An athlete I coach recently texted me, “I think I finally understand what you mean when you say, ‘fall forward’…you’re trying to get us to strike with our midfoot, right?” My eyes welled up up reading this (disclaimer: I was just days postpartum) not because mid-foot striking is the sole purpose of the prompt, “fall forward,” but because I knew the work this runner had put in for months was what caused the cue to click.
In addition to logging his prescribed mileage, this runner devoted a significant amount of his training to strength and stability work (note: I said significant, not massive!), which is the essential for falling forward to take effect.
Sure, a mid-foot strike is ideal for long distance running, and yes, falling forward can help us achieve this, but we shouldn't “fall forward” with the sole intention of tricking ourselves into mid-foot striking. In fact, the last thing I'd want a runner to do (besides face planting) upon hearing me say, “fall forward,” is look down to see if they’re mid-foot striking. Runners' gazes should be straight ahead, chins level, so that their cervical vertebrae are inline with the rest of their spine which is, as one powerful unit, tilted slightly forward. But while the goal might be a forward-falling spine, this spinal fall is not initiated by maneuvering the spine. I often see runners either hinging from their hips or jutting their necks, which might achieve the forward part of the cue, but it won't achieve the fall part.
Falling isn't controlled; it’s about letting go. Picture a trapeze artist—they’re bodies long and open as they simultaneously surrender to and defy gravity: falling forward and catching themselves with one trapeze bar before hurling themselves toward the next one. In a way, we do the same as runners except for our trapeze bars are our feet. We simultaneously surrender to and defy gravity by casting out bodies into a forward falling motion, pulling one foot as quickly as possible up and over to the next.
And just as we wouldn't look at a trapeze artist and think, “that looks easy,” the forward fall in running is a bit more intricate, too. In order to let go and rely on our feet to catch our fall (give or take 180 times per minute), the material surrounding the spine and the mechanics operating the feet, must be trustworthy ones.
We all know the trust fall, where one person falls back entrusting a person or group of people to catch them? Running is a rapid series of forward falls, core strength, joint mobility, and precise muscle activation are the spotters we rely on to catch us. Strength training then, is the process of recruiting reliable 'teammates," which looks something like this run on 😉sentence:
Rather thank our spines, our ankles initiate the fall, and proper ankle mobility as well as unobstructed concentric/eccentric (contracting/relaxing) motion of the anterior and posterior tibialis' (shin and calf) inspires dorsiflexion (toes toward shin, translating to the idealized mid-foot strike) upon contact, which only gives way to efficient running so far as the hamstrings and glutes are conditioned to fire, pulling the front foot back and over the the next, reducing potentially injurious impact on the knees and hips, while the transverse abdominal (deep inner core,) among many other muscles and tendons, stabilize the spine from the pelvic floor through the cervical vertebrae, supporting their forward lean, which is in line with that initiated by the ankles.
I know, it’s a brain full, but the good news is that simply supplementing our running with some strength & stability work takes most of the thinking out of it so that, truly, all we have to do is fall.
I’ll post some exercises on here as this blog evolves, but I’ll end this post by encouraging you to reach out to a personal trainer, come to my Bodyweight & Bands class at Great Lakes Athletic Club (GLAC), consider programs like GLAC’s FiT and CHAOS, or work with me to develop a personalized running and strength plan.
Email me with any questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
PS- the cover photo of this post is of one of my athletes, Ryan, falling (read: flying) toward a half marathon PR in NYC this past weekend. Incorporating strength training into his running plan helped Ryan cross the finish line in 1:29:29; 6:45/mile pace, achieving one of our longterm goals of a sub-90 half while marathon training.