Hi, everyone! A reader recently asked me a question about proper running form, which I hope to answer in this post. If you have any questions on running, nutrition, or recipes, please ask me and I can write a post about it for you! (Remember that I am not a certified coach, nutritionist, or medical expert—what I write about comes from in-depth research and personal experience).
In the words of Parks and Recreation’s Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt, who notably got in shape for Guardians of the Galaxy by running): “Everything hurts. Running is impossible.”
Running isn’t impossible, but sometimes it can hurt. Ever go on a long run and experience achy knees, sore feet, slouched shoulders, and stomach cramps by the halfway point? Many aches and pains encountered while running can be fixed with some simple tweaks to your running form. Proper running form not only makes running feel better for your body; it can also prevent injuries, help you run faster, and improve your overall posture.
Posture, foot strike, running efficiency, gait, and upper body positioning are all essential aspects in proper running form. At first it may seem overwhelming to pay attention to all of these things when you are simultaneously trying to run. It is advisable, then, that when you begin to work on improving your running form, you work on one aspect at a time and master than before moving on to the next.
Posture is arguably the most important factor in proper running form. The famous running coach Greg McMillan offers one simple piece of advice on running form: run tall. It is all too easy to slouch when we run just as we slouch when working at a desk all day. McMillian’s cue to run tall means that you should straighten your back, relax your shoulders, and keep your head lifted. By running tall, you prevent keep your legs underneath you, which can prevent over-striding, and keep your core engaged, which will help propel you forward. Slouching shoulders is a big problem for many runners and can cause aches and slow them down; running tall will help you avoid those aches and also maintain a consistent pace.
Running tall is the easiest step towards good running form to implement. The next time you are out on a run, straighten your back, relax your shoulders, and look forward. Try to keep your torso straight and avoid sticking your butt or chest out too far. Chances are, you will feel better and run stronger.
You don’t want to have too harsh of a posture, though. This is running, not ballet or the army, so while you want to straighten your back, you want to avoid pulling your torso too far back. You want to have a slight forward lean. You should hinge slightly from your hips and your ankles, rather than your waist, as this will keep your back straight and your upper body relaxed. A forward lean helps keep your knees under your hips. According to a recent study, a forward lean actually helps prevent knee pain—a common ailment for many runners. Be careful not to lean too far forward; your forward lean should feel natural as you propel yourself forward.
Running with a proper footstrike can also help prevent knee pain. There are three different types of footstrike: heel, midfoot, and forefoot. Heel striking tends to happen when you overextend your knee and land with your foot in front of your hips and knees (this is also known as over-striding). This strike applies excess force to your knees and can also cause foot pain. Adjustments to your running posture will already help you prevent over-striding; you can further improve your footstrike by keeping your feet directly beneath your body and pushing off of the ground on your midfoot.
Running efficiency sounds like a funny term, but essentially it means running in an smooth and strong manner. When books and magazines talk about running efficiency, they mean finding a way to run that carefully expends energy so you can go farther or faster, rather than wasting your energy on unnecessary movements. In addition to frequent and consistent running and strength training, adjustments to your form can improve your efficiency. Keep your upper body relaxed rather than wasting energy by scrunching your shoulders up to your ears; let your arms naturally bend by your side, rather than flailing them or letting them hang straight down; and avoid clenching your jaw. These are small changes but will save your lots of energy, especially on long runs or when racing.
Gait, or cadence as many runners refer to it, is the final key aspect of running efficiency. In addition to conserving precious energy, cadence will help prevent over-striding. Have you ever watched elite runners at a big race or in the Olympics? Their feet hit the ground so quickly that they seem to glide effortlessly. Studies have found that almost all elite runners have a cadence of 180 steps per minute. They take lots of short, quick, light steps rather than long, bounding strides. 180 steps is the ideal cadence; too much of a slower cadence actually decreases your running efficiency. When you’re out running, try to take shorter and quicker steps. When I pay conscious attention to taking short and quick steps during speed work, I find that I can holder a faster pace at seemingly less effort. A faster cadence also means lighter steps, which is in turn easier on your joint as you are not constantly braking against the ground.
A simple way to improve your running form and increase your cadence is through practicing strides (or striders). Strides are like short, quick bursts of running—not at an all-out sprint but at a fairly quick effort held for 20 seconds. You want to run strides on flat ground. When you run strides, focus on holding a tall posture and taking quick, short, and light steps. Essentially, strides are small practices of proper running form and help reinforce proper cadence. Do four or five strides after an easy run each week.
Upper-body positioning is the final key for proper running form. You want to keep your elbows bent at 90 degrees or slightly less and keep your arms parallel to your body. Avoid extending your elbows out and crossing your hands at your midline, as this causes tension in your shoulders and decreases your efficiency. Focus on relaxing your shoulders, keeping your chest up and open, and letting your arms swing with your as your run. Finally, be careful not to clench your fists; let your hands stay relaxed.
In addition to working on your form while you are running and practicing strides, there are supplemental exercises you can do to improve your running form. Yoga and Pilates will help improve your posture and keep your joints feeling mobile. Strength training that includes bodyweight squats and lunges will strengthen your leg muscles so that you can run with better efficiency. Spend some time strengthening your core through Pilates or a routine that incorporates planks, bridges, and twisting exercises. A strong core will help you maintain good running posture and help you control your forward lean.
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