Proper running form matters for injury prevention and performance. However, good running form isn’t as straightforward as “everyone should look exactly like this while running.” In fact, proper running form is highly individualized. Rather than asking “how can I change my running form?”, think instead, “how can I optimize my natural running form?”
Good form has two primary functions: reduction of injury risk and optimization of running economy (oxygen cost at submaximal efforts). There are several variables that contribute to running form, including stride rate (cadence), stride length, joint angles and motion, and the amount of force applied from your body to the ground.
Does Bad Form Exist?
First, it is essential to acknowledge individual variance. As the researchers behind a 2020 gait training study published in Strength and Conditioning Journal, “there is not a universal most economical gait at submaximal speeds.” Different bodies are built differently. Your proper running form may be different than for other runners, and that’s okay.
You cannot tell every runner that their toes must point straight forward. Some people may point their toes in or out more based on how their hips and shin bones are set. Some may land forefoot while others on the rearfoot. Consider your body’s unique biomechanics when assessing your form. Forcing an unnatural stride can lead to injury.
While there is not a single ideal form, there are several form errors that can contribute to poor running economy and increase your injury risk. These include:
- Overstriding/leaning back in your stride. These two are often interconnected. This form error costs extra energy as your body fights moving forward with a backward lean. Additionally, overstriding can increase the impact force of each step, increasing risk of injury.
- Holding excessive muscle tension in your jaw, hands, shoulders, etc. This wastes precious energy and causes fatigue sooner.
- Hands crossing midline, which wastes energy.
- Excessively bouncing up and down (vertical oscillation), rather than focusing from driving forward
- Slouching at the shoulder or bending at the hips, which loses a high amount of energy and can cause muscular pain.
Cues to Improve Running Form
- Slight forward lean. This lean actually comes from the ankles, not the hips. However, the cue of driving from the hips is helpful.
- Neutral spine and pelvis. Think of running tall; this does not mean an overly rigid upright posture, but rather no slouching of the spine or tucking of the hips.
- Feet landing beneath you. Reaching your feet too far in front of your body (overstriding) increases impact forces (thus increasing risk of injury). Overstriding also slows you down, as you are essentially applying the brakes with each step.
- Short, quick steps. A quick cadence minimizes time spent on the ground. Avoid a bouncy stride, though; you want to combine quick steps with a forward lean to drive your body forward.
- Relaxed. Avoid holding tension in any part of your body, such as your shoulders, jaws, or hands.
- Arms swinging behind you, parallel with your body.
What About Other Metrics?
Vertical oscillation, ground contact time, stride length, and stride rate are all other metrics used to measure running form. The evidence points to that, for many of these, most runners naturally select their optimal biomechanics. For example, as a 2016 Sports Medicine review indicates, significantly shortening and lengthening your stride length worsens your running economy. The consensus on these from the above-mentioned 2020 review? Don’t try to change them unless guided by a physical therapist.
How Can I Improve My Individual Running Form?
Do not try to radically alter your form on runs. More often than not, drastic changes to your natural gait actually can decrease your running economy. The most significant improvements come from following the postural cues above (run tall with a slight forward lean and run relaxed).
Form Improvement Tip 1: Run Hills
Uphill running increases the mechanical demands of running. When running uphill, ankle dorsiflexion is more pronounced, the plantar muscle flexes through a wider range of motion, and the knee flexes more, according to a 2016 study in Sports Medicine. These movement patterns are key for a forward lean and strong knee drive, so when done frequently enough, they can reinforce good movement patterns and help you develop a more efficient running form.
Form Improvement Tip 2: Run Strides and Hill Sprints
Strides and hill sprints are done near maximal intensity, which is often the velocity at which you have your best running form. When done cosnistently, strides and hill sprints improve neuromuscular communication so that a smooth gait feels more natural, even at submaximal intensities. They also improve muscle stiffness (more on that below). Hill sprints are particularly beneficial since you need to have a forward lean with pronounced knee drive to perform them.
Ideally, strides or hill sprints are done twice per week throughout almost all cycles of training.
Form Improvement Tip 3: Strength train
Strength training improves running form by strengthening the appropriate muscles so they can support the biomechanical load of running. Oftentimes, poor form occurs when the appropriate muscles are too weak to contract for the duration of the run, so other smaller, weaker muscles take over the workload. For example, weak glutes are not equipped to handle repetitive hip extension or weak psoas cannot handle repetitive flexion, and as they fatigue, form deteriorates.
Train your body to utilize the glutes and drive from the hips, and you will notice a smoother form. Strength training for better form includes squats, hinge exercises (single leg deadlifts, deadlifts, KB swings, hip thrusts), postural control (push and pull exercises), and functional core work (including carries). These exercises strengthen the working muscles, improve mobility by moving through a full range of motion, and form valuable neuromuscular connections.
Form Improvement Tip 4: Optimize Muscle Stiffness
Stiffness is not the same as tightness. In fact, it is key to your best running form. The more spring-like your musculotendinous units, the smoother and more efficient your stride. Your cadence and vertical oscillation will naturally optimize when you have some stiffness to your muscles.
How do you optimize muscle stiffness:
- Run strides and hill sprints
- Strength train
- Minimize or avoid static stretching, particularly before runs
- Complete a dynamic warm up
Form Improvement Tip 5: Just Keep Running – Consistently
More experienced runners tend to have better form – because of their experience. If you are new runner, your running form may not yet be at its potential. The Sports Medcine review found that novice runners had a greater gap between their preferred gait and their optimal gait than trained runners (for whom it was often a negligible gap). This is one of the reasons why advanced and elite runners consistently run higher mileage.
This does not mean that novice runners need to alter their gait. Rather, they simply need to gain more running experience (including the above-listed tips). The more consistently you run, the more you refine the skill and optimize your natural movement patterns.
The same applies to trained runners: consistent training at higher volumes refines your running form. It’s hard to think long-term, but think of your form as something that will improve over three, five, seven years or more of running.
What About Foot Strike?
Does footstrike matter for good running form? Not really, unless you practice an unnatural footstrike (running on your tiptoes, for example). Overall, the evidence indicates that footstrike does not cause poor form and is often the most efficient pattern for an athlete’s unique biomechanics.
Rearfoot striking has been demonized over the past few years, but that is due to a conflation of heavily pronounced heel striking and overstriding. A heel strike does not cause overstriding; it can become more pronounced during overstriding. However, if you rearfoot strike even with your feet landing beneath you, that is okay! More and more research cautions against any alterations to one’s natural footstrike pattern.
In fact, trying to change away from a natural rearfoot strike (heel strike) to an imposed forefoot can actually worsen one’s running economy, according to a 2016 review published in Sports Medicine. So, don’t rush to change your footstrike just because you land rearfoot or midfoot. As best as the research understands it, your natural footstrike is most likely the most efficient stride for you.
Is There an Ideal Cadence?
Like running form, cadence will vary based on individual biomechanics. The notion of 180 bpm as an ideal cadence comes from observational studies on elite runners. However, that is not the ideal cadence for everyone. In individual recreational runners, cadence will vary. Some runners may run well with a cadence of 170 spm or 185 spm. Cadence is generally self-optimized along with running form.
Your cadence will vary on different types of runs, within a relatively small range. Speed is produced by a combination of stride length, stride rate, and force output. To run faster, those factors will increase, including cadence to a slight degree. (However, cadence should not drastically alter to run faster, nor should it be the sole mechanism for increasing velocity.) It’s not uncommon, for example, for an individual runner’s cadence to range from 175 spm on a recovery run to 185 spm in a 5K race.
However, too slow of a cadence can be sub-optimal for many runners. Very low cadences (under 165 spm) may increase injury risk and reduce stride efficiency. A large body of evidence (including this 2021 study in International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy and this 2014 systematic review in Sports Health) indicate that too low of a cadence may correlate with increased injury risk. Lower cadences are associated with greater ground impact, which increases injury risk. Additionally, low cadences often occur with other form errors such as overstriding.
Cadence and form are interdependent. If you simply aim for a random cadence goal, you may be choosing a cadence that is not right for your form. Unless instructed by a physical therapist, don’t try to change your cadence drastically. Instead, focus on overall good form, perform strides or hill strides, do appropriate speedwork, and your cadence will optimize for you.
Running form will vary from individual to individual. Some simple cues and training approaches such as consistent mileage and strides will help optimize proper running form that works with your individual biomechanics.