The forward lean (part 2 of 2)

If you missed the last post I was discussing the idea of getting runners to try “leaning forward”. So far, I have read lots of other reasoning on why you should “lean forward” from proprietary running techniques like Chi Running, Pose Method, Evolution Running and other running coaches who are telling people to slightly lean forward when they run, because “when you lean forward, gravity will assist you by pulling you forward.” I have also read (and discussed this with a couple people who operate gait laboratories) why you shouldn’t force a forward lean.

In the last post, I showed a couple videos to strengthen my argument. Unfortunately, It has caused a bit of a stir and I have been getting angry emails. I believe that people get angry because these running techniques are proprietary, and thus, people have a financial stake in the matter. I have been asked to “prove” why we shouldn’t force a forward lean.

Personally, I think that if you are going to tell someone how to run in a way that isn’t natural to them, the obligation to “prove” something is on the person forcing the runner to change their style, not the other way around. When I say “prove” I don’t mean by using analogies like a stick falling or a waterfall. Where is the hard data that leaning forward improves running economy or reduces injury?

OK, so on to Part 2…

Amby Burfoot (of Runners World) recently wrote an article titled “Does Leaning Forward Help You Run More Efficiently by Letting Gravity Do Some of the Work?” He says, “I’ve heard this argument often, almost always without any convincing evidence. This time I decided not to let it just slide by.“So, Amby asked this question to 3 experts, Physicist Michael Tammaro, Ph.D., at the University of Rhode Island and a 15-time marathoner with a PR of 2:49; Steve Magness, who has a master’s degree in exercise science and works as assistant coach to Alberto Salazar at Nike’s Oregon Project; and biomechanist Irene Davis, Ph.D., director of the new National Running Center at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.

All the panelists agreed:
“gravity can do nothing to improve your running efficiency on a flat surface. That’s because gravity provides no horizontal force; it simply pulls you back down to the earth.”

Tammaro goes on to explain:
“At the start, the sprinters are leaning forward because they’re accelerating. But after about 30 meters, their speed doesn’t change much, so they stop leaning. If leaning forward with gravity made them faster and more efficient, they’d keep leaning all the way, wouldn’t they?“

So there you have it – don’t lean forward, right?

Not so fast. Just when I’m about to say “I told you so”, the article goes on to say, “Still, all three experts did favor a slight forward lean while running.” WHAT?? Say it isn’t so! They all go on to give their opinions, such as Steve Magness (whom I respect a great deal):
“It’s more about correct body position than a lean per se. You want to make sure you aren’t arching your back, and sticking your butt out. I emphasize a very slight forward lean from the ground, not a bending at the waist.”

So, here’s my problem…

With respect to Steve Magness’ last quote, that’s where the problem lies. When you tell someone to slightly lean forward, they have trouble NOT bending from the waist. In my experience, when people come into the office for a gait analysis, the ones that are bent forward at the waist tell me they read that leaning forward was good, so that’s what they’re trying to do. There is a serious disconnect between what they read and the way they execute it. Most people will lean forward from the waist, not the ankles. Partly this is due to weak gluteal muscles that can’t hold the posture during midstance and partly due to thinking they are doing something, but not executing it properly.

Even if they did execute it properly, they tend to overdo it. I think the supposed forward lean is intended to be so slight, it’s not worth it. This brings me to the second influence that prompted this newsletter. Jay Johnson is the Nike Running Coach and again, I guy whom I respect a lot and soak in most everything he says. However, in a couple recent podcasts (25:55 of this podcast and 43:58 of this podcast and even here on his blog, he talks about how great it is when you run with a forward lean of “1 or 2 degrees.”

REALLY? 1 or 2 degrees? C’mon people, let’s not confuse the issue anymore than it is. If you’re going to try and get 1 or 2 degrees of a lean, it’s not worth trying at all. That’s as close to being vertical as you can get, without being vertical. Just run with a vertical posture and get on with it!

And for those who want to read further, here is my response during a friendly exchange of ideas I had with a Chi Running Coach via email a few days ago (after I had made the post on Part 1 of this article)

I’ve had these discussions many times before and I’m sure you have as well. I always go into them with the understanding that you have your viewpoints, experience and agenda, I have mine and rarely will we change each others minds. However, I think there is benefit in the exchange of ideas.
I think that when people read posts such as the one that I wrote on the “unproven forward lean”, we get lost in our own preconceived notions. I hope I didn’t create any offense. The larger idea of the post was that changing one’s gait should have a good reason. I am against the idea of a “one size fits all” approach to gait retraining. I think there has to be a well thought out gait analysis, injury history and discussion of goals. The person doing the analysis should have a complete and thorough understanding of function, anatomy and biomechanics in order to make educated recommendations. Changes are based on stability, loading, timing and motor control, and on the normalization of limitations and asymmetries within basic and functional movement.
With respect to the forward lean, what I need to see is evidence that running efficiency is improved and risk of injury is reduced when all runners employ a forward lean. As of yet, all I see are rhetorical drawings with physics equations thrown in. The human body is a complex interaction of pulleys and levers but its more than that. It is also a complex interplay of proprioception with compensation via neuromuscular reflexes with one motion influencing the next. Even with all that, one body is much different than the next not only in morphology but also with strength, endurance, timing, coordination and motor patterns. To reduce running down to the equivalent of a pole falling forward is a bit simplistic I think. We can get into the whole inverted pendulum discussion if you’d like, but I think we’re both better off without going through that.
I’ve taken a Chi running class with Danny Dreyer (who you obviously know much better than I) and went for a run with him. I agree and support many of the principles of Chi running and he was ahead of his time with much of it. I applaud him for that. However, I respectfully disagree with some as well.