Perpetually injured? Feeling slow when you know you can be faster? You may not have good running form. Here’s how to fix it.
During any given training cycle I’m inevitably asked something related to running form. Either it’s “I think I need a gait analysis” or a “how can I increase my cadence?”
There are two schools of thought on running form. On the one hand, why mess with a runner’s natural stride? If you’re running comfortably for you and you haven’t experienced any pain, discomfort, or injury, then run on. On the other hand, there is certainly an ideal way to run. Running with good form can mitigate potential injury and help improve performance.
Looking for Good Running Form? Here’s How to Fix It
What constitutes good running form?
There are several factors that constitute proper running form. Everything from stride rate to where you land on your feet can affect how your body moves when running.
Take for example the transition from a slow jog to an outright sprint. For me, my legs and arms become more efficient, I rotate less, I land in a better position on my feet, and I spring forward faster. It’s amazing the changes that occur with change in pace.
These changes are important to note because when we’re running, swinging our arms wildly and landing on our heels instead of mid- or forefoot can cause our bodies to move inefficiently. Swinging arms are wasted energy because instead of propelling forward, I’m slowing myself down by adding a trunk rotation. Landing on heels, over striding, or having a straight leg when landing creates a braking effect thus slowing me down as well.
Moving inefficiently can inhibit all of us from reaching our full potential — and more importantly can also lead to injury.
Guidelines to More Efficient Running Form
I must reiterate that unless you’re in pain or have experienced multiple injuries, you likely don’t need to change much about your running form. There are, however, several ways to become a more efficient runner beginning with running form.
- Your torso should be straight with a slight forward lean. Your arms should be bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Create an imaginary line down the center of your body and do not let your arms cross over that line while running. The ideal arm position is at a 90-degree angle, elbows not passing your waist while they swing, and keep them next to you and not in front of you. You can mimic this concept by pretending you’re holding two walking sticks or ski poles. You wouldn’t traverse a mountain with a stick waving across your torso, would you?
- Your landing foot should make contact with the ground just beneath your center of mass. When you overreach your center of mass you’re over striding. You can avoid over striding by focusing a lot on your arms. If your arms are making the right movements in the right position, it will be hard to over stride with your legs.
- Higher cadence will help correct incorrect foot strike. If you’re a heel striker*, you’re likely overstriding as well. If you take more quick, light steps as opposed to less, longer “reaching” steps, you’ll be able to improve strike and stride.
*There is nothing inherently wrong with heel striking. The argument against heel striking is that it creates a braking effect which causes undue stress and tension on the entire kinetic chain. If you aren’t experiencing pain or injury, don’t worry if you’re a heel striker.
To illustrate the above points, check out this infographic illustrating common vs. good running form:
Disclaimer: if you’re suffering from injury, I strongly urge you to see a medical professional and/or a physical therapist. They will give you specific exercises to address your particular needs.
What Happens If I Have Poor Running Form?
Hopefully nothing happens if you have poor running form. But poor form certainly can lead to the dreaded “i” word: injury. It’s easy to slouch, slump, and over stride during running — particularly for longer distances. In addition to overuse injuries, sloppy running and poor form are major contributors to running injuries. Injuries resulting from poor running form can include (and are not limited to):
- soft tissue injuries such as iliotibial band syndrome
- stress fractures frequently in the foot or tibia
- poor overall posture leading to sore arms and shoulders
How Do I Improve My Running Form?
If you find you’re in need of a running form overhaul, there are a few ways you can improve. Check it out:
Both runner-specific exercises as well as total body strength work is beneficial for every runner. Think hips, glutes, and core for run-specific work and hamstrings, biceps, triceps, and lats to add in for total body work. If you need ideas on runner-specific exercises, check out some of these posts.
If you feel your form is “off,” a gait analysis wouldn’t hurt — and it could definitely help. Your coach or PT will take video from multiple angles and views, make notes while you’re running/walking, review the video with you and analyze how you’re running. From there, she/he will make recommendations and likely give you exercises to help you improve your running form.
Increasing cadence is easier said than done. Many over striding runners are in the 165-170 spm (steps per minute) range while most elite athletes hover around 180 and even a bit higher. If your coach or physical therapist deems increasing cadence necessary, be sure to do it slowly and methodically. You might be able to increase only a few steps per minute at a time. Using a metronome is helpful to dial in on the targeted tempo. The adjustment will take time — be patient.
Speed workouts and hill running are great variables to add to your training. The grade of the hill for hill repeats and the increased leg turnover of speed work will provide your body a much needed change and will help encourage correct form.
Cross training is always ideal for runners as it gives our bodies a break from the hard work and impact of running. Great options for cross training include cycling, swimming, deep water running, and rowing. Even if you don’t have an issue with running form, cross training is key to any successful training cycle.
Adding form drills will significantly strengthen muscles important to running. In addition, they also improve range of motion and allow us to be more cognizant of good running form. Effective drills include A-skip, B-skip, butt kickers, high knees, carioca, straight-leg bounding, marches, and 100-ups. Check out some examples here.
Running Form Do’s and Don’t’s
As you can see, there’s a lot to be said about good running form. It can help you be a faster and more efficient runner, and it will also help to prevent injuries. Some key takeaways about running form:
DON’T overstride and land in front of your center of mass.
DO run with a shorter, more efficient stride to minimize braking effect on lower limbs.
DON’T run hunched over and slouchy.
DO run tall, keeping your pelvis and hips as stable as possible.
DON’T let your arms cross over the midline of your body.
DO keep your arms next to your body and use them to propel you forward.
DON’T clomp around like Sasquatch.
DO think to yourself “quick and light” and keep your footstrikes quick and light!
I hope you never experience running injuries. They’re not fun. But if you do, remember that with a few little tweaks to your form you’ll be running again soon.
Have you ever had a gait analysis done?
Do you do form drills? Which ones are your faves?