There is a certain uniformity in running. Compare footage of Usain Bolt and Jesse Owens. They’re two of the best runners in history, active decades apart from each other. Yet, their running forms–the swing of their arms, the strides of the legs, the light bounce of their feet–are very similar yet very different. Moving into film, you can even see actors with extensive running scenes adopt similar but different running forms. Look at Robert Patrick in Terminator 2 or Franka Potente in Run Lola Run. All of these people had their successful runs, all while adopting alternate methods. The goal is the same: run as best you can without getting injured. Proper running form is the foundation of that goal.
The Importance of Proper Running Form
There is the natural running form that we’re born with; the way our bodies run most comfortably. Many established runners successfully run for quite a while simply using their natural form and that’s fine. However, there are long-term concerns to consider, especially health.
Your natural running form is the path of least resistance. Your body is aware of its limited range of motion and endurance and will function within those parameters during your run. Eventually, your body will adapt to the exercise and its requirements. You will even make gains with your natural running form. However, the body is not only efficient, but its adaptability might even become a problem. Your gains will plateau and you could potentially lose the gains you have made.
The body uses a great network of muscles when first introduced to an exercise. This new event has taken the body by surprise and it will work to adapt. As the body adapts to grow more efficient it creates the gains in strength, speed or endurance that you’re looking for. Eventually, that adaptation means that the body doesn’t need to rely on all of the same muscles and fibers to perform this task, so it will begin to relent. Muscles that were getting worked out will no longer be necessary. The body knows this exercise, and through the gains you made, only needs to exert minimal resources to complete it now. The muscles being used will have too much pressure on them and the ones not being used will start to fade. This imbalance leads to the aptly named possibility of “imbalance injuries” (such as strains, pulls, and sprains).
An Increased Injury Possibility
The devil’s in the details when it comes to proper running form. There are small, natural actions during a run that simply is not in our best interest.
Take, for instance, getting tired. People have a tendency to look down to the ground when they’re tired. It’s an indication that the body needs rest. It’s a natural occurrence. An exhausted runner might do this as the run begins to wear them out. However, that head of yours is attached to your neck, which is connected through the spine. You’ll want proper posture for your neck and spine during a run. Not every muscle group is worked out when you run, but you need your whole body working together (and correctly) for your run to benefit you most.
You may not see incredible differences from altering your form, but the changes can maximize your efficiency and keep you from getting injured down the line.
We’ll use two quick examples.
Think of your feet. With only thin skin protecting it, they’re an incredibly vulnerable area of your body. They also take an incredible beating every day, even if you’re only walking. With all the connective tissue, an improper form while running can have a negative effect not only on your feet but your legs, hips and lower back as well. This may not happen in the early years, but aches and pains will pile up over time. Take a look at the video below on a more detailed explanation on just what your feet should be doing when you run.
An often overlooked consideration is oxygen efficiency. In the most extreme example, running down the block with your arms flailing will burn through your body’s oxygen level much faster than the more measured swings employed by experienced runners. You simply will not be able to run very long looking like a Used Car lot inflatable tube-man. Thoughtful, synchronized movement can allow you to expend oxygen at a reasonable rate, allowing for longer runs. Increased and efficient oxygen levels will increase endurance and run speed.
Proper Posture: Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes
From when we were kids in school, we were told about proper posture. Sit up straight. No slouching. Look alive. As adults, especially as more and more people find themselves sitting in front of a computer for their entire careers, and as the weight of the world sets upon us between two hellish rush hour journies a day, keeping a good posture becomes more and more difficult. Running is a great way to not only shed the stress of the day and burn off some anxious energy, but it will help your posture (mostly because you need a good posture in your proper running form).
We mentioned earlier that the entire body needs to work in harmony if you’re going to have a proper running form. Here, we’ll break down how it all fits together.
Head: Again, like your teacher used to tell you: eyes forward! Do not tilt your chin up or down (we tend to do that when we’re tired, so be sure to be watchful for it when you’re on the last third of your run). A good rule of thumb would be to keep your eyes in line with your shoulders.
Neck and Spine: It’s another reason why you should keep your gaze steady ahead. Keep your neck and spine straight and “tall.” Sure, your eyes can look anywhere–while still paying attention to your surroundings–but with the neck and spine in proper alignment. This goes back to your school days. Proper posture means proper alignment.
Shoulders: It’s common to clench your shoulders while you run. Running can be intense and it’s natural, then, to tense up, especially as you tire. Keep your shoulders loose. Do not hunch over. When running, your legs and shoulders should create an X formation. If your right leg is forward, so should your left shoulder. If your left leg is forward, so should your right shoulder.
Arms: While keeping an X formation with your shoulders and legs, your arms are in a different position. Keep your arms at a 90-degree angle (or less) with your elbows close to your sides. Keeping your elbows outward would slow you down.
Hands: With your arms at 90 degrees and elbows locked to your sides, your hands should move chin to hip (if you’re moving like you’re giving someone an uppercut, you’re doing it wrong). This will help move your body forward. Keep your hands relaxed. Often, runners will imagine a potato chip held between their fingers. Keep your fingers closed but not tight enough to “break the chip.” If they’re clenched or otherwise stressed, you’re burning energy that could be used in your run. Never let your hands cross your center.
Chest/Torso/Core: Whatever you call it, it’s always important. Your core and your hips determine your stride. Your core is your center of gravity. That’s why good ab and chest exercises often help runners. As long as your spine is tall, your chest should be in the right position. Try and keep your core relaxed during the run. That extra flexibility is helpful, and the balance is incredibly important. Keeping yourself clenched and tight will waste oxygen and energy.
Hips and Glutes: This is part of the reason why core balance is so important. Your torso will be slightly forward of your hips. You want to position your hips so that you are slightly leaning into the run. Your glutes give power to your stride and help you pop off the ground on footstrikes. Your hips and glutes should help drive your stride forward. It took everything I had not to make a Shakira joke in this entry.
Legs: This is a little tricky because everyone’s stride is a little different. This is where you may defer slightly to your natural form. There are some universal tips and tricks, however. Your shins should be perpendicular (or close as possible) when your foot hits the ground. Your legs store and release energy and help determine the stride and power with which you run.
Feet: When running, you should be pushing off the ground with your feet rather than lifting your feet off the ground. Propel yourself by landing with the ball of your foot for a better stride. This will also keep you from letting your stride get too far out in front of you. Avoid striking the ground with your heel or toes; that’s injury fodder.
Stride (Rhythm/Cadence): Even the most experienced runners are prone to overstriding. Since runners are often told to work on their long strides for fitness reasons, it gets a bit programmed into their heads that long strides are the only strides. In reality, overstriding can slow you down. In general, you should be hitting 170 to 180 steps per minute during a run. Propel yourself forward by extending your hips and making sure your glutes are helping you pop off the ground. To keep a steady rhythm, there are metronome apps for runners (such as JogTunes) that can help you find a comfortable rhythm that will keep your strides short and sweet.
Not everyone is a city-slicker dealing with straight, flat lands (cracks and broken sidewalks notwithstanding). Of course, running up and down hills will necessitate changes in your running form. I promise I will not make any puns in this section.
Uphill: A greater effort is necessary on incline runs. Shorten your stride, but lift your knees higher and pump your arms a little harder. Some people run on their toes for short-term uphill runs, which can make the climb easier. I’m not entirely in love with it due to the possibility of injury, but again, it’s short-term.
Downhill: In general, gravity will do much of the work. Your job will be about balance. It’s also natural to want to put the brakes on a bit, which you should do. Sort of. While also embracing the downshift momentum. I’ll explain. Allow your knees to adjust to the pace of gravity pulling you down the hill. Don’t fight it. However, you should not let your shoulders pull forward. Keep your hips involved, instead. They’re in a leaning position for a reason.
Remember, the runners are not done when the race is over. There’s always a new goal and a better way of getting there. So go get there.