How Runners Can Work on Landing Softly

Photo: Alice Peters Diffely

Land softly while running. It’s sound advice. And certainly not new.

But how do you put it into practice? To answer that question, three experts shared their approaches to helping runners improve their technique and touch down lightly.

Emily Schwartz, M.D., a sports medicine physician and avid runner in Los Angeles, treats runners with all types of running injuries. Her clinical observations bear out what the research shows—that when we strike the ground with less force, we reduce our risk of injury.

RELATED: Harvard Study Examines Why Some Runners Don’t Get Injured

“Gait retraining is a huge part of what I talk to my patients about,” Schwartz says. “If you think about a horse almost pawing the ground, your landing should be like a very quick, light touch.”

She says that heel strikers tend to land with their heel out in front of them. “It’s like putting on the brakes with every step—the forces get sent up their leg rather than going backward,” she explains.

Her advice: focus on increasing your cadence (number of strides per minute), shortening your stride, and landing on your midfoot underneath your hips—all of which, she says, work together to decrease the forces that go up through your body, therefore saving energy and reducing impact on joints.

Ken Mierke, an exercise physiologist and running coach in Falls Church, Va., teaches those principles and others through Evolution Running, a system of techniques he developed in 1999 to help runners run more efficiently with fewer injuries.

“Learning to run softly can make running a more enjoyable experience as well as improve your performance,” Mierke says.

The first step is learning to land with your foot underneath you, he explains. To begin, he suggests running in place.

“When you’re running in place, you can’t land with your foot in front of you,” he says. “I like to have people run in place on a treadmill with the treadmill turned off and then speed it up a couple of tenths of a mile-per-hour about every 20 seconds. So every time you speed it up, your heel will go back a little farther to generate a little bit more propulsion while never letting your foot land in front of your hips.”

Propulsion should come from pulling back from the hip and using your butt muscles, which will move you more directly forward, instead of straightening the knee and using your quads, which will propel you about two-thirds up and one-third forward, Mierke explains. Your quads should hold you up, but not propel you.

“The more you elevate off the ground, the longer gravity has to carry you down and the harder you’re going to hit,” he says.

Mierke says a common misconception is that a long stride is about opening your legs wide. “Good runners have a long stride from pushing off the ground powerfully from the moment the foot is weight-bearing, not from opening their legs to a wide angle,” he explains.

To increase your cadence, he advises getting a clip-on metronome or using an iPhone metronome app and setting it to 180 strides per minute, the optimal step rate for most runners. “Usually within a few months, people get their turnover up and it becomes natural,” he says.

Another popular running method that promotes landing lightly is Chi Running, developed by Danny Dreyer in 1999. Inspired by tai chi, the idea is to use your core to run more efficiently and effortlessly.

Alice Peters Diffely, a Chi Running master instructor and longtime distance runner, discovered Chi Running in 2004 after several years of being sidelined from running due to a frustrating cycle of lower leg injuries. Chi Running not only got her back to running without pain, it changed her career path. Having previously practiced law, in 2007 she launched Running Mindfully, Inc., in Portland, Ore.

“In Chi Running, we take our clients through a series of lessons which are holistic, and most, if not all of them, can play a role in helping runners to land more softly,” Diffely says.

One of the first lessons she teaches is on posture during which clients learn to both align and relax their bodies. She says to think of “a needle in cotton—a strong center with relaxed peripherals.”

“If you can relax your upper back and shoulders, your lower back and hips, and all the way down through your calves, ankles and feet, that in and of itself is going to help you land more softly than if you’re a ball of tension,” she says.

Once clients learn to improve their posture, they incorporate a slight forward lean, which promotes gravity-assisted forward movement and a midfoot landing. They also learn a new way to lift their heels.

“The idea is to simply let your heels float up behind you rather than aggressively pushing off with your toes,” Diffely says. “It avoids overworking the calves and the muscles on the soles of your feet.”

Like Mierke, Diffely recommends setting a metronome from 170 to 180 to increase step rate and then lifting your heels with the beep.

Another Chi Running tip for a softer landing is to “imagine a string drawing up gently on the crown of your skull, suspending you from above and allowing your feet to touch down very lightly as you skim across the surface of the earth,” Diffely says.

Finally, when implementing any new running technique, the key, say the experts, is to progress gradually and do repetitive form drills to build specific muscular strength to maintain your improved form.

RELATED: Drills for Building Running Strength, Cadence and Speed 

Cate Hotchkiss is a freelance writer, marathoner, and mom who lives in Hood River, Ore. She blogs at gorgegirlruns.blogspot.com.

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