Aside from running barefoot, trail running is one of the best gifts for your biomechanics. I always feel that my leg swing mechanics and foot strike awareness really improves on my trail runs. In fact, better leg swing mechanics is one of the main benefits of trail running.
Benefits of Trail Running
When you run on the trails, especially when barefoot or in minimalist shoes, you experience a special brand of awareness that will make you become a better runner, mechanically.
Trail running was a massive game-changer for my forefoot running form because I instantly developed a higher back-kick with my leg. So, trail running is a great starting place for developing better leg swing mechanics and several studies are in agreement with this.
Most forefoot runners, especially elite runners who run forefoot, have a higher back kick (i.e faster swing-leg retraction velocity) compared to heel strike runners.
- During swing-leg retraction, the swing leg swings rearward and controls limb movement and reduces foot-ground velocity and landing impact ( De Wit et al. 2010).
Even more interesting, Sayferth et al. (2003) found that with swing-leg retraction, steady-state running is achieved quicker than without swing-leg retraction. Therefore, good swing-leg retraction may improve stability of the body as a mass-spring system during forefoot running.
- Because swing-leg retraction occurs in biological running, Sayferth et al. (2003) has built a case for the purpose of the back kick in running in that it serves as a stability mechanism for running at faster speeds and when running over obstacles.
So what’s the best method to develop higher back-kick other than by running fast? Trail running.
Trail running is full of little obstacles which indeed, improves back kick height and velocity. In the same study, Sayferth et al. (2003) discovered that swing-leg retraction enhanced in the presence of an obstacle. From this, the researchers reasoned that swing-leg retraction in running was used to select an angle of attack that sustained a desired movement pattern.
- When running over an obstacle, swing-leg velocity increased to avoid the obstacle and to avoid mechanical disturbances. Running on grass can have the same effect as well.
Meanwhile, researchers have identified the back kick as a stable, spring-like leg operation that is part of the muscle-flex system and works by counteracting disturbances, such as an uneven surface, that threaten the single stance phase of running. Basically, a higher back kick allows for more foot-ground clearance.
- Remember, swing your legs back, not far out in front, as shown above,
The researchers of the current study also mentioned that performing cyclic motor tasks, such as hopping, improves swing-leg retraction mechanics.
The Take Home Message
Forefoot running slowly on smooth surfaces may diminish the ability to develop that nice, high back kick. By running off-road, in wooded areas, your immediate response will be to remove the foot rapidly and higher up from the ground in response to such obstacles.
More From Run Forefoot:
De Wit, B., De Clercq, D. and Aerts, P. (2000). Biomechanical analysis of the stance phase during barefoot and shod running. J. Biomech. 33, 269-278.
Geyer, H., Seyfarth, A. and Blickhan, R. (in press). Positive force feedback in bouncing gaits. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B.
Seyfarth A., Geyer H and Herr H. Swing-leg retraction: a simple control model for stable running. J Exper Bio, 2003; 206:2547-2555.
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.