Learning forefoot running does not have to be overwhelming. In fact, thinking less about how you are running may help you coordinate your movements more efficiently. For example, external focus of attention instead of internal focus of attention enhances the natural reflexivity of the lower leg, promotes a more fluid gait, and reduces movement rigidity in forefoot running learners and therefore improves the experience of learning a new running technique.
External Focus of Attention Makes Learning Forefoot Running Easier
Many runners believe that biomechanics need to be mentally monitored while running to prevent movement deficits and maintain efficiency, however over-thinking your mechanics may cause you to run less accurately. This is why many elite distance runners tend to ‘zone out’.
In turns out that zoning out via external focus of attention may allow the forefoot running technique to occur more naturally.
During my transition from heel striking to forefoot striking, I was overwhelmed with instruction when running: land on the balls of the foot, quickly remove the foot from the ground, bend my knees, land softly and quickly, take smaller steps and don’t over-stride, don’t heel strike, run faster, breathe, control arm swing, relax feet, lean from the ankles and not at the waist, and don’t over-lean -see how learning a new running technique can be daunting?
Hyper-focusing on multiple aspects of your biomechanics all at once while you run is mentally draining and will cause confusion and frustration and reflect how you move.
Over-thinking your mechanics while running will cause muscle tension and premature fatigue and running becomes more challenging than fun.
This is why to learn forefoot running you may want to consider using external focus of attention instead of internal focus of attention. Additionally, a 2014 study by Chow et al., published in the International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching suggested that external focus of attention is more beneficial when correcting foot strike during running.
What is the difference between external and internal focus of attention?
External focus is when the performer directs their attention to the effect of the action or the outcome of the movement whereas internal focus the performer directs their attention to the action itself.
An example of using external focus of attention in forefoot running:
- Landing quietly – Forefoot running is associated with lesser ground contact and thus a ‘lighter’ foot strike. Insteading of thinking about actually landing directly on your forefoot (internal focus), think of the outcome of your forefoot strike which is to land more quietly or perceive the pavement as a cloud.
- Watching the ground go by – Instead of thinking of leaning at the ankles (internal focus) when running, look at the ground more and focus on the ground rushing underneath you (external focus). Most barefoot runners tend to gaze at the ground when they run as a protective strategy to avoid stepping on something painful. Most elite Ethiopian distance runners also stare at the ground when running. Many of these runners are also forefoot strikers who maintain the right angle of lean in the gait. Looking at the ground when running favors a forward lean and prevents running upright which has been shown to be hard on the knee and causes braking.
External focus cues may increase movement efficiency compared to internal focus cues because attention is diverted away from the action (i.e. foot strike), allowing the central nervous system to respond automatically and produce a natural, rapid response towards the movement.
Forefoot Running may be a Reflexive Response to Running that Requires Little Thought
In the beginning stages of learning forefoot running, especially if you were a heel striker, you do need to pay attention to your mechanics to some degree. But once you master forefoot running, you will benefit from external focus of attention because the forefoot running style may be more subconsciously controlled thanks to evolution and the central pattern generators in the spinal cord.
Recent analysis of how humans evolved as barefoot endurance runners shows that the human anatomy of the lower leg facilitated long-distance running, which allowed our ancestors to chase down prey.
For our ancestors, to survive meant to run daily. They had no concept of biomechanics. They just ran, giving zero thought as to how to run, as running, like walking, may be autonomic.
Other work shows that a forefoot strike, not a heel strike, may have been the preferred foot strike of our ancestors because it may reduce impact forces. Habitual barefoot runners also land on their forefoot, not their heel. Therefore, humans may be evolutionary hardwired to run on their forefoot using minimal conscious control.
Why Not Internal Focus of Attention?
If forefoot running requires little conscious effort because it is under autonomic control, overriding autonomic movements by employing demands that are consciously driven may interfere with the body’s preferred movement path and may have performance or injurious implications.
- Internal focus of attention may cause movements to be over-controlled or forced thereby increasing oxygen consumption in the muscles.
- Internal focus may cause forefoot running learners to adopt more conscious driven movements which could be susceptible to disruption in higher anxiety context.
External Focus: Think Less, Run Better
In forefoot running, external focus of attention seems to promote movement efficiency and less muscular contractions thereby improving running economy.
To run better, focus more on how the actions makes you feel (the outcome) instead of how to move a particular body segment
By diverting attention away from the specific movements, the movement of the body will coordinate more naturally in forefoot running.
More From Run Forefoot:
- Common Foot Injuries From Forefoot Running
- Best Books on Barefoot Running
- Best Minimalist Running Shoes for Forefoot Running
- Dealing with Peroneal Tendon Injury
Chow et al. (2014). Effects of external and internal focus training on foot-strike patterns in running. Int J Sports Sci Coaching, 9(2).
Peh, SY., Chow, JY and Davids, K. (2011). Focus of attention and its impact on movement behaviour. J Sci Med Sports. (4)1:70-8
Wulf, G. Attention and motor skill learning. Human Kinetics (2008).
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.