Efficient Running Stride – Don’t Push Off – Bounce Forward!

By Rick Morris

One part of our running stride that has constantly been drummed into our heads is the push off phase. It seems like every running expert and coach is always emphasizing a strong push off. It makes sense – you obviously need to propel yourself strongly forward to run well. What better way than to push off with as much force as you can possibly muster? That strong push off will generate a lot of forward momentum and speed, right? Yep – it will,  but is a powerful push off the best way for a distance runner to generate that forward propulsion? Is it the most efficient running stride? Maybe not.

For a sprinter, a powerful push off may very well be the best running technique; but how about you as a distance runner. Keep in mind that a sprinter is trying to expend all of their energy within a distance of 400 meters or less. As a distance runner you need to conserve your energy. You need to hold on to enough energy reserves to fuel your running for many miles. Is it really a good idea to use a lot of muscle power with a strong push off on each stride? I don’t think so.

Your leg muscles, tendons and joints make up a highly elastic group that exercise scientists call a “leg spring”. That term is both very accurate and highly descriptive. During the stance phase of your running stride your leg muscles stretch and are “loaded up” with energy much like a depressed spring. Runners with a highly efficient running stride will let those loaded leg springs release that stored energy to generate forward force and momentum. That is where we get to the difference between a push off and a bounce forward.

When you try to generate your forward momentum with a push off you tend to “gather yourself” just after touchdown and then try to push yourself forward with a strong muscle contraction. You are using a lot of energy to generate that muscle contraction and power. A more energy efficient way to run is to bounce forward and allow the stored energy of your loaded leg muscles to do most of the work. It’s like free energy. Note that your energy is always directed forward. There should be very little vertical motion involved.

One way to demonstrate this is to perform two different types of vertical leaps. On the first one slowly drop your hips and then jump straight up by pushing off the ground. Keep repeating that pattern of slowly dropping your hips and pushing off into your vertical leap for 10 repetitions. Now try them a different way. Instead of dropping your hips and pushing off, begin to hop up and down using a quick bouncing motion, much like jumping on a trampoline. Notice the difference. You are using much more energy and are fatiguing more quickly using the drop and push off method. The bouncing method feels easier and more energy efficient because you are taking full advantage of the energy return potential of your leg springs.

Everyone has these highly efficient leg springs but you need to do a couple of things to maximize their potential. You need to strengthen your leg springs and then increase their power. That is relatively easy to do. First you should strengthen your leg springs with 4 to 6 weeks of running specific strength training. That type of strength training will improve the strength and injury resistance of your leg spring muscles. After that period of running specific strength you are ready to improve the power of your leg springs with some plyometric exercises. The high intensity plyometrics will train your leg springs to react quicker and release a greater percentage if their stored energy with each stride. You will run faster, longer and with greater running economy.

The final piece to the leg spring puzzle is running form. To take full advantage of the elasticity of your leg springs your foot strike or foot touchdown must take place directly under your center of gravity with a dorsi flexed (toes up position) foot position. If you land on your heels in front of your center of gravity your foot will “roll” forward and the ground will absorb much of the stored energy of your leg springs. Another way to improve the energy return leg springs is to brace or tense the muscles of your support leg exactly at the moment of touchdown. The increased muscle stiffness will help prevent any collapse of your leg and loss of stored energy.