12 Oct 2011

In the world of jogging, the main emphasis is on strength and stamina of the muscles, heart and lungs. However, many joggers are particularly weak where balance and coordination are concerned: jogging with as little as possible excess muscular tension in the neck, shoulders, arms and legs. In order to get rid of excessive muscular tension and to learn to jog in a well-coordinated manner, it is essential to carefully examine how you jog. In this blog my main focus is on the place where your feet land on the ground in relation to your body.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of jogging:
1.     The ‘heel strike’: Landing with your heel, rolling through your foot and pushing off the ground with your toes.The disadvantages are that every time you land, you break your speed with your heel, as it were, so you have to forcefully propel yourself forward to compensate for this. This makes it an energy-consuming technique that is more likely to cause injury (particularly where the knees are concerned). Your quadriceps are overactive and have to work extremely hard in order to bring your foot in front of your body.

2.    The ‘forefoot strike’ or ‘natural running’: Landing on the ball of the foot with the foot directly under the body (i.e. as opposed to far in front of the body, as with the heel strike approach). You let yourself fall forward, as it were, making use of gravity as your main source of power. In this way, running becomes lighter and more efficient. Your quads are less active, while your hamstrings are more active, picking up your feet more towards your buttocks. This enables you to quickly lift up your feet under you, as you let yourself fall somewhat forwards: a light, easy stride is the enjoyable result.

Mastering the ‘forefoot strike’ is not so simple for most people. Here are some useful exercises and a warm-up exercise:

–       If you are already familiar with the Alexander Technique, do the lying-down exercise before going jogging. This increases your awareness of the balance of your neck-head-back: the central core of your coordination. If you have never done the lying-down exercise before, please click here.

–       Follow this with ‘kinesthetic awareness’ of your body and ‘waking up’ your feet. You can do this by lightly jumping on the spot, while consciously landing on the balls of your feet and keeping your joints flexible.

–       Then practise the ‘lunge’: you let yourself fall forwards with your whole body forming an unbroken line and break your fall with your hands against a wall or door. Take care that your body stays aligned, without letting your lower back push more forward, for example.

–       Now you can practice letting yourself fall forwards while jogging, with your entire body in one unbroken line, landing on the ball of your foot. This gives you an extremely light, easy feeling and enables you to jog in a completely relaxed way.

The ‘heel strike’ approach to jogging has led to the development of the typical running shoe, with gel in the heel to reduce the impact of a heel landing. Actually, running shoes of this type encourage this unnatural jogging technique. But just take a look at children or various Kenyan runners who run barefoot: they all land on the balls of their feet! Try barefoot running yourself sometime, you will soon stop landing on the heel, as this feels very unpleasant for your body and in particular for the knees, which take a beating with every step.

I myself now use ‘vibram five vingers’ (running shoes without a thick heel): you don’t have to worry about glass or other sharp objects on the street, but you still jog as if you were barefooted. Ideal!

A final tip: If you leave your iPod at home and listen to your footsteps, you will discover a lot. Do your footsteps sound heavy or light? Does the left sound different from the right? And how is your breathing? Does it sound heavy and laboured, or at a reasonable volume?

Also keep on observing whether your neck is still free and your eyes are not fixed in their gaze but move freely, check that your shoulders are opened wide, your arms and legs are not cramped and your ankles are free.

A heel strike versus forefoot strike video:

Read more?

Master the Art of Running: Raising your performance with the Alexander Technique

by Malcolm Balk and Andrew Shields