How to Improve Your Running Form in Six Steps
Running is a unique sport because anyone can participate, no fancy equipment is required, and there are countless variables that can always be improved. One of the most important of these variables is running form. After all, a small inefficiency here or there can cost precious seconds per mile, which adds up over the course of a half or full marathon. Even more crucial is the relationship that form has with injury prevention. Improper form can place unnecessary stress on bones and joints, leading to stress fractures, tendonitis and premature wear and tear. Six crucial components to good running are described below.
Do You Overstride?
In recent years, one of the most common criticisms of a person’s running form is determining whether he or she is a heel or toe striker. While toe striking is typically considered more efficient and heel striking a slow and potentially harmful practice, the real issue at hand is whether your stride is simply too long. We are conditioned to believe that the longer our stride, the more ground we will cover with each step, and therefore the faster we will run. However, the act of overstriding, where a runner lands with his or her ankle in front of the knee, leads to a compressed heel strike and wasted energy each and every time. To correct this issue, a runner should occasionally change his or her running speed by incorporating speed work. For instance, finishing your run with strides (i.e. 20–30 second sprinting bursts) forces you to efficiently run on your toes, helping you build the functional strength necessary to carry out this practice for the long run.
What is Your Stride Frequency?
Another common form issue that goes hand in hand with overstriding, discussed above, is having poor cadence. Stride frequency refers to the number of times your feet hit the ground over the course of a minute. For optimal efficiency, runners should aim for their cadence to be 170–190 strikes per minute. Runners who overstride typically suffer from low cadence, thereby slowing themselves down and leaving themselves at a greater risk for injury. In fact, a study1 published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise revealed that increasing your cadence by 5–10% can reduce the risk of knee injury while improving running mechanics. How can you improve your cadence? One proven method is to run with a playlist of songs that are 180 beats per minute or above.
Do You Engage Your Core Muscles?
Look at any fitness magazine and you will be reminded that your core is weak and given exercises to remedy the problem. However, having a strong core and engaging those muscles are two different things. For proper running, a runner should be upright and have good alignment among head, shoulders, hips and knees. When a runner slouches or bends forward at the waist, energy is lost and painful cramping can occur. To maintain the proper upright posture, keep your spine straight and your tailbone tucked under your pelvis. Find your core muscles by first gently coughing and then activating those muscles during your run. To enhance your functional core strength, incorporate form drills into your weekly running routine.
Do You Look More Like a Cross Country Skier than a Runner?
To help determine exactly what your form looks like, it can be helpful to ask a friend to record your stride while you run at various speeds. When analyzing your video, ask yourself if you look a runner with good knee drive and powerful arms, or a cross country skier with a shuffle and low-hanging hands. Especially for runners who spend a lot of time running long, slow distances, the latter is often the case. A good way to improve running economy is to incorporate hill repeats into your running routine. A study2 published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found that athletes who performed hill intervals for six weeks had improved running economy and performance during a 5k time trial.
Can You Touch Your Toes?
Have you ever watched a runner struggle through a yoga class? Tight calves, hamstrings and lower back muscles from the continual pounding on the pavement often leads to tight, restricted movements. However, that lack of mobility, especially in the hips, may be detrimental to your ability to run with proper form. Hip inflexibilities, especially in the hip flexors, can strongly inhibit a runner’s ability to drive the knees forward, which also leads to the stereotypical “marathon shuffle.” Our sedentary lifestyles (i.e. the time spent at a computer desk when we are not running) adds to this inflexibility.
Runners should work on improving hip mobility by incorporating hip flexor stretching and yoga poses.
Runners who are as tight as a lug nut should ditch the idea that stretching is bad. While it’s true that stretched muscle fibers lose their ability to function properly – they can actually create delayed onset muscle soreness – your aim should be to lengthen the muscles to fill the area with oxygen and blood. On the same note, this re-patterns some neurological pathways and restores torn muscles, realigning postural imbalances.
Do Your Arms Cross Your Torso?
The best way to spot an inefficient arm carry is to look at a finish line photo from your most recent race. Are your arms hanging at a 90-degree angle with your hands punching forward? Or, are your arms flailing wildly across your stomach or chest? For running, forward motion is crucial, and any lateral movements can negatively detract from our ability to propel ourselves. The next time you run, pump your arms faster and see what happens. Undoubtedly, your legs will follow suit, which makes good arm form an important aspect of powering through the later stages of a race.
A common mantra for improved arm carry is to think “pick your pocket, pick your nose.” When your arm backswings, you should think about your thumbnail brushing your hip bone, with your hand moving far enough backwards to be able to pick something out of your back pocket. During the forward swing, you should be able to see your hand coming forward towards your face in your peripheral vision. While this movement is slightly exaggerated, practicing these motions will help you achieve better arm swing. To improve your functional strength for this movement, strengthen your arms by practicing “seated running” while holding two light-weight (i.e. 3–5 lb) dumbbells or soup cans.
Final Thoughts: How Do You Change Your Running Form?
Making changes takes so much mental focus. If your goal is to run farther, faster and injury-free, you will certainly need to use your brain to re-educate your body. Start by determining which are the right adjustments to make to your running form, and only then will your mind tell your body what to do. It’s called muscle memory and it will save you pain in the long term. Becoming deeply attuned to your body’s sensations can also be highly meditative.
If I were to summarize this article, know that it can take a few weeks to actually make changes to your running form. Concentrate on running tall, focus on getting your feet to land underneath your body, do speed bursts, get new shoes and do flexibility exercises.
1. Heiderscheit B.C., Chumanov E.S., Michalski M.P., Wille C.M., Ryan M.B. (2011) Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 43(2), 296-302. PubMed
2. Barnes KR, Hopkins WG, McGuigan MR, Kilding AE. Effects of different uphill interval-training programs on running economy and performance. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2013;8(6):639–647. PubMed