Foot Strike Running Secret: The Pawback

Have you paid any attention to your foot strike while running?

The heel strike, ball of foot strike debate is intensely difficult to decide. Recently I read the tips of a runner from the early days of running, and he mentioned more than fifty times in his pdf article that the ball of foot strike is preferred to the heel strike. I read with stubbornness, thinking about my own method that uses the whole foot starting with the heel. Finally I realized that every point he made had to do with the fast competitive type of running he did, vs the slow body rebuilding type of running that I do. Runners are in a constant study and debate about form and technique, which is understandable. They are passionate in their subjects, reading and writing about it, learning from others and sharing advice that enable them to do the feats that they do.

A comment by one of the readers of the article is what gave me my answer. He said that he uses the whole foot when he is ‘training his body for training', but ball of foot when in competition. That's it, no more debate.

For us lesser athletes who are not running marathons, it is best to rely on the whole foot method. Contacting the ground with the whole foot helps us feel more body parts, which lets the walk or run act as a testing ground to seek out the deep layers of compensation interfering in our gait and posture.

There is much to be said for slowing down to go faster, but nothing is worse than a contrived brisk walk or fast run that affords no chance for ‘feeling'.

So, for you runners out there, learning this little tweak in this article can help you smooth out your running form and give you a more efficient stride. Start with applying it to your walk and then run once you get the hang of it.

It’s been a while so I am heading back to the coaches super-double-top-secret run technique book and pulling out one of my favorite running drills. I call it the “pawback;” you can call it whatever you want as long as you do it. Implemented properly, this drill will help you become a smoother, more efficient runner by refining your foot strike.

Pawback Drill

Image courtesy Pose Method®

Before we get to the drill, it’s important to think of just how we want the foot strike to happen. In a snapshot, the ball of your foot should be contacting the ground at the same time that your knee, and the majority of your body mass, is passing directly over head.

Many runners, particularly those of the heel-striking inclination, have basically gravitated to what I call “the path of least effort” or perhaps more appropriately, “the stride of most resistance.” These runners are very good at driving the recovering leg forward in preparation for the next step…and at pushing their bodies forward. In other words they have the big chunks of “work” identified and mastered.

The motion of swinging the leg forward and “letting go”, essentially sets the stage for a full straight-legged impact. If we forget the negative physical ramifications of this style of running for a second, we can focus on the tremendous impact the added resistance and friction have on our desired efficient stride.

A heel-strike when running acts essentially as a brake on your forward progress, forcing you to travel up and over that point in the ground before continuing forward. A straight leg at impact is also ill-prepared to continue the natural kinetic path of a smooth follow through. Both of these factors mean a reduced cadence as well.

Coach P says it’s bad…it is.

But how can you develop this proper foot placement outside of simply running better? There are a variety of drill options, and this is the one I have found to be most effective for my athletes.

Hacking The Pawback Drill
This drill promotes the following elements of great running:
Hip Flexor Lift — this de-emphasizes the hamstring, saving it for the strike phase when it can pull back and move us forward.
Relaxed Lower Leg — this makes contact with the ground quicker, and easier to attain.
Proper Foot strike Position — this reinforces a light point of contact under knee.

Note: Please ignore my arm swing here…I totally got messed up….but the legs/feet are perfect!

In this clip, you can watch me execute this drill in a walking motion. I recommend that this drill be done in the standing position first to ensure proper technique. When standing in place, just do the drill with one leg, keeping the other planted on the ground. The active foot will complete a full cycle, with the ball of the foot making contact — and stopping — right next to the planted foot.

By adding walking you are taking the drill to the next level; you are also moving the focus of the drill from mastering the proper point of contact on the ground to maintaining proper contact throughout the footstrike. It sounds subtle, but learning to keep backward-oriented tension on your foot when running is a proactive way to master a better stride.


PHOTOS: Josiah Mackenzie on Flickr

Author: Grace Graham

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