, or simply thinking about form while running.  Runners should attain proficiency at more basic forms of movement before even considering conscious changes to the stride.  If you need to think hard about form, you have probably missed something, which may include asymmetries, imbalances, or unchecked pain avoidance mechanisms.  Before making any changes, you must screen and assess the individual athlete...not merely guess that changing form will fix things. 

The world of dance is instructive in this regard.   One critical milestone for young ballerinas is the transition to pointe work.  Dancing “en   pointe” is basically when the dancer is on the very tips of his or her toes.  Consider this excerpt from the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science outlining the importance of overall physical preparation BEFORE pointe work:

The growth and development of each student needs to be considered when determining readiness to begin pointe work.  Teachers should perform their own pre-pointe assessment to ascertain whether the student has proper postural control (with good abdominal and trunk support), sufficient lower leg strength, and appropriate leg (hip-knee-ankle-foot) alignment to begin or continue working on pointe. (Weiss, 2009)

Similar concepts should guide runners when changing footstrike or any aspect of the running stride.  Postural control, lower leg strength, and body alignment should be prerequisites for advancement in running just as they are in the dance studio.  Unfortunately, the checkbook, the ego, and slick marketing by "form coaches" empower runners and triathletes to choose a more superficial path.

Below is a partial list of requirements the Pacific Ballet Academy demands before undertaking pointe work.  While these might not transfer exactly to running, the concept behind each requirement does. (my comments are below the bolded segments and denoted by AP).

***The student must have at least 2 years of training

***The student must be taking a minimum of 3 classes a week consistently (for a total of 4.5 hours weekly).

[AP] With the above two points, focus on the concepts; not the numbers.  Remember, adults with years of poor movement quality and injuries are in a far different position than a ten year old signing up for their first dance class.  Consistency of training is paramount.  Don't forget the importance of smart training to encourage consistency.   

***The student must have sufficient strength to do the following:

  • Be able to hold their turnout while dancing.           
  • Have a strong, straight back while dancing, especially the lower back.
  • Keep the heels forward toward the big toe (no sickling).
  • Use plié while dancing.
  • Point their feet while dancing.
  • Pique passé with straight leg
  • Be able to do 16 relevés in the center without stopping.
  • Be able to hold a passé balance on half-pointe.

[AP] Although these cues are specific to dance, consider the underlying principles.  The running stride is an expression of different movement patterns, all of which require proficiency by the runner.  All runners should undergo movement screening to identify basic movement dysfunction before attempting to change something advanced like the running stride.  Other sports have a skills checklist that determines an athlete’s advancement toward higher level skills.  Why not do the same in running?  To go outside the sports world, do we generally teach higher level calculus before algebra?  Of course not!   

***The student must be in good health and able to take a whole class. If the student frequently needs to rest because of illness or injury, she is not strong enough for the extra demands that pointe work requires.

[AP] Many runners in pain try a form “method” out of desperation.  The forefoot concept seems nice in theory and may work for temporary pain relief, but the last thing a hurt runner needs is extra load to the lower extremities.  Recognize that the form “flaw” may exist to protect the body from further injury.  Follow a systematic process to manage pain and dysfunction before trying to teach running form.  Form can be part of the equation, but only as a complement to the process of pain management and corrective exercise.

***The student must be of normal weight.

[AP] Obviously a concept that can and does get abused, but it does count for something.

***The student must have enough of an arched instep to stand on pointe.

[AP] A heel strike with a flattened foot is protective for many runners.  Yes, a flat foot can lead to other problems, but if the body needs the flat foot to stabilize itself (as noted above), you probably shouldn’t make changes to the stride.  Earn your way toward a different gait pattern, just as the young child naturally learned to form an arch when its mobility, stability, and coordination allowed it to do so. 

Summary

Admittedly, the worlds of dance and acrobatics have their own set of injury problems, but at least they have codified the skills needed for advanced work, which is quite a contrast to the running community.  Forefoot strike is a great buzz-term for marketing, but is leading many runners astray toward a misguided pursuit of a quick fix.  While running form constantly evolves for each individual, chasing a particular footstrike without considering the rest of the individual runner's body dynamics can an exercise in frustration.  Most runners who go down this path are already frustrated (I get that!), but the vaunted forefoot strike as preached by the barefoot and minimalist movement is rarely the solution.  It may occur later as a result of better movement quality, but trying to install the solution without going through all the steps to get there is rarely the best course. 

References   

Weiss, D.  Rist, R.  Grossman, G.  When Can I Start Poitne Work?  Guidelines for Initiating Pointe Training.  Journal for Dance Medicine and Science.  Volume 13, Number 3, 2009.  90-92.   

Pacific Ballet Academy: Pointe Basics

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