How to Use Your Feet Properly When Forefoot Running

Landing on the forefoot is best for running, this is nothing new. But, you must also know how to use your foot at the end of stance (i.e. when initiating propulsion in forefoot running).

A fabulous trick I learned to make forefoot running easier is to pull, not push with your foot during propulsion. This is key because the propulsive phase in running strongly effects running economy more than possibly, any other phase of running gait (Moore, 2016). So, it’s important that you know how to mechanically optimize the propulsive phase of running to perform well.

How to Use Your Feet in Forefoot Running
I learned, thanks to Pose Running, that its better to pull your foot up rather than use it to push your body forward.

How to Use Your Feet Properly When Forefoot Running

Our primitive reflexes indicate that runners were meant to pull, not push with their leg because running under natural conditions (i.e. barefoot or pure minimalist shod) involves activation of a complex set of flexor reflexes controlled at various levels of the central nervous system (i.e. brain and spinal cord). These are also known as primitive reflexes.

Why Pull And Not Push With Your Feet in Forefoot Running

Runners Need to Pull, Not Push, to Avoid Injury

A study by Robbins et al. found that these flexor reflexes were responsible for mediating avoidance behavior under barefoot conditions and implied that avoidance behavior has more protective value than wearing cushioned running shoes.

Because of heightened perceived sensory magnitude, the central nervous system can effectively discriminate between pleasant and unpleasant footfalls during barefoot or pure minimalist shod running.

  • When there’s a rapid increase in plantar loading, maximum activation occurs in major muscle groups and reflexes involved in pulling of the foot. This kind of avoidance behavior during running ameliorates the chance of injury.

These flexor reflexes also morphs, mechanically, with a forefoot running style: quick removal of the foot keeps the center of mass moving forward.

  • A study by Romanov and Fletcher reasoned that in forefoot running, acceleration of the center of mass is facilitated by gravitational forces, not by using the foot to push the runner forwards as in heel strike running.
Why pushing off with your foot is bad when running
Above, shows a heel strike runner pushing off the ground with the foot to accelerate the body forward. Pushing does not seem to be part of our fundamental repertoire of avoidance behavior since it facilitates longer ground contact time.

Pulling, not pushing, of the foot seems to translate into better performance and safer running as most Ethiopian distance runners demonstrate pulling of the foot superbly.

rimitive Reflexes Indicates Humans Were Meant to Pull, Not Push When Forefoot Running
Pulling of the foot, as part of avoidance behavior, has been observed in many Ethiopian distance runners who ran barefoot. Wearing less on the feet increases a runner’s likelihood of developing a better pull of the foot.

Having ran barefoot during early stages of development, most Ethiopian distance runners developed the mental muscles for avoidance responses involving withdrawal (i.e. pulling), whereas recreational runners who heel strike are unable to detect rapid changes in stimulus intensity because of the type of footwear they wear. Nonetheless, growing up shod or unshod reflects the differences in how runners use their feet when they run: pulling or pushing.

In the same study, Romanov and Fletcher mentioned that the concept of pulling of the foot from the ground is uncommon among endurance runners, yet can be clearly observed by watching the gaits of Ethiopian distance runners as well as habitual barefoot runners, emphasizing that humans were meant to pull, not push during running.

Breaking Down the Elaborate Pulling System involved in Human Running:

Avoidance, or pulling in forefoot running begins with activation of cutaneous flexor reflexes, controlled by the central nervous system, which responds to noxious stimuli –something that is dangerous to bodily tissues. It is important to mention that this reflexive pathway is highly innervated with high-speed data processing nerve fibers.

  • These reflexes also involve ipsilateral flexion, contralateral extension, with motor responses of graded magnitude and duration in relation to stimulus intensity.

If humans weren’t meant to pull during running, why did we evolve such an elaborate avoidance behavior system?

  • Avoidance behavior via pulling of the foot was key to survival, therefore is primitive.

Our ancestors lacked higher cognitive processes that we have today, and relied on these reflexes to detect acute danger when barefoot running. These reflexes would have triggered a cascade of physical alarms in the form of quick removal of the foot from the ground.

  • Like modern-day barefoot runners and Ethiopian runners, our ancestors’ senses sharpened to soak up information about prospective threats on the plantar surface.

But what’s truly frightening is that avoidance behavior gets violated on a grade scale in the standard running shoe.

  • Little attention has gone to understanding what happens to pulling of the foot when the standard running shoe is worn during running. Do we pull less? Is pulling delayed?
  • Interference of pulling may be connected to running-related injuries.

We do know that running in thickly cushioned footwear causes runners to frequently engage in aggressive footfalls and interferes with our evolved inborn strategies that helped our species dominate the planet as hunters and gathers a few million years ago.

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References:

Denny-Brown, D. The Cerebral Control of Movement. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1966.

Moore, I. Is There an Economical Running Technique? A Review of Modifiable Biomechanical Factors Affecting Running Economy. Sports Med, 2016; 46:793-807.

Mountcastle, V.B. Medical Physiology, Vol 1. St. Louis, MO; C.V. Mosby, 1980, pp.777-887.

Robbins SE, Hanna, AM and Gouw GJ. Overload protection: avoidance response to heavy plantar surface loading. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1988; 20(1):85-92.

Romanov, N and Fletcher G. Runners do not push off the ground but fall forwards via a gravitational torque. Sports Biomech, 2007; 6(3):434-452.

Bretta Riches

Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.
Bretta Riches

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!

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