One of the most common running form mistakes new runners make is overstriding. While there is a lot of debate about heel striking versus midfoot striking, most running experts would agree the overstriding is less than optimal. At the very least it is inefficient in that it imparts a braking force to the running gait cycle. There is also some evidence that overstriding is a contributing factor for many running-related injuries.
Overstriding can be defined as a running style where the foot lands well in front of the body, usually with an exaggerated heel strike and the knee straight or nearly straight. To be clear, not all heel strikers overstride. I’ve seen several fast heel strikers who are able to land with their foot underneath their center of mass. The video below shows good running form with both a mild heel strike and a forefoot strike.
I would not say, however, that the mild heel strike seen in the video is the norm for most heel striking recreational runners. It’s estimated that over 95% of new runners heel strike and I’m willing to bet a large percentage of those heel striking beginners overstride as well.
So what causes a runner to overstride?
I was thinking of this question as I was reading a recent post by Pete Larson on Runblogger about the meaning of natural running. One opinion is that modern running shoes, with their heavily cushioned heels, promote heel striking. Pete posted a few videos showing that some barefoot runners continue to heel strike, even when running on pavement.
What struck me about the videos is that aside from the knee flexion, the heel strikers’ form closely resembles walking.
The main difference between running and walking is that when running there is a time when both feet are in the air. When you walk, one foot is always in contact with the ground. In the video above I noticed that the heel strikers were not spending a lot of time in the air in the “floating” phase of the running gait cycle.
Instead of getting into a debate about which type of foot strike is more efficient, what I want to discuss is the reason people adopt overstriding as their preferred running form. The theory that I want to propose is that overstriding (and heel striking to a lesser extent) is really just a sped up version of walking.
Consider race walking. The rules of race walking are that you have to keep one foot in contact with the ground at all times and you have to keep your front leg straight. If you factor in that most race walking athletes actually break the first rule and leave the ground, we could probably rename the sport “race overstriding”. All we need to do is add a little knee flexion to the front leg of of the race walker pictured below and we’ll have a perfect example of the typical running overstride seen in novice runners.
Is it possible that runners overstride because they are trying to make their running form just a faster version of their walking gait?
If you tell a person to walk faster, they will do two things to generate speed: Increase the distance between their steps and increase their step rate.
Eventually, that person will reach a limit where they cannot increase their stride length or cadence any further. At this point, the only way they can continue to increase their speed is to launch themselves into the air. Basically they need to add a small jump, from one leg to the other, as a way to increase the distance between foot falls. This is exactly what race walkers end up doing even though it’s considered cheating in their sport (and I use the word sport loosely).
Assuming that most people are comfortable with walking before they take up running, it seems logical that they would use a form similar to walking to start running. This might be especially true if that person never learned how to run any other way. Overstriding runners may simply be adapting their normal walking gait to faster speeds.
This is also where footwear may play a role. A running shoe with a large cushioned heel enables the overstride and doesn’t provide the runner with any feedback to tell them they need to adjust their form–either by shortening their stride or landing on their midfoot. The similarities between overstriding and walking are more evident with barefoot runners on pavement because they don’t have the benefit of a cushioned heel to land on and consequently they minimize the jump between steps.
Correcting the Overstride
As the barefoot running video above shows, ditching shoes may not prevent overstriding for all people. Runners who have an ingrained motor pattern for overstriding may need additional coaching or cues to get them to make the adjustment. Here are four strategies that can be used to overcome the overstride:
Increasing step rate by 5-10% without changing speed naturally leads to a runner striking the ground with the foot more underneath their body. 180 steps per minute (90 on each foot) is a good mark to shoot for, although this may vary somewhat depending on how fast you’re going. If you believe you’re overstriding, start by measuring your preferred cadence. If you find it’s well below 180, try increasing your step rate in small increments over the course of several runs to get yourself comfortable with a faster turnover.
Many beginning runners start training at very slow paces. This may lead them to develop a running form that looks a lot more like walking than it does fast running. If you take a look at the fastest man on the planet running slowly (starting at 30 seconds in) you’ll notice his form is not that different from the form he uses when he’s speeding down the track .
If you played this video back in slow motion, there wouldn’t be any question about whether Bolt was running or walking. He maintains his good running form even when jogging at a slow pace. Compare this to the runner with an overstride in the “before training” photo at the top of the post. If I didn’t tell you the woman in that photo was running, it could just as well be assumed she was walking.
Beginning runners would do well to start sprint training early on to allow them to develop a running form that is distinctly different from walking. Sprinters don’t heel strike or overstride because they need to generate a lot of power and speed. Of course you can’t maintain a sprint speed for long distances, and some runners may actually benefit from heel striking as a way to conserve energy if they’re running super long distances. But for most recreational runners, taking your sprint form and slowing it down a bit will result in a more efficient, and possible less injury-prone, running style.
Running In Place
When you run in place you naturally adopt a forefoot striking gait with the foot landing directly under your body. I’ll often pause and jog in place during my runs as a way to reset my running form. Try it for yourself. Run in place for a few seconds and then start moving forward. You’ll find you instinctively keep good form, with your foot landing underneath you, good posture, and a good elastic recoil in your steps. During your training runs, stop every once in a while and run in place to teach your body to use a foot strike that lands under your center of mass.
Run While Jumping Rope
I first saw this drill on the Natural Running Center website. Running while jumping rope obviously takes some coordination and practice to avoid getting yourself tangled up. What it does though, is it teaches you to launch yourself off your back leg. Adding a bit of a jumping motion is essentially the main difference between walking and running, and between overstriding and good running form.
Do you or someone you know overstride? Have any tips for improving running mechanics? Please share in the comments!