Best Places to Look While Running

What are the best places to look while running? Most coaches will tell runners to always look straight ahead. However, staring straight ahead is hard to do when you are running on uneven, rocky surfaces. These unstable running surfaces force us to look down and scan where we are stepping to avoid tripping and falling. And, understand that looking downward still enables us to run efficiently –possibly more efficient than staring straight ahead, which may ignite instability at the ankles.

Best Places to Look While Running

A downward eyegaze at the ground prevents you from tripping while running and could be a protective, or relflexive mechanism hardwired in our neuromotor system. This would allow us to navigate smoothly over the ground.

Most Ethiopian distance runners including Tirunesh Dibaba and Haile Gebrselassie have their eyegaze directed straight down at the ground when running, shown below.

Why do these Ethiopian runners look down when they run while most North American runners look straight ahead?

Dibaba and Gebrselassie ran barefoot for many years. They ran barefoot through dense forests where the ground is uneven and full of tripping hazards. Looking down when running became a habit to prevent tripping.

Looking at the ground when running
Tirunesh Diaba and Haile Gebrselassie gaze down at the ground when they run. Their eye gaze position is literally a few feet in front of  foot strike position which makes it look as if they run with their eyes closed.

Eyegaze position affects head position and body movement which in turn may affect body posture when running.

A study by Derave et al., found that treadmill running resulted in visual disturbances that caused excessive head movements which disturbed postural stability. See how eyegaze position has a domino effect on postural stability?

It is difficult to look at the ground while running on a treadmill because the console is in the way. This is why treadmill runners look up at the surroundings which may account for the increased sway value and gait instability in the study.

Comparatively, Ethiopian runners look smooth and effortless when running, often showing a highly controlled gait. Could their downward eyegaze have something to do with it?

Eye gaze in running
Most East African distance runners scan the ground with their eyes while running, instead of looking straight ahead.

Interestingly, a study by Hoshikawa found the head to be more unstable when running than walking which led to compensatory eye movement patterns.

This implies that eyegaze, more specifically, a stable eyegaze, may have a huge influence on head movements when running whereby looking straight ahead may expose the visual information centers to more visual distractions.

  • more visual distractions means the eyes need to work harder at maintaining gaze stabilization which in turn, may lead to insufficient compensatory head movements and may compromise postural stability
  • when posture is compromised when running, your chances of injury soar

Now, you can begin to appreciate why looking at the ground when running may not be such a bad idea after-all, since it seems to work well for Dibaba and Gebreselassie.

It may follow that looking at the ground when running may regulate biomechanics from head to toe as visual distractions from the surroundings are eliminated. The eyes can relax when gaze is dropped to the ground which may also stabilize head movements as well as enhance postural stability.

Therefore, a downward eyegaze when running may allow for visual contributions that promote better gait control and may prevent deterioration of running form over long distances, especially in a fatigued state.

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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

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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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