How to Improve Your Running Heel Lift

One of the running technique cues runners sometimes struggle to master at first when changing their gait is the “foot pull”. Mastering this movement will help you prevent a lazy heel lift.

Jeff Grant of Hillseeker Fitness has shared a great drill for mastering the “foot pull” in the short video above.

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Why Lift Your Heels When Running?

Picking your foot up beneath your hip as your leg swings forwards engages the hamstrings during mid-swing phase of your running gait. This reduces the load placed on your hip flexors, as they pull the swinging leg through on to the next stride.

Learn more about the different phases of running gait here: Running Gait Analysis: Distance Running Form & Gait Cycle Video.

A common flaw in many runners is to run with a hip flexor dominant swing phase which results in overactivity in the hip flexors, specifically rectus femoris, as described here.

Often this looks like a “lazy heel lift” when running. As a consequence of this shuffle running technique, the swing leg acts as a longer lever, placing more strain and demand on the hip flexors.

Sometimes this results in more tension through the iliotibial band, and often affects pelvic posture.

This kind of muscular imbalance around the hips can also contribute to relative glute weakness or gluteal inhibition.

Learning to use your hamstrings to contribute more in the swing phase, by picking (or “pulling”) the foot up under the body, rather than overly relying on the hip flexors, creates a more balanced and efficient distribution of the effort around the hip and knee.

Remember, the hamstrings are a very strong and powerful muscle group; anatomically they’re aligned to be powerful, prime movers.

A signature feature of POSE technique is the specific focus on getting the hamstrings working in this way. However we find that many athletes over-do this cue, with counterproductive results, as they start flicking their legs back in an effort to force the movement.

This drill will help to keep the “pull” movement under the body as desired, rather than becoming more of a flick behind the body.

how to pick your feet up when running - fixing a lazy heel lift

How Does Heel Lift Relate to Proper Running Form

When we speak about proper running technique, we look to encourage muscle balance around the hips and pelvis, in particular, combined with good posture. I look to see a runner staying “tall” rather than “sitting back”.

Engaging your hamstrings during the swing phase helps to achieve these two goals specifically by sharing the effort with the hip flexors, and keeping the whole leg motion neatly under the body, rather than over-striding.

Here’s an article (and video) that better describes how the quality of your heel lift and leg swing when running will determine whether or not you over-stride:

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Last updated on May 14th, 2019.

10 Comments

  1. Just read the article and watched the video, bloody brilliant. I know that I dont do this correctly. 1am going to give it a try.
    Love these articles, very well written and easy to understand.
    Keep up the great work.
    I’ll be back soon.
    Tarsh

  2. Hey James. Great info as always.
    I read a quote today from Romanov saying how the Pull in pose is only supposed to be enough to remove the foot from the ground in order to change support. It surprised me as I do see Pose typically criticized for over emphasising the pull back such that the heel travels as high as possible. Is it a misinterpretation of Romanov’s teachings or is it a contradiction within the Pose Method?
    I recall one of coach Bobby McGee’s training videos (I believe you posted too) in which I believe he emphasises the importance of downward drive (pushing not pulling) and that once the foot has become weight bearing that’s the end of any effort to aid propulsion, which to me seems to contradict the idea of any pullback whatsoever. Or am I remembering it wrong? Is the debate push vs pull or do both have a place?

    1. Hi Matt,

      I certainly believe that by far the biggest error made by coaches and runners trying to utilize Dr. Romanov’s POSE method is to ‘over-cook’ the Pull – forcing a pulling movement far bigger than required for the given pace, especially when trying to run at steady speeds. The way I try to present it to runners is that the pull should be scaled up and down for the desired pace.

      Faster pace running requires bigger pull as a bigger stride length is required, conversely slower requires a smaller pull.

      Instead we see many POSE coaches getting their runners to pull their foot up unrealistically high for a ‘steady pace’ – leaving many runners feeling as if they’re expending excess energy to achieve what should otherwise be a relaxed pace.

      The key isn’t the size of the ‘pulling’ movement pattern, rather establishing the correct pattern and scaling it up and down for the desired pace – much as you’d manipulate cadence – obviously stride length and frequency need to vary with pace.

      I’m an advocate of both the ‘Pull’ and ‘Push’ being important in running gait…

      The Pull – as described in the paragraph and article above helps to achieve improved muscle activation around the hip, knee and pelvis during swing phase, and achieve the desired stride length for a given pace. As well as helping to achieve less of a quad / hip flexor dominant, over striding gait.

      The Push – as presented in coach Bobby McGee’s video helps to generate propulsion from loading response through mid-stance. I wouldn’t say that once the foot is weight bearing it’s propulsive role is over – how could that work? We need to be weight bearing to actively propel ourselves, surely. Coach McGee promotes driving the foot down from the point of peak hip flexion, but only as a coaching point to help cue the glutes and hamstrings to create the active extension pattern that will drive us forwards as soon as the foot is anchored under our bodyweight. That’s my take 🙂 Seems to work a treat too.

      For me the debate isn’t Push vs Pull. More so it’s important to cue pushing from the right place during stance phase – glutes during midstance, rather than excessively through plantarflexors later in stance phase (see this article) – then to get ‘just the right amount’ of pull from the hamstrings (for a given pace) to assist the stretch reflex in the anterior chain. It’s not a case of ‘either or…’

      As ever, just telling it how I see it, and what I’ve found to work well in my experience. All points up for debate!

  3. As I interpret that video (have a transcript somewhere but can’t find it now), McGee’s comments are rather like Magness’ in suggesting that once the foot becomes weight bearing, that’s the end of active propulsion. He comments similarly in this piece here:
    “Once the foot is “stiffened” against the ground to load the fascia, not only is rebound available for propulsion, but the hip flexors are extended (loaded) & when the knee/thigh then springs forward (with some guiding help), the knee folds with momentum & relaxation to shorten the lever for a more rapid return. Heel lift & knee flexion & thigh return must be more of a reaction than an action.” (http://bobbymcgee.com/leg-exercises-heel-to-butt/)

    1. Sounds to me like he’s talking about terminal stance:

      …not only is rebound available for propulsion, but the hip flexors are extended…

      In which case active propulsion should be over and done with – as I’d like to see active propulsion taking place through the ‘glute push’ during midstance.

      For me, the key element of his description of swing phase lies in:

      …with some guiding help

      From a sagittal plane point of view, I take that as getting the hamstrings involved, rather than relying solely on stretch-reflex from anterior chain.

      Agreed, the elastic recoil of the hip flexors is very important (we all like things that come for ‘free’!), but again the key is that swing phase should be “more of a reaction than an action”. Not entirely reaction.

  4. Interesting. I never took “with some guiding help” as implying conscious interaction but rather unconscious stabilisation. But if we’re talking about hamstring involvement post toe off where the hip is extended, I can’t see how Jeff’s drill helps as his hip is flexed while “pulling”, as in a butt kick. I know you’ll help me get there but can’t help seeing the pick up of the heel as a natural reaction to a powerful hip extension, hence the faster you run tje higher it tends to go…

    1. Indeed, I’m talking hamstring involvement to assist the natural reaction of knee flexion, occuring while the limb is moving through hip flexion – from a hip extended position through to the hip flexed peak of recovery phase. Assisting this knee flexion helps in reducing the length of lever arm of the swing leg as it acts on the hip joint in the sagittal plane – making for less torque being required from those hip flexors, particularly Rec.Fem.

      Jeff’s drill isn’t perfect. Perhaps we could try it in a split stance to mimic the trail leg moving through combined knee flexion and hip flexion…

      For others reading this: Mutai and Mosop below do a great job of demonstrating the combined actions of hip flexion and knee flexion that we’re after.

      Matt, how many runners do we both see whose Rec.Fem., TFL (and ITB by association) are screaming…? In my experience, loads! Often this presents alongside notable relative weakness in their hamstrings and poor glute function.

      In these ‘quad dominant’ runners, there’s a hell of a lot to be said for cueing the hamstrings to be more active in early swing phase, to help the swinging leg through to peak of the recovery phase – making the most of the stretch-reflex of the hip flexors, while keeping the lever-arm at the hip manageable and efficient.

  5. That’s the thing, I question whether one could mimic the knee flexion seen in early swing phase without preceeding it with the powerful hip extension. Ah well… we’ll see f anyone else has some input!

    1. True, an isolated drill is always going to be a poor second best to the integrated movement it’s aiming to cue…

      Without effective, powerful hip extension everything else is dead in the water. That’s clearly where the propulsion needs to come from and set us up for the desired recoil found in swing phase. I simply feel that there needs to be more than hip flexor stretch-reflex alone taking the swing leg through to peak recovery.

      Interesting topic, and I certainly don’t have all the answers! Hopefully we can tempt more people to chip in and help demystify the subject 🙂

  6. all interesting points, curious to hear how you cue your athletes to achieve these precise movement patterns. Clearly it’s counterproductive to overload the athlete with too many coaching points, particularly internal cues relating to individual muscle groups and joints and sequences.
    What type of external cues do you find helpful to initiate and sequence the pull/ push aspects of the stride?

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