Proper running form: an in-depth look at common mistakes and how to fix them
Distance running is all about efficiency and energy economy. Running economy is the amount of energy you spend to run at a certain speed. To run some lovely marathon without pushing your body to the limit, you need to improve running economy as much as possible without cutting a speed.
Drastically improve your running economy and prevent many injuries can proper running form. Some people believe, that correct form comes naturally, and any corrections are unnecessary. Though, it is true for some people who managed to naturally develop a correct running from, yet most of us are not as lucky. And depending only on nature of your body usually leads to inefficient running and, what’s worse, an injury.
Proper running form always starts with the posture. Correct posture prevents a lot of bad running habits and gives you a base on which you build up your form.
In today’s world, a human spends most of the day in a sitting position, that isn’t really natural for our body, and it often leads to problems of any kind with our posture. Bad posture is a source of bad running form and is the first thing you should work on.
So what is the correct posture then?
Stay tall. Keep your back straight at all times and the other body parts relaxed. It is the foundation of the running form and is the first thing you should look at fixing any issue with your running.
Many people have have a significant issue with their back, such as kyphosis. It is caused by sitting too much and leads to a lot of other secondary issues. You should take it seriously and treat it only under the care of a doctor.
There is one simple way to prevent slouching when sitting. Place a tennis ball between your upper back and a seat. When you start slouching the ball will roll down and remind you to straighten out.
If you can’t use the ball trick, just remind yourself to check on your back. Draw an imaginable straight line from your chest. If it points forward or up, you’re good. If it points down, you’re slouching.
Keep your head straight. While running on a flat surface look straight ahead to the horizon, so you don’t make any pressure on your neck and keep the balance. This rule doesn’t apply while running up or downhill.
A common problem here is a nerd neck, often caused by kyphosis. There’s a lot of controversy around this question, and even doctors usually focus only on your neck, forgetting about the cause of the problem. Fix your back, and you’ll have a nice, straight neck.
Lean forward. The correct running form requires leaning forward with your body a little, sort of like reaching to kiss somebody. Imagine you have two springs attached to your legs. If you stay straight, you would just bounce up and down, but if you lean, the energy will push you forward with each step.
Our bodies are elastic, and our calves are the same as those springs. To get into right position lead your waist and hips a little forward, as there is a string attached to them and slightly pulls you ahead.
Pay attention, so you lean forward with the whole body and keep the straight line through your ears, shoulders, hips to ankles. Bending from your waist is a nasty habit.
The often problems here are sway back or pelvic tilt. Again, mostly because of sitting too much. Its treatment consists of strengthening the hip extensors on the back of the thighs and stretching the hip flexors on the front. But you should consult a doctor beforehand.
A lot of newbie runners don’t pay enough attention to their arms while running. That is a rookie mistake because arms are critical in developing proper running form. They set a rhythm, maintain a balance and are the substantial source of improving running economy.
Relax your shoulders. Running a long distance puts a lot of pressure on you, both physically and mentally. And to keep part of your body relaxed might seem like an impossible task.
When you slouch your chest is constricted and it makes it hard to breathe, your shoulders and neck become stiff and tighten which wastes a lot of energy and may cause pain.
Relaxing your shoulders gets you to the next level of running. To do so, jump a little in place to get into that bouncing state and loosen up your shoulders. Or, after climbing a hill, you can drop your hands and relax them while running downhill.
A lot of runners have difficulty keeping shoulders relaxed because of rounded shoulders. It is another consequence of kyphosis and should be treated alongside.
Swing properly. Swinging arms allows us to move properly without rotating our bodies like penguins. And a lot of runners don’t pay attention to how they swing, which ruins their running form.
Swing your arms straight forward and backward. It will counter the torque and maintain the balance. Your arms should swing from your shoulder joint, not your elbow.
Don’t cross over your midline while swinging; it will shift your balance. This usually caused by hunching over or rounded shoulders, that we already talked about. Likewise, you don’t want your arms flying to the side.
Keep your arm bent at the elbow at roughly 90° angle and your hands at the hip height or a little higher, otherwise it adds to the torque. Beginners often tend to hold their hands way up by their chest, especially as they get tired. But you’d spend even more energy and get your shoulders stiff and tight.
Don’t clench your fists. It can lead to tightness in your arms, shoulders, and neck. Also, avoid holding a phone or a bottle of water, it ruins your form and creates tension in the back. If you need to have a bottle, change your hands on midway. This also spends some energy, which is so important on a long distance run.
Strong core. While running, your body experiences a lot of stress. With every step, an impulse hits you and goes through the whole body. When your foot hits the ground the glutes, quads, and abdominals activate to support spine, hips, and pelvis. This must happen quickly and with strength. So it is critical to have a strong core.
Many runners’ favorite exercise to improve core muscles is planking. A very simple drill with lots of way to perform.
- A standard plank: get on your forearms and toes, strain abdominals and stay like that for a minute. If you can do more get up on your hands or put some weight on the back.
- Reverse plank: basically the same, just your back facing the ground. Get on your forearms or hands and heels and stay for about 1 minute.
- Side plank: get on the side of your right leg and right forearm, left arm is up in the air, left leg rests on the right leg, hips are close to each other. Keep it for a minute, then change sides.
Hip extension. Running speed comes not only from stride length but also from how fast you can turn over legs. And in order to achieve that, you need flex and strong hips. The higher your hip extension, the better your cadence.
- High knees is a classic exercise that exaggerates front part of your hip. Run a short section lifting your knees really high.
- Butt kicks another standard drill that targets your glutes and hamstrings. The name says it all. Run a few meters pulling your heels up the back, literally kicking the butt.
- Inseam pull. A less popular exercise that imitates your leg movement while running. It is something in between of high knees and butt kicks. To perform this drill run in place and lift your heel high up right below your waist. Don’t throw your leg back like in butt kicks, and pay attention not to lift your knee very high, that will pull your foot towards. Your foot must be underneath you. After you get used to it, run a short section doing this drill and changing your legs.
Don’t sway your hips. Pay attention to a hip drop. This is when your hips are sagging from side to side. It means you’re spending too much on the ground with each step, or your hips or glutes are too wick for running.
Footstrike is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you talk about running form of feet. There is so many different schools and practices of running that we can’t cover them all. Insted, we are going to stick to the most natural and safe foot placement there is.
Actually, from the moment we start walking we place our feet in the middle with each step. But we lose that natural and correct footstrike when we start wearing shoes and adjusting to them.
Heel striking. Usually, it is associated with the incorrect running form and taken as a huge mistake. And it is true, but there are situations when heel striking is ok. For example, when you’re running down a steep hill, naturally you’d lean backward to maintain balance and not to fall. To land in the center, your foot must be at a much higher angle with your leg than usual. And just not every person have that flexibility.
Likewise, forefoot landing is reasonable when running uphill.
Another situation when heel striking is ok is jogging or running at a slow calmer speed. Slower speed just doesn’t allow to have a nice stride for a correct form. And there’s no need to worry too much about how you land your foot during a slow run because you strike the ground more lightly and your leg doesn’t take so much shock.
But these are exceptions. During a regular run striking on the heel creates a lot of pressure on your knees and the hamstrings. It is caused by overextension of your front leg, which is induced by lack of hip extension, which we already covered.
Place your foot right underneath you
To improve your footstrike you can do a simplest and probably the best drill ever created — drive a kick scooter. Yep, that's right, a ton of fun and an excellent way to adjust your foot placement. But don't get carried away, it is still an exercise. Focus on how you place your foot on the ground and propel yourself forward. It can help you to improve hip extension, too.
Pick the right shoes. It is clear that running shoes should be comfortable, qualitative, and not cheap. But have just comfortable shoes is not enough. Our bodies are very different, and in terms of shoes there’s a lot to think of, especially when it comes to running.
Why is it so important? Well there’s a thing called pronation. It is a movement of your foot that helps reduce impact with each step. But a lot of people have issues with hyperpronation (ankle bent to the inside) or supination (ankle bent to the outside). And having a wrong shoes in these cases may cause serious injuries.
So take a time to find the right shoes that fit you best. Many manufacturers have a lot of options for both supinated or pronated feet.
There are few more words to say about the rhythm. Optimal cadence for a good running form should be around 170-180 steps per minute. Cadence too slow may cause you to overextend your front leg which leads to heel striking. Cadence too fast overdrives your springs which tires your legs and, in the long term, can lead to an injury.
But this is general recommendation. You should find a cadence that feels natural to you and doesn’t cause any problems with the running form. Remember that distance running is all about efficiency and running economy is way more important than speed.
Take a quick steps. Your calves and glutes should work like a springs to pop off the ground and propel you towards. That will improve your cadence, running economy, and shape a proper running form.
Whether you’re fixing the running form or adapting new technique, any changes should come gradually and bit by bit. That’s the only right way to make an improvement and avoid significant injuries.
As you can see, everything in your body is connected and comes down to your posture. To improve your running form, think outside the box, look for a cause of the problem rather than force your body to just do something the way you want.