During the running related bouts of self-analysis that seem to pre-occupy my every foot-strike, I’ve come to the conclusion that the area of my running form that I find the weakest is my descent technique.
I know what I’m supposed to do – but fear holds me back. I can’t let go. On the steep stuff I admit I usually end up with a few heel strikes.
I bow my head in shame.
A barefoot running hanging offense indeed.
I tell myself at the summit, “Nick, the last thing you want to do now is heel strike” and sure enough as I launch myself off the mountain and extend my lead leg, just at the moment of contact with the ground – the last thing I do is heel strike. So I tell myself: “Stop it you idiot, you’re a forefoot minimalist strikin’ mo-fo” but it doesn’t do any good the heel strike comes back again with the next footfall. It’s only by the time I get to the bottom of the hill that I regain any kind of semblance of fore-foot running.
Recently I’ve began to wonder if its such a huge problem; I accept that I heel strike at walking speed. (I know that some barefoot tribes never do this, but I do.) So for 35 years I’ve been injury free heel striking whilst walking. On descent I reckon that the speed I’m travelling at as I pick my way safely off the mountain is pretty slow – akin to walking perhaps? But with perhaps a bit more load due to gravity.
Now, on a more gentler slope I can lean in to the fall line as I was taught to do at ski school. I find that I can plant my foot much more towards the fore-foot and with a decent pair of fell running studs on I get a much better grip on the terrain.
So what to do about the steeper stuff? I’m only ever injured on descents (I’m still suffering a bit from an ankle twist in the Pyrenees last year) so its obvious this is an area I need to work on. Instead of being utterly disgusted with myself for cheating on my forefoot strike – I’ve tried to embrace the heel strike on down-hills. I’m pretty sure that it’s quite possible to land on your heel and be under your COG (Centre Of Gravity for those not used to barefoot text speak.) Now my COG is pretty heavy, about 13 stones so I’m going to need to be careful or my COG’s gonna get me. I was thinking why not bend the knees? But really bend them, just like you would if you were skiing.
So my focus was on bending and nothing else. Bend, bend, bend was my mantra as I was standing at the top of Bradlow knoll a notoriously short and steep hill (think: cheese rolling) on the outskirts of Ledbury, Herefordshire. I put my plan in to action and launched myself off the top (sort of) and it wasn’t too bad – To get a really good knee bend I kind of ended up rotating at the waist and then skipping a bit as if imitating off-piste skiing.
Whatever get’s you off the mountain, as a sage skier once told me.
So I’m stuck with a few questions. When is it okay to heel strike? Perhaps running at slow speeds such as the controlled descending I’ve just been talking about ? Is it possible to run well and injury free heel striking in general? – There are certainly barefoot runners that heel strike (in the minority though) – Perhaps the secret is not the way the foot lands but more about the bending of the knees and keeping footfall under our GOG’s?
Here’s how the UK’s finest do it…