Running Awareness: Cadence, Foot Placement, Lean


I just started the new year with a run in the cold with my dog.  It was a good run and I can report that I’ve tuned into something(s) important. I was aware of several gait-related details that I adjusted and played with, those being cadence, foot placement and the degree to which I lean while running.  Why was any of this on my mind?


First, upon reading the excellent Anatomy for Runners I’ve become more aware of my running cadence aka how often my feet hit the ground.  The author Jay Dicharry discusses a popular notion that the ideal cadence is about 170-180 RPM.  I’ve run with a metronome a few times to investigate this idea and compare this range to my normal cadence.  Turns out my cadence was quite a bit slower.  The problem I found when running at  this higher cadence is that my cardiovascular system felt overwhelmed!  Maintaining even the low end of that cadence was very challenging.  Seems that I may have found a simple solution.  Before I get to that, let’s discuss why a quick cadence may be beneficial.

Changing cadence to prevent overstriding

I mentioned in my last post that where your foot lands is very important in running.  You want the foot to land as near to your center of mass as possible, not way out in front of you, a situation also known as overstriding.  Several elite-level running coaches have discussed cadence and foot strike position.  I’ll let their words do my talking.  First, Steve Magness at Science of Running says:

“Then why is everyone in a rage over increasing stride rate? Because as I’ve pointed out before, most recreational runners simply overstride, which artificially creates a very low stride rate. Why? Because the foot lands so far out in front of the Center of Mass that it takes a while for your body to be over it and ready to push off. So, when some running form coach says to increase stride rate to X, what ends up happening is the runner is trying so hard to increase stride rate, he chops his stride a bunch by putting his foot down earlier and landing closer to his center of mass, thus decreasing the overstriding. Nothing particularly wrong with that.

Where we go wrong is in the logic that the stride rate increase is the key. No, it’s not. It’s the elimination of the overstriding. Using the cue to increase stride rate is a way for coaches/runners to reduce the heel striking overstride.”

The key concept here is that it’s not cadence in and of itself that’s so important, but rather by manipulating cadence we can improve the location of where the foot lands.  Pete Larson at Runblogger puts it well when he says:

“In other words, reaching with the leg is bad, and increasing cadence can help us avoid doing that. Let me repeat – overstriding is what we are trying to prevent by manipulating cadence. If you don’t overstride, manipulating cadence might not be wise or necessary.”

Now, you may be asking why is overstriding an issue?  Essentially overstriding is harder on the body.  In contrast, keeping the foot closer to you won’t beat you up so much.  I won’t go into the details but if you’re interested, then please check out Jay Dicharry’s posts on Loading Rate Part 1: What Does it Mean for You and Part 2.  (Part 2 is a very interesting discussion as to why a forefoot, midfoot or heel strike may not matter at all.)

Leaning forward

I’m obviously on the lookout for gait and running mechanics information.  I recently discovered a very good site called Kinetic Revolution. There’s all sorts of very useful science-based information there for runners and triathletes. Among all this wealth of good stuff, I came across the post titled Essentials of Running Mechanics. That post features a video from a South African running coach named Bobby McGee.  (Insert whatever obvious Janis Joplin joke you’d like.) Leaning forward is the first thing McGee discusses.  Through leaning we can go faster or slower: more forward = faster, more upright = slower.


Remember earlier I mentioned that this faster cadence was overwhelming my heart and lungs?  At the 1:34 minute of the video McGee discusses this issue. He says to simply get a bit more upright (don’t lean so far forward) to slow down and control the cardiovascular exertion.  I tried it today and it worked perfectly!  I was able to a) maintain proper foot placement under my center of mass by b) speeding up my cadence and c) adjusting my lean so that I was more upright.  The overall result is that I maintained a quick pace and felt good doing it. I felt my glutes working well.  Foot placement felt ideal.  All-and-all I was very pleased with what this small adjustment did for me.


I Know How to Walk and Run: Part II


In the previous post I discussed my difficulty in solving my running-related pain issues.  Analyzing and changing one’s running technique is a challenging thing, but I’m going to attempt it.  I’m mainly going to discuss running here but these concepts apply to walking as well.  (Don’t think that poor walking mechanics don’t matter.  We spend a lot of time walking.  If we’re doing it wrong then we’re really hammering the body into a mangled mess.)

Really important thing #1: Let the foot drop right below you.  Don’t reach out with your heel.

It’s vital to get the foot strike correct when running.  I now realize that for years I was reaching forward with my leg, putting my heel out in front of me, and hitting the ground with my heel. This is bad.  It promotes overuse of the hamstring muscles and de-emphasizes the glutes.

I then spent the past year to year-and-a-half trying a forefoot strike.  I thought this was an effective correction of my heel strike but I was still doing several things wrong.  First, I was still reaching out ahead of me.  As a result I was still using my hamstrings too much and I wasn’t using my glutes enough.  And though I was hitting with my forefoot and avoiding a heel strike, I wasn’t allowing my heel to settle to the ground.

Now I’m doing things a lot better.  First, I drop my foot directly below me.  In fact, it feels like my foot is dropping behind me.  Let me emphasize the word “drop.”  I passively let the leg unfold underneath me and let gravity pull my foot to the ground.  I don’t actively try to do much of anything with my foot.  I often pay attention to how things feel down there but I don’t try to pull my foot off the ground or push off in any particular way.  Steve Magness discusses this process in is superb post How to run with proper biomechanics.  I’ve bolded the key points:

Once the knee has cycled through, the lower leg should drop to the ground so that it hits close to under your center of gravity. When foot contact is made, it should be made where the lower leg is 90 degrees to the ground. This puts it in optimal position for force production. The leg does not extend outwards like is seen in most joggers and there is no reaching for the ground. Reaching out with the lower leg results in over striding and creates a braking action. Another common mistake is people extending the lower leg out slightly and then pulling it back in a paw like action before ground contact. They are trying to get quick with the foot and create a negative acceleration. This is incorrect and does not lead to shorter ground contact times or better positioning for force production. Instead the paw back motion simply engages the hamstrings and other muscles to a greater degree than necessary, thus wasting energy. The leg should simply unfold and drop underneath the runner.

I know I’m running well when it actually feels like the foot is dropping behind me.  (It’s not actually behind me, it’s just dropping quite a bit further back than it used to.)  I now focus on hip extension when I run, or using my glutes to drive my leg back.  With this proper foot placement I can feel my glutes turn on and propel me forward.  It helps to have a slight forward lean through this process.

Really important thing #2: Lengthen through the hip

This concept of what I call “lengthening through the hip” has had a massive impact on my walking and running technique and thus my pain issues as well.  Denver-area physical therapist Rick Olderman helped me solve a strange little bodily riddle I’d had for years, and this hip lengthening process was right at the core of it.

For a long time I noticed that standing on my right leg was a lot different from standing on my left.  When I would stand on my right leg I always sort of tipped or shifted to the right.  It didn’t feel right.  My balance would shift in a sort of exaggerated way.  This was happening every step.  Standing incorrectly on my right leg when walking and running also meant I would land badly on my left leg.  Lengthening up and pressing my weight through my hip into my foot solved this issue.

This concept is a little tough to effectively describe in words but here goes:  As my foot hits the ground below me, I think of lifting my trunk away from hip.  In my mind the hip and the rib cage of the stance leg are separating–moving away from each other, and I’m sort of getting taller in the process.  I don’t think of bounding or hopping though.  I’m trying to make my leg longer below me and behind me as I move forward. A slight lean forward from the ankles helps me do this all correctly.

This movement is sort of a subtle kind of thing to grasp.  Describing this process is sort of like describing chocolate to someone who’s never tasted it.  It’s not like simply flexing your elbow or bending your knee.  It’ll probably take a bit of practice to get a feel for this.  The goal should be to take this strange-feeling novel movement and turn it into a habit. The video below should help explain this.

I Know How to Walk & Run: Part I


However, just like throwing a baseball or shooting a basketball, running is a skill that must be learned.
– Steve Magness, running coach

For almost 10 years now I’ve confronted various chronic aches and pains.  I love to run but often my running efforts have been derailed by some extremely frustrating issues.  My most recent battle has been with Achilles pain/heel pain/plantar fascitis/somesuch in my left foot.  I’ve been dealing with these issues for about two years–and it’s driven me insane.

Of course the idea of quitting is nonsense.  Humans should be able to run.  I want to run and so I’ve searched for a solution.  I can very happily report that it seems I have indeed found the key and I’ve spent the past eight weeks or so running almost daily.  Seems up until recently I was walking and running incorrectly.  Now I know what I’m doing!

Thanks to Rick Olderman

First I must thank Denver-area physical therapist Rick Olderman for helping me with this process. He’s by far the best physical therapist I’ve ever worked with–and I’ve worked with quite a few.  Rick truly understands movement, not just muscles and joints. He’s helped me see and feel what I’ve been doing wrong and how to change my ways.  If you’re battling with chronic pain and you’re in the Denver area, I highly recommend a visit to Rick.

Tough concepts to discuss

The idea of learning (or re-learning) how to walk and run is sort of a strange thing to consider. Most of us are able to use our legs to ambulate across the earth at various speeds.  We typically don’t need to spend much time thinking about how to do this stuff, we just do it.  But how well do we run or walk?  In my case, I developed poor movement habits–but I didn’t know it.  I never actually lost the ability to walk/run, I just lost the ability to do these things efficiently and properly.  We know that habits are very hard to break, especially if we can’t identify them.

Identifying and dissecting poor walking/running habits is pretty tough.  We’re talking about fairly complex processes that we do without thinking.  It’s like blinking or breathing.  Analyzing this stuff is challenging and then teaching someone a new method of walking or running is even tougher.  As a strength coach and personal trainer, I can say that we rarely consider how to teach someone proper gait mechanics.  At the Science of Running, big-time running coach Steve Magness discusses this issue in his excellent blog post titled How to run with proper biomechanics (This post is absolutely essential reading for any runner or running coach.):

“Distance runners and coaches seem to hate the topic of running form. Most subscribe to the idea that a runner will naturally find his best stride and that stride should not be changed. However, just like throwing a baseball or shooting a basketball, running is a skill that must be learned. The problem with learning how to run is that there are so many wrong ideas out there. This is partly due to the complexity of the process and partly due to a lack of understanding of biomechanics. It’s my belief that the wide range of “correct” ways to run has led to this apathetic attitude towards running form changes by most athletes and coaches.”

Over the next several posts I’m going to discuss my understanding of gait mechanics and how you can analyze and improve your gait.