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Does “Lifting the Foot” Make Us Slower?

Posted by on Sep 23, 2012 | 34 Comments

I conducted a clinic this weekend in conjunction with Dr. Mark Cucuzzella at Two Rivers Treads, his minimalist shoe store in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I like events like this because it gives me the opportunity to learn along with teaching. In this case, I got to see many of Mark’s awesome drills and explanations in person.

We also had a few good discussions on various elements of running form. In particular, someone asked about lifting their feet. Back in the day I used to teach people to lift their feet as a means of softening their foot strikes. It proved to be effective.

However, I abandoned it last year as part of the simplified methods I started using when conducting Merrell Bareform clinics. It was an unnecessary step that just added one more thing for new barefoot runners to think about. I’d occasionally toss it out again if I encountered someone that forcefully drove their feet into the ground, but otherwise the learning cue fell by the wayside.

I briefly discussed the foot lift as part of my “don’t waste energy” post a few weeks ago, but didn’t give it much thought until someone asked Mark why he didn’t teach it. His response, which is paraphrased, was:

“When I teach running form to Air Force personnel, they actually have to get faster for PT tests.”

In essence, if you propel yourself forward by lifting your foot, you’re thwarting the biomechanical processes that allow you to run faster.

Is this really the case?

I tend to listen to Mark’s advice given his medical background, collaboration with some of the most brilliant running gait analysts alive, and the fact that he’s ridiculously fast. On top of his opinion, my own observations seem to confirm this. I have a handful of really fast friend that either run barefoot or use a natural gait- Jesse Scott, Jeremiah Cataldo, James Webber, Patrick Sweeney… and a few others. Their gait is decidedly different than others that use more of a shuffle and focus heavily on lifting their feet.

[Edit- quote added to give a description of technique as requested by comments]

Steve Magness has a good description of what occurs during the part of the gait cycle where your foot leaves the ground:

With the combination of the stretch reflex and the basic passive mechanical properties of the lower leg, the recovery cycle of the leg will happen automatically. The lower leg will lift off the ground and fold so that it comes close to your buttocks (how close depends on the speed you are running) then pass under your hips with the knee leading. Once the knee has led through, the lower leg will unfold and it is then the runner’s job to put it down underneath them. Ideal landing is close to the center of your body and directly underneath the knee.

Trying to actively move the leg through the recovery phase is another common mistake and will only result in wasted energy and the a slower cycling of the leg through the recovery phase. Two other common mistakes are to try and lift the knees at the end of the recovery cycle and to kick the lower leg to the butt at the beginning of the recovery cycle. Neither idea is sound, as they are essentially like trying to push the sling shot forward in our analogy instead of just letting it go. Active lifting of the knee lengthens the recovery cycle with no added stride length benefits. Instead, the knee should be allowed to cycle through and lift on its own. It should not be forced upwards because that cycle through of the knee is a result of the stretch reflex. Similarly, pulling the lower leg to the butt simply wastes energy as the hamstrings have to be put to work in doing this action. Instead, the folding up of the leg should be thought of as a passive activity. How close the lower leg comes to the butt depends on the amount of hip extension.

This phenomenon may seem strange and is sometimes a hard concept to grasp. After all, who has the patience to not do anything during the recovery phase? But research has demonstrated that both muscle activity during the recovery phase and energy use (the recovery phase only uses 15% of the whole strides energy) show that the leg is largely cycling through entirely because of reflex like phenomenon and passive mechanics.

Barefoot runners are often criticized because we tend to be pretty slow. I’m certainly guilty of this. I suspect the “slowness” may be more of a function of our teaching methods rather than the limitations of our bare feet, and the tendency to teach new runners to lift their feet. I’m certainly guilty of this, too. I’m pretty sure I was wrong.

What are your thoughts?

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34 Comments

  1. Top Good Reads of the Week: Edition 17 | LaVack Fitness
    October 2, 2012

    […] There is no try. – Neghar Fonooni Don’t Forget About the Coaching – Kevin Carr Does “Lifting the Foot” Make Us Slower? – Jason Robillard Survival of the Strongest – Dan Trink The Complete Guide to Calories – The Greatist […]

  2. john
    September 29, 2012

    Jason, after recently moving over to barefoot running I have adopted the lifting the foot method. Now that you have said this is pointless how do I now run? By pushing off? How do I increase my pace by lifting my knees? I am very confused!

  3. Chris
    September 28, 2012

    I started by Chirunning and lift my heels towards my backside. I had the wasted energy pointed out to me by a Vibram coach a couple of weeks ago. When I run fast barefoot, I don’t do it. I have pointed people towrds your post at http://www.barefootbeginner.com/2012/09/28/pick-of-the-posts-no-11-the-best-5-barefoot-posts-to-see-you-through-the-weekend-are/
    Chris

  4. Jae Gruenke
    September 26, 2012

    Amen! Thrilled to see this, it’s something I’ve been telling my clients for years. But you have to go a little farther to see the whole story, which is never confined to just the legs in running.

    In my experience, when clients learn good trunk mechanics it becomes unnecessary for them to lift their feet, they come up spontaneously.

    So for runners whose feet come up naturally anyway, lifting them intentionally does what you say (or, for people running Pose, chops the stride up in a cross-motivated way).

    But more importantly, for people whose feet only come up when they lift them intentionally, the real problem that causes the shuffling gait — usually found higher up in the body — isn’t fixed by just lifting the feet, and so lifting doesn’t help much.

    Make sense?

  5. Kimberly Nasief-Westergren
    September 25, 2012

    Very interesting post. Prior to my injury, I had spent most of my training focusing on the lifting. I couldn’t get to increasing my speed for the life of me. Then, I just kind of let it go, and started focusing on what my legs “wanted” to do naturally. Once I did that, my speed picked up. The focus switched to the driving from the hips and the knees-almost like in a circle. It got my speed down to sub 9s pretty quickly. I was amazed. Then, I broke my foot…:(

  6. John
    September 24, 2012

    I used to follow the Pose Method which argues that you have to “lift the foot up under the hip with the hamstring”. I always seemed to fatigue too quickly in races (tired hamstrings, Book Of Duh) and was quite annoyed with the sordid lack of improvement. I began following Dr. Mark after my wife and I watched his Youtube vid of him and Cody flying through Antietam…barefoot…with visible snow on the ground. I switched to using more hip drive and not actively engaging the hamstrings and…drumroll…no more sore, tired hamstrings. Not to mention 19:00 5k’s in Vibrams on only 12 miles per week. Listen to Dr. Mark. He’s older than me. He is MUCH faster than me. I think he might be on to something, so I’ll follow his insights into running form…and I promise not to lift the foot with the darn hamstring.

  7. trissa
    September 24, 2012

    What about the whole idea of strong glutes and open hip flexors? I have found that alot of my lower limb issues start higher up? I wonder if how a person is “put together”–i.e body type, if that has a bearing on overall ease of transitioning….and the ability to pulling your foot off the ground?

    Dr.Mark and you in the same clinic? That would be the ULTIMATE dream for me. :)

    • Jason
      September 24, 2012

      Christian Peterson is fond of saying squats and deadlifts are the ultimate runner crosstraining for that very reason… and I agree.

      Anyone else notice this correlation:
      http://barefootrunninguniversity.com/2012/03/26/great-asses-great-runners/

      • Aaron
        September 24, 2012

        Without deadlifts my hamstrings get too tight. They’ve stayed supple and flexible since I made a point of keeping my workouts heavy as I increase mileage. However, I still think that cycling is the ultimate cross training exercise.

  8. Ben W
    September 24, 2012

    This is from the peanut gallery….ie, the little nut who just started out. But, the idea of lifting my feet really helped me get started in a way that felt good.
    Now that I’m running farther, and have been running for a while, I no longer worry about lifting my feet. Now, I’m trying to move from the hips and coordinate with my arms to get the rhythm going where things just feel good.
    But, I’m still slow. So this probably doesn’t help the conversation. Just my two cents.

    • Jason
      September 24, 2012

      Ben- this is a good point. Lifting the foot can be a good learning tool to prevent people from smashing their foot into the ground. However, the learning cue should probably be used judiciously.

    • Barefoot Josh
      September 24, 2012

      Glad I read the comments first, because I was going to write the same thing. I would add that as a pretty fast guy (dropping the facade of modesty for a moment) myself, I still utilize a foot-lifting action sometimes – helps when my feet start sinking into the ground, both figuratively and literally.

  9. FRED
    September 23, 2012

    In the book I wrote about barefoot and minimalist running (http://www.amazon.fr/dp/2851808311) I’m saying that there exist speed and distance limits to running BF. Over a certain speed, it’s not possible to run BF, which isn’t after all so odd. You can do lots of things with your body but sometimes you need a “tool” for the job : you can screw a screw with your fingers, for sure, but to ensure it’s perfectly screwed you need a screwdriver, it’s the same for running : you can run BF or minimalist but when you want to go fast, you need 1) a tool (an efficient running shoe) 2) another way of running since it’s not the same to run with and without the “tool”.

    • Matt
      September 24, 2012

      I’m not sure I agree with you Fred. I think you can run fast barefoot, and I think you can run distance barefoot. I think it’s when you combine distance AND speed that you run into problems. Either speed or distance alone is do-able barefoot.

      • Jason
        September 24, 2012

        Based on personal experience and observations, it is possible to run both fast and over long distances barefoot (think Bikila). Terrain is the limiting factor that will prevent speed, distance, or both.

    • Barefoot Josh
      September 24, 2012

      Ooo, a challenge! How fast is too fast for bare feet? Let’s go with a mile distance.

  10. Warren
    September 23, 2012

    I think when someone is first learning to run this way, teaching them to lift their foot is an effective way to teach a light touch to the ground. I actually teach them to lift their knees not lift their foot. I’ve noticed people get confused when you tell them not to heel strike then tell them to lift their foot. They tend to try and lift their toes so they aren’t letting their foot do what it wants to do. Trading the artificial biomechanics of “running shoes” for the artificial biomechanics of overly-strict form probably isn’t good.
    As far as running faster…I think this comes with experience and how you need to use your body. I am in the Marine Corps and am required to run a three mile run for time during my Physical Fitness Test every year. I tend to practice leaning and lifting my knees when I do marathons and beyond or if I’m doing some nice easy MAF running. If I need speed then I lean but I also push a little with my calves and drive forward more with my hips and knees. The lean makes a big difference for me either way though.

  11. Matt
    September 23, 2012

    It’s interesting that you mention the difference with fast runners. I’ve experienced this myself – I think my barefoot form gets better the faster I run, and when running quick I’m certainly not trying to force lifting my feet.

    I ran a 5km PR recently, barefoot, and wasn’t thinking about form at all…it makes me wonder if we’d be better off getting runners to do fast, short, BF efforts, and do away with more of the cues, not just foot lifting.

    • Jason
      September 24, 2012

      It is possible to go pretty fast with a “lifting the foot” gait. Hell, I ran a sub-20 5k with that gait. When I changed my gait to reflect a passive foot lift, I got faster over distances due to greater efficiency.

      I agree- less cues are usually better.

    • Bare Lee
      September 25, 2012

      Matt that’s been my experience, and folks like Steve Magness concur. It’s hard to run with poor form if you’re going (relatively) fast. These days I try not to do distances that require a pace slower than 9- 9:30mm, and my goal is consistently run at 8mm pace or better. When I run that pace, I feel very smooth and everything falls into place. My coaching cues would be: (1) take off your shoes if you haven’t already; (2) adopt a good sports posture; and (3) run fast, see how that feels, and then try to transfer that feeling to slower paces, using cues as need be.
      I don’t know why so many barefoot runners advise beginners to go slow and work on form. That doesn’t jibe with my experience.

  12. mark lofquist
    September 23, 2012

    when i do what is ‘speed work’ for me, i always do it in shoes and there’s hot spots and strange wear on my shoes’ sole. speed, at a certain point for anyone, is constantly accelerating.

    an extreme example of this is a heel striker, who brakes(deceleration) every time their foot strikes the ground. In order to make up for the braking, they need to push off with their back foot(acceleration).

    someone who is in a steady state running stride, cruising along, can hover foot over ground, touch down and lift off as vertically as humanly possible – will suffer no hot spots, no unnecessary friction. increase speed however and any runner will reach a point where their foot landing will slow them necessitating re-acceleration. you can do it, but friction is heat and at some point you need to relearn your form to accommodate that speed. that’s my 2-haypennies.

  13. Tony
    September 23, 2012

    Interesting theory, but it’s not jiving with what I’ve learned about myself and minimalist/barefoot running. Counting foot strike vs counting heel lift is a minor difference, but it translates into an ergonomic point in time. If I count foot strike, then I’m physically cognizant on when my foot is in contact with the ground, causing in my case, increased contact time with the ground because that’s my count/time.
    I’ve learned, at least with myself, speed is more dependent on my lean/cadence. A steady lean, and cadence on flat ground will cause me to go way, way fast. Running in NE Ohio, with the same cadence/lean vs running in Fargo ND gave me some real insight into what a difference terrain can impact your speed when you keep the same running style.

    • Jason
      September 24, 2012

      The terrain is a point we often ignore as we assume all gait work is done on flat, hard surfaces. Trails change the variables considerably (something I’ll address in my trail running book).

      Regarding foot/ground contact time- this is the crux of the problem. Telling people to lift their foot often results in too little ground contact time (see quote added to post above). Some may be able to maximize ground contact time with a “lift foot” focus, but I suspect that’s more of the rule than the exception.

  14. Nathan
    September 23, 2012

    Perhaps “lifting the foot” is reducing hip extension. Hip extension is where you get your speed or more accurately it’s where the power comes from and of you have a good turnover rate then you’re fast.

    • Jason
      September 24, 2012

      Nathan- yes. This is the difference I see in the faster and the slower barefoot and minimalist shoe runners- the latter have a lot less hip extension at the same paces. This results in less force being applied to the ground, but also forces you to use muscles that fatigue prematurely (think quads and hamstrings versus glutes).

  15. Ken S.
    September 23, 2012

    Can you either give more detail (or point me to an existing description) on what exactly you mean by “lift the foot”? I’ve learned the hard way that some words and phrases are often interpreted very differently when describing a physical action depending on who is listening (or reading).

    I can’t imagine how someone would run without lifting his or her foot. So, I’m almost sure that what you mean, and what my brain is picturing are very different.

    • Jason
      September 24, 2012

      Ken, I added a section from Steve Magness’ blog to give a descriptor. In essence, lifting the foot wastes energy by unnecessarily contracting muscles since the foot coming off the ground is a passive activity. Also, it usually causes the foot to come of the ground prematurely which also decreases efficiency.

      I would agree that using “lifting the foot” as a learning cue to mitigate a hard foot strike could be valuable, but should be fully explained.

      • Ken S.
        September 24, 2012

        So are you saying that runners should not lift their foot as a conscious effort, just let it happen as a reflex? If that’s the case, I would have to say that this does not work for everyone. Too many people swing their legs like a pendulum when they run and are almost completely bypassing this “reflex”. Those people must spend time consciously lifting until the action become reflexive again. I was one of those people a few years ago.

        I suspect that the real problem is that a lot of people over lift their legs as beginners, and that’s why they are wasting so much energy and slowing down. I see that all the time, and I have to teach them to pull only as high as is appropriate for the pace they are running.

        • Jason
          September 24, 2012

          Yes, I would not discuss lifting the foot at all for beginners, unless there’s a serious problem. For example, some people swing their legs out to the side.

          When running trails, lifting the foot (ala Pose technique) will help the trailing foot clear obstacles to prevent tripping. In that case, I would say it’s appropriate to teach.

          I do agree- it’s not necessarily lifting that’s the issue- it’s OVERlifting. Based on my observations, the foot will naturally lift higher as pace increases.

  16. Adolfo Neto
    September 23, 2012

    By “lifting the foot” you mean this

    http://crossfitlondonuk.com/2011/03/the-running-club-for-non-runners/
    ?

    • Jason
      September 24, 2012

      That’s one of the two methods commonly employed that I’m talking about. Pulling your foot off the ground is unnecessary.

      And gravity doesn’t propel us forward. ;-)

      • Ken S.
        September 24, 2012

        Who makes that claim? ;)

        Maybe the following will offer a little more clarity on what Pose theory actually states about a runner’s interaction with gravity.

        http://www.posecoachblog.com/2012/09/pose-theory-three-primary-points-of.html

        • Jason
          September 24, 2012

          Ken, that is a good explanation. Energy is required to get to the pose position… how is that different than Magness’ explanation I copied above? Both explanations seem to be using different explanations and terminology for the exact same phenomenon.

          FYI- you really should write for PoseTech… your stuff is a lot better. ;-)

          • Ken S.
            September 25, 2012

            Jason, Thank you!

            To answer your question, I’m not sure that it is very different. I think that may be the very point I’ve been trying to make subconsciousnessly for several years now.

            Some explanations speak better to some people than to others. I write to explain things to myself. I hope, in the process, what I write helps someone else to understand what I’m discussing. I know my writing does not speak to everyone, but I’m working on that.