Forefoot Running for Ironman Athletes

Jan 24, 2012   //   by James Dunne   //   Running Technique Advice  //  13 Comments

Almost on a daily basis I meet Ironman athletes or aspiring Ironman athletes who have been struggling with trying to teach themselves to run with more of a midfoot or forefoot strike rather than their previous heel strike. Sometimes they have suffered from achilles tendon injuries from their attempts to change their technique, sometimes it’s just a feeling of tightness in the calfs – but usually there is (or has been) a difficulty of some sort for these endurance athletes in making the change of foot strike.

Now, it’s well worth acknowledging that, there are a small number of Ironman athletes who genuinely do run the whole marathon with a midfoot/forefoot strike. Which is a great example of consistency of form, which I will come on to later… These athletes are few and far between, and it’s such variety between athletes which keeps my job interesting and exciting!

But, I want to take a moment to discuss the situation as it applies to the vast majority.

When a heel striking Ironman athlete approaches me and asks for my help to coach them into a more efficient midfoot/forefoot striking technique, my first question is… why?

Usually the answer all boils down to the interest from the running and tri media in forefoot/midfoot/barefoot/minimalist running over recent years, coupled with some targeted marketing from certain running shoe companies. These styles of running have been portrayed as more efficient and a more natural way to run. These claims are all biomechanically sound.

If the athlete was an ITU athlete, racing over a 10km run course, I’d suggest that we should definitely work to get them comfortable in their new forefoot/midfoot technique. But we’re not talking about 10km, we’re talking about running an Ironman Marathon… This is a completely different proposition in terms of how much volume and time they will have to maintain this now form for during training and racing.

The fatal error that many Ironman athletes make is to focus on the foot in terms of how the foot lands. Instead I encourage them to focus on where the foot lands.

Crowie HeelstrikeMost ironman athletes come to me with at least a slight overstride, which usually encourages a heavy heel strike. This overstride is usually a result of a slower than optimal cadence for a given pace. With such an overstride (the foot landing ahead of the body) a significant braking force is applied with each step as the heel crashes to the ground ahead of the centre of mass.

By working to develop a slightly elevated running cadence, correct swing leg mechanics and improved running posture, we manage to eliminate the overstride and thus eliminate the excessive braking forces – as the foot lands closer to under the centre of mass.

This new strike under the centre of mass, dictated by the increased cadence, improved posture and swing leg mechanics, may well naturally occur with either a midfoot strike or a gentle heel strike, depending on the athlete.

However, even if the athlete now naturally moves to a midfoot strike, their capacity to maintain this for a full Ironman Marathon is questionable… Remember, they were previously a heel-striker and almost certainly don’t have the local muscle strength and endurance in the calf complex to maintain the new position for the full distance.

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Some interesting research was published in 2011 by Pete Larson, who showed the significant number of marathon (not even IM marathon) runners who were midfoot/forefoot runners in the early stages of a marathon but had reverted to a heel strike as fatigue kicked in.

We know that heel striking usually comes with an increased overstride, which is an indicator of a decreased cadence for a given pace. So it is safe to assume that for the athletes in the study who had changed from midfoot/forefoot to a heel strike, their cadence had dropped and they were subsequently over striding and braking excessively.

To avoid such a big change and deterioration in form as serious fatigue kicks in, I often get Ironman athletes to practice running with a cadence that provides a strike close to under the centre of mass at marathon pace, and as such, a gentle, glancing heel strike. The technique focus in training and competition should be to maintain a steady and consistent cadence at a rate that discourages overstriding.

Here’s a great post from one of my athletes, Russell Cox that talks about developing consistency in running cadence and therefore (to a degree) overall running form during Ironman run training and racing.

There’s nothing wrong with learning to run on your forefoot/midfoot, just as an Ironman athlete make sure that you can also run efficiently (without overstriding) with a slight heelstrike.

This is all done to avoid the following: I want to avoid the situation where the athlete can ONLY maintain a optimal stride length and cadence with a midfoot/forefoot strike (due to only practising with a midfoot/forefoot strike), only when fatigue kicks in, for them to slip back to a more familiar heel strike and overstride with lower cadence – because they had only perfected good form with a midfoot/forefoot strike.

As an Ironman athlete you need to be able to avoid the overstride, poor posture and slow cadence, with with either a midfoot/forefoot strike or a glancing heel strike.

Remember, efficiency is key, and on the run efficiency stem from far more factors than simply how your foot lands!

Although I’d personally always run up to 25km on my forefoot, as I fatigue towards 30km and onwards, I move to a gentle heel strike.

If a gentle heel strike under the centre of mass is good enough for Three Time Ironman World Champion Craig “Crowie” Alexander (ironically also Newton brand ambassador!) then it’s good enough for me over a marathon!

The important factor is to train your body to be good maintain a good cadence and avoid overstriding, no matter how you land your foot.

About The Author

James has an academic background in Sport Rehabilitation and a special interest in Applied Biomechanics. He currently coaches a large number of Runners and Triathletes across all levels of ability and performance. He's grown a strong reputation for enabling athletes to improve their running performance and overcome running injuries through improving their Running Technique and developing Running Specific Strength.

 

13 Comments

  • I want to thank you for an excellent article & an excellent video. I am currently in the process of changing my foot strike to more of a mid foot strike, but have been realizing (even before reading this post) that it is not so much where the road meets my foot as where my foot is under my body.

    I am tall (6′ 3″) and as an amateur runner, I made the mistake of thinking that taking longer strides was the key to improving my time in the 10K and beyond. This, of course, caused me to place my foot way in front of my body (braking motion) and lead to an Achilles injury.

    I have read that an ideal cadence is 180 bpm – and when I tried running the other day (first time in 3 1/2 weeks after my injury) – I set my metronome app to 170 bpm and found that my heart rate was sky high, and I was out of breath. Much more quickly than with my old foot strike (which is probably because with a long gait, my cadence was very slow).

    So the question is – what is an ideal cadence to target, and is it ok if I start around 150 – 160 bpm until my heart rate and breathing are under control. I understand that if I have a slower cadence, I will have to be very aware of my posture and my foot placement in relation to my hips. BTW – I too have been focusing on using my hamstring to pull my heel to my butt. I try to kick my butt, but can’t reach – this one technique – along with imagining I am running on coals has helped immensely with my overall running technique.

    Sorry for the long comment – and thanks again for posting this. The insight was great, and will be very helpful.

    I will be updating my blog with my progress – feel free to leave comments there. I would love to have you guest post as well.

    Regards,
    Chad

    • Hi Chad,

      Thanks for the comment. I too am a tall runner – 6’6″ with disproportionately long legs! I definitely find that the length of my legs dictates that my optimal cadence for a given pace is slightly slower than that of my shorter limbed peers.

      By “optimal cadence for a given pace” I mean the cadence for a given speed at which I am no longer overstriding.

      In terms of identifying a cadence to target, you have to first ask why you want to do that… The goal should’t be to achieve a pre-determined “magic number” in the hope that it’s correct for you, more so to increase your cadence incrementally to a point where it still feels achievable effort wise, but definitely has a noticeable positive effect on reducing the tendency to overstride.

      I hope that helps!

      James

      • James – thank you.

        In answer to your question about why I want to target a certain pace….good question! :) I have been reading a lot, and am working very hard on changing my stride. I keep running across the magic number of 170 – 180 steps per minute. However, when I have run with that pace – I am out of breath within a mile.

        Might be something to work up to, but is not achievable now.

        I have found that a stride rate of 150 bpm is sustainable for long distance. 150 – 155 on a 2 mile run was about an 8:00 minute pace.

        I think what I am learning is that the bpm is not what is the most important (in terms of lowering impact on my 40 year old body) – it is where my foot falls in relation to my hips (I.E. Not out in front, causing a huge overstride, massive heal strike, and an unwanted braking action / higher impact on my entire leg).

        Does it sound like my analysis is right?

        Thanks for your feedback.

        Chad

  • Thanks for writing this article with advice for Ironman athletes. Having done five Ironman races, I would agree with your emphasis on training for a good cadence in our running. I found that it was very important not to lose that cadence in races, which can be harder when there are hills or even slight undulations.

    On the uphill sections, it’s important to reduce the stride length but keep the same turnover. On steeper hills this can mean that you are taking very short steps. As the gradient levels out you can increase the stride length.

    On downhill sections, you also have to make sure you’re not over striding and to try to keep your leg turnover steady. This has the added benefit of protecting your quadriceps muscles in their role as shock absorbers, when they are already fatigued from the 112 mile bike ride.

    In longer training runs, I found it useful to pick a route with quite a lot of stops, like gates to open or stiles to cross. This helped me get used to stopping and starting again with the same cadence, as you might have to do at aid stations on an Ironman course. Also you should regularly run with tired legs (off the bike) and get used to locking into your Ironman pace and cadence. This will help ingrain that rhythm which will help you through the run on race day.

  • Thank you so much for this article it was a great help to me during my transition to forefoot strike. I am now able to run comfortably over 8 miles at 180 cadence (be it running slow or fast) but I fear my left foot’s heel (always seem to have problems with my left foot) is not kissing the ground. Do you have any suggestions on how to relax my ankle. I can do this fine with the right but the left has trouble relaxing.

    I personally think it might be because I have had mild PF and my brain is saying put your heel down and it may hurt. If that is so I don’t know how to get over that.

    Thanks for your time and great articles.

  • Thanks for the article.

    I started focusing on mid-foot strike when I found that I had a slight tear in the tendon running across the top of my foot.

    The Dr believes this occurred b/c of the increase in mileage in a racing shoe. Dumb mistake that could have cost me but fortunately the Doctor said to wear a more stable shoe and focus on landing midfoot.

    Now even when I wear the racer on short races and land mid-foot I have no pain and have been pain free for nearly 6 months now.

    Overall this is great though because the IM marathon is not the same as a stand-alone marathon as you are much more fatigued at the start.

    Thank you again.

    Jason

  • [...] Over-striding is the most common  cause of excessive impact forces experienced upon contact with the ground. Regardless of running speed and type of foot contact, the aim should be to land the foot as close as possible under the hips. Landing the foot in this position, under the body weight rather than ahead as it travels forwards, acts to reduce braking forces. This results in improved efficiency and less impact on the joints. Learn more. [...]

  • I finally agree wholly with you bastards! Great post!

    One little quibble i think it is impossible for the foot to land under the centre of mass at a constant speed. There is always some reaction force in the ant-posterior direction. Gives the springs time to store energy and then release.

    All the best, great site.

    Greg

    • Hey Greg, thanks for commenting! Glad we see eye to eye on this one.

      I love the visualisation you use of “giving the springs time to store energy and then release“… well put!

      I agree that from a strict biomechanical point of view, we’re never going to land directly under the CoM.

      However, as a coaching cue, I find that telling athletes to try to achieve just that is a really powerful coaching point. The important thing to know is that the athlete will never actually get there, but trying to do so really helps them to stop over-striding.

      That’s why in most places in the above article I say “close to” under center of mass.

      For those reading this. Greg has some great material on his website:

      http://www.thebodymechanic.ca/category/running-biomechanics/

      Well worth a read. None of have all the answers, but our little niche of the industry is creating a really interesting discussion about this running malarky :)

  • Hi James, what a great article. As a former sportsman I’ve only ever ran short distances so have never been taught how to run over long distances. I will be doing my 1st Ironman this August (IMUK) and your article has given me some fantastic action points to work on.
    Look forward to more posts,

    Best wishes.
    Michael Farrell
    @sportsmindcoach

  • your tips have helpt alot thanks

  • Hey James,

    Yet another quality piece.
    I’ve gound intially by increasing cadence and reducing stride length my calves pulled up much better than if i was simply to focus on the midfoot/forefoot strike aspect.

    You think overstriding leads to a prolonged activation of post leg in stance and therefore an increase in metabolic and mechanical stress to the tissue(ie why I felt worse off the next day)?

    Kindest regards,

    Christian MAC

    • Hi Christian,

      Thanks!

      The experience you describe is exactly what I’ve found also. I find that runners who simply ‘force’ a mid/forefoot strike within an over striding gait pattern seem to suffer the most from calf and lower leg issues.

      The increased contact time that comes with over striding is certainly a factor, but so is the relatively plantar flexed position upon initial contact that over striding mid/forefoot runners get themselves into.

      More info on this, with pics here: http://www.kinetic-revolution.com/forefoot-running-and-calf-pain/

      Thanks for your support mate and comments. Great to share ideas :)

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