Do You Pawback?
By Dr. Yessis
The pawback (a movement where you drive the leg down and back for a touchdown) is a key action in sprinting and overall fast running. Learning, improving, and incorporating this action into your running form can increase your speed and make the run safer (less injury prone). However, if you don’t have an effective running technique or if you’re a heel hitter, this recommendation may be difficult to implement.
Many people are shufflers, not runners, when they run. This includes ultra-long and some long distance runners and heavy weight athletes such as football linemen. Their thighs hardly get in front of the body, and they rely mainly on the push off to generate forward speed. After the push off, they bring the thigh of the push-off leg back underneath the body or slightly in front. They make contact with the ground typically mid-foot, although some still land heel first. In shuffling or in very slow running, the feet are hardly raised off of the ground. However, if you look at a world class, long-distance runner who has good technique, you’ll see that the shin is approximately level to the ground as the thigh is driven forward approximately 45 degrees to the horizontal.
This good form is also depicted in the high level 5K and 10K runner. So if you aspire to be successful in these events or run close to a three minute or sub-three minute marathon, it’s imperative that you modify your technique to incorporate the pawback. Without the pawback, it’s almost impossible to achieve success in these events.
The pawback appears to be a foreign action for many athletes because the leg must be brought down and back to contact the ground. You would think that you’d want to extend the leg far out in front to cover as much distance as possible. However, bringing the leg backward after reaching a forward thigh position is the key to a longer stride. It negates some of the negative forces you experience when the foot lands in front of the body or on the heel.
The simplest way to learn the feel and actions involved in the pawback is to start with the wheeling drill, or circling drill. Assume a standing position, raise the thigh up to a 60–70 degree angle, and then extend the leg out in front of your body. As the leg straightens, bring it down and back to make contact underneath the body. When viewed from the side, your foot should depict an arc of a circle, hence the term circling or wheeling.
As you do the movement—raising the thigh up, extending the leg, and bringing it down and back—smooth out each end position so that you make a circular pathway with the foot. When you become proficient in this action, continue doing it as you walk slowly forward. Gradually increase your walking speed while you continue to do the drill in exactly the same manner. Once you feel comfortable with it, you can begin to incorporate it into the run.
To assist you in learning and mastering this skill, you should perform strength exercises using the active cords to learn the feel of the movement and develop the muscular strength needed to execute the movement correctly. A simple exercise variant is to raise the leg to approximately a 60–90 degree thigh angle with the leg bent at the knee and the cord attached to the ankle. Straighten the leg and pull down and back to contact the ground directly under the body. Return the leg to the raised position and repeat. Do each movement separately. When you’re comfortable, run them together into one smooth movement.
You should also do the leg extension exercise. Attach the active cord to the ankle and stand with your back facing the immoveable attachment. Hold the thigh up to approximately a 60–80 degree angle and straighten the leg (extend the knee joint) against the cord resistance. Continue to hold the thigh up as you repeat straightening (extending) and bending (flexing) the leg.
As you master this exercise, incorporate it into the pull-down exercise. Raise the thigh up to approximately an 80 degree angle, extend the leg, and then pull down and back in one motion. In this exercise, you have some resistance as you raise the thigh and extend the leg. After that, the cord will take over and pull your leg down and back to give you the feel for this movement.
The key in the initial stages is to develop the strength and muscular endurance needed to raise and hold the thigh up to approximately a 60 or greater degree angle as you extend the leg out in front before bringing it down and back. Once this movement is mastered, greater strength of the muscles involved in pulling the leg down and back will assist in increasing the speed in which you bring the leg down to create a greater horizontal ground reaction force that propels your body forward even more powerfully. This is the key to increasing your speed.
When you do these exercises, you’ll develop the prerequisite strength and muscular feel needed to incorporate the pawback movement into your run. Begin a slow jog and consciously raise the thigh up. Then, continue jogging with a high thigh lift. After a few strides, extend the leg out in front. In other words, as you are jogging, raise the thigh, extend the leg, and let it automatically come down to land mid-foot.
Once you get the feel of raising the thigh and extending the leg, begin to consciously incorporate a pull-down (pawback) if it hasn’t occurred naturally. Be sure that you only do these movements in a slow jog at this time. Don’t incorporate them into a faster run or into your regular stride because you won’t be successful. Gradually build up to doing it in a full stride.
As you become proficient in the total movement, make sure that when you execute the pawback you do it with a straight leg. This is most effective because it creates a longer lever capable of creating more force on the touchdown. However, it isn’t uncommon to see runners, after they raise the thigh in front, to combine reaching out (leg extension) with a drop of the thigh. This forces them to make early contact with the ground. As a result, they often bend the knee to land mid-foot. In other words, instead of pulling down and back with a straight leg, they bend the knee to make contact with the ground as the thigh is lowered.
You should never land on the heel. This is a very ineffective way to run. Not only does it create great braking forces that impede your forward movement, but the forces can travel up the body and cause injury in the ankle, knee, hip, and even the lower back. Even bending the knee to land mid-foot helps decrease the braking forces making your run safer.
After making contact with the ground, the leg should immediately go into slight flexion to absorb some of the forces involved in the landing and withstand the forces generated. These forces can then be given back in the push off to make your running more efficient and economical.
For more information on the pawback or to view sequence pictures of the exercises and actions involved taken from live video, see Explosive Running and/or Build a Better Athlete.
More about Dr. Yessis.
Dr. Michael Yessis is a professor emeritus in biomechanics and kinesiology and president of Sports Training Inc., a diversified company that does specialized work with athletes and develops specialized training equipment. He is considered the foremost U.S. expert on Russian training methods. He has traveled to Russia multiple times, has worked with Russian coaches including Yuri Verkhoshansky, and has translated and published Russian training articles in the Fitness and Sports Review International for over 29 years. Dr. Yessis also wrote the number one article read in Muscle and Fitness (Kinesiology—Training Notebook) for over 25 years. For more information, visit his website at www.dryessis.com.
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