The Pawback Drill For Trail Runners

Running drills are hardly synonymous with trail ultrarunning. Indeed, three years ago, as I prepared for my first Western States 100, I joked with friends that I’d be doing drills on the start line–making light of the presumed folly of speed-centric drills before a 100-mile walk-jog. Two years later, there I was, performing those very same drills just minutes before the gun.

As a physical therapist and coach specializing in gait training, I define running drills as ‘exaggerations of the ideal:’ specific exercises aimed at accentuating components–or whole patterns–of efficient gait mechanics.

So, in events that demand maximum efficiency for successful completion–why wouldn’t ultrarunners perform drills? If anything, run drills are more important for ultrarmarathon runners than any other group.

There are myriad drills out there. Indeed, I learned several new ones from my good friend, running mentor, and ultramarathon veteran Bruce LaBelle. Among the many we practiced was ‘The Pawback Drill.’

In the clinic, I teach four fundamental concepts of efficient running:

  • Forward engagement
  • Hip action
  • Arm swing
  • Pawback

The first three are fairly well understood. But the fourth, the Pawback, is more nuanced and complicated.

The Pawback Concepts
Human locomotion depends on forward momentum, perpetuated by flexion and extension of the legs (and augmented by the arms and trunk). The leg drives forward, strikes the ground, then pushes the ground beneath and behind us.

The Pawback represents ‘the glue’ between flexion and extension. It is the mechanism by which we most efficiently transition the flexed leg to an extended push-off: the hip and knee drive upward and forward, and the Pawback ‘pull’ accentuates the transition toward the extension push-off.

Sounds like a lot of biomechanical minutae, right? Why is this important? And, why, especially for ultra trail runners?

Benefits of the Pawback
For all runners, the Pawback serves two vital purposes:

  • to ensure the foot lands beneath your center of mass to avoid braking
  • to enhance hip extension

These two concepts, landing beneath the body and extending through the hip, just may be the two most important to efficient, powerful running.

An efficient foot strike–one that is beneath the body, not in front–minimizes braking forces. Clinically speaking, landing with the foot in front of the body, is by far the leading cause of running injury. When the foot strikes in front of the body, something–the leg or trunk–must absorb that force. Moreover, the body must then re-generate that propulsive force. Landing in front of the body not only creates excess tissue stress but robs you of vital energy.

Along with a forward posture and compact hip mobility, the Pawback ensures the foot lands beneath the body–or as close to it as possible.

The second way the Pawback aids the run stride is by accentuating the hip push-off. It does so by pre-stretching the hamstring and gluteal muscles–the primary hip-extension muscles. A forceful pull in the front of the stride creates a quick muscle stretch, which generates added momentum from the glut and hamstring, and creates stronger hip extension push off.

This one-two punch of benefits is why the Pawback is a frequently practiced run drill amongst conventional road and track runners.

Pawback Benefits for Trail Runners
Maximizing hip extension and minimizing braking should provide plenty of motivation for trail runners. However, the Pawback mechanism also provides several other benefits to the ultra trail runner:

Quad Preservation. The primary mechanism for quad blowout in ultras is the foot landing too far in front of the body, namely on downhills. A Pawback emphasis on downhills will more effectively ensure the foot lands beneath the body, minimizing quad braking. Also, the added hamstring/glut emphasis will help recruit these muscles to help cushion the body during descents.

Blister and Toe-Stub Prevention. The primary driver for blister formation is not simply moisture or dirt. A blister, almost by definition, requires friction to form. With inefficient stride mechanics–where the foot lands in front of the body–a shearing force is created, where the foot slides forward within the shoe and sock. With each overstriding footstrike, the foot shears forward in the shoe, generating the necessary force for blister creation.

Likewise, toenail bruising is created by the same force: an overstride creates a forward impact of the foot and toes into the front of the shoe. Repetitive forward-impact of the toes in the shoe’s toebox can eventually create painful bruising and, the bane of all ultra trail runners, lost toenails.

The Pawback is an insurance policy against shearing and impact forces at the foot. Actively pulling back with the foot and leg counter-acts these forces, minimizing blister-producing friction and toe box impact.

In short, you do not need to surgically remove your toenails. An enhanced Pawback will limit those forces and protect the feet and toes!

Pawback Drills and Exercises
Central to successful application of the Pawback is a strong hamstring and gluteal muscle group. The idea is to use these muscles to pull a leg from a flexed position, to beneath (and slightly behind) the body.

The essential drill is outlined here:

As you can see, the leg starts in a flexed, forward position, then is assertively pulled straight beneath. Special emphasis should be placed on squeezing the gluteal muscles when the leg lands beneath the body, such that it activates equally–if not preferentially–along with the hamstring. Additionally, lightly scraping the foot against the ground accentuates this glute-plus-hamstring pull (and ‘pawing back,’ thus the name).

This standing drill can be progressed to a march and a skip, as shown. But the simple notion of ‘pulling the foot beneath you’ is sufficient to create this effect.

Other strength-based exercises can help improve the Pawback strength, including those listed here–namely the chair bridges, and bridge walk-outs. Note how each exercises effectively pulls the foot and leg beneath the trunk and pelvis.

Additionally, those runners who have mastered the ‘100-Up’ can also add this mechanism to that drill: pulling the foot and leg beneath the body with the quick jump transition.

Applying the Pawback
The Pawback can be tricky to apply: to effectively pull the foot beneath the body without sacrificing the classic flex-and-extend action of the hips. What is effective for most is to imagine the foot and leg as if it were a saw blade, spinning around. Or, for those with cycling experience, it is akin to driving the knee upward, then pulling the pedal beneath the body before pushing it down.

Also, it can be helpful to think about the action of a treadmill–or to hop aboard one–and envision the treadmill belt being pulled beneath the body by the spinning saw blade of the Pawback stride.

Lastly, on steep downhills, practice firmly pulling the foot beneath the body, just before making impact with the ground. An effective Pawback will create a noticeably reduced braking–and friction–force when descending.

The Pawback may seem complicated and extraneous, but give it a try, and you will find more speed, less soreness, and–perhaps most importantly–less feet problems in long ultra-distance runs.

Good luck!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you have a Pawback in your running stride?
  • Have you previously practiced for one?
  • For those of us who know our own gait inefficiencies, does practice of the Pawback seem like it might help restore your most efficient gait?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 3 comments

  1. ClownRunner

    Gosh, if only the Earth itself actually were a treadmill, I would find the pawback much easier….hey, wait a minute, the Earth actually is spinning…Why isn't this dang pawback thing easier??

  2. ahorseoffcourse

    As a recreational marathoner in undergrad I took a running PE class and one of the drills we did was the pawback drill. It's heavily influenced my running for the last 10 years – even after I switched from road races to trail races. One thing I did not make the connection with was applying it to down hill running and how it could save my quads. It seems obvious now that it's explained here, but I *always* overstride going down hill and I *always* kill my quads. Not sure why I started overstriding down hills since that isso far from my typical running form, but I know that's what's happening. Am doing some longer trail miles this weekend (ride and tie championships) so will be experiementing with applying the pawback going down hill for sure.

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