Proper Running Form
Running, perhaps more than any other sport, is an exercise in efficiency. How quickly can you get from point A to point B? How quickly can you travel while expending the least amount of energy? How can you reduce your energy output?
These questions are the basis of training and running, and the driving force behind the answers has to do with bio-mechanics and proper running form. To a certain extent, form cannot be changed beyond what nature intended. For instance, runners will never be able to change the width of their hips or whether they are pigeon toed or knock-kneed.
However, other common issues, such as improper arm carriage, can be worked on and fixed. While no one will ever be able to completely change his or her form from looking more like a cross country skier to mimicking a world class 400 m runner, small changes can be made to improve efficiency and ultimately drop time. Listed below are all the important aspects of proper form and what can be done to make improvements.
You may be wondering what role head carriage could possibly have with running, when feet, legs, and arms are the body parts that propel forward motion. Here is an experiment for you: bob your head up and down, and now keep it still. The bobbing was less comfortable, right?
As you are running, it is important to keep your head level and relaxed as you propel yourself forward. A bobbing head will quickly lead to tired neck muscles, which will lead to tense shoulders, which will lead to tired arms, which will lead to heavy legs.
In running, every single body part is connected and should be addressed as one important cog in the grand scheme of the machine. One way to force yourself to have a still head is to wear sunglasses.
You are naturally conditioned to try and keep sunglasses on your face, which will help eliminate the head bob. Neck stretching and strengthening exercises, such as those practiced during a yoga session, can also help calm the neck muscles that cause this problem.
Scrunch your face up into a scowl and take notice of how the rest of your body reacts: neck and shoulders likely tense up, as does the mid-back. Now, form a smile on your face and think about how this makes you feel. If you are like most people, your body immediately relaxed.
The same process is true while you are running. Being mindful to keep your face relaxed and free of tension can keep the body relaxed as well. This is a second reason to wear sunglasses or a hat during a race, as keeping your eyes from squinting in the sun is important for maintaining optimal relaxation of those facial muscles.
During a race it is never a bad idea to smile, either. Even if you are not happy, a smile can signal to your brain that everything is okay and will help release tension in other parts of your body.
Following suit with our other experiments, scrunch your shoulders up to your ears and swing your arms. Now, relax your shoulders and repeat the arm swinging movement. Do you notice a difference? During a race you will hear people yell at the runners to relax their shoulders. They are not simply yelling this because a photographer is ahead, but also because releasing that tension will lead to better form and a more efficient stride.
When your shoulders are hunched, notice how the muscles in your back, particularly those near your ribs, also become tense. Any additional tension in your body will lead to inefficiencies and soreness, not to mention a worse finishing time.
The most noticeable differences among runners are arm swing and arm carriage. There is a sweet spot for arm carriage that is not too high and not too low.
Stand up and practice swinging your arms at different heights, including with arms squeezed up into your armpits and also with your arms down straight at your sides.
Now, bend your elbow so that your bicep and forearm form a 90o angle and swing your arms as if you were running. This, here, is the sweet spot. Do you notice how your shoulders and back do not have any tension, yet your arms are better able to propel your body forward than when they hung straight at your sides? This is the arm carry you should strive for when you run.
The way your arms swing is very important and can be the difference between an efficient and inefficient stride. Remain standing and swing your arms with perfect back and forth motion, like a pendulum.Think about the mantra “pick your pocket, pick your nose,” meaning that your hand swings behind your hip on the backswing and towards your nose on the front swing.
Now, swing your arms such that they cross past your belly button, with elbows swinging outward. Do you notice how your hips respond? When your arms cross in front of your torso you introduce lateral movement into your stride.
The more laterally you move the less forward momentum you have. In order to quickly and efficiently get from point A to point B, you should minimize lateral movement as much as possible.
While still standing, relax your core completely and swing your arms. You are likely slightly hunched over with a small forward bend in your hips. Now, engage your core (as if you were trying to show off a six pack) and notice how your posture improves and your arm swing feels more effortless.
Now, repeat the experiment (with engaged and non-engaged core) but walk in place with high knees. Do you notice the difference? Your knees can drive much higher with an engaged core, while you may feel “stuck” when you are slouched.
Hip alignment is a crucial aspect of proper form, not only from a lateral perspective, but vertically as well. Place your hands flat, parallel to the ground, and rest them on the tops of your hip bones. Look to see that your hands are resting at an equal height relative one another. If not, a trip to the chiropractor may be in order, as uneven hips can lead to multiple imbalances and inefficiencies, not to mention injury.
Next, experiment with the positioning of your hips. For instance, sway your back and push your butt out, titling your hips forward. While in this position, try to lift your knees. Now, do the opposite and draw your stomach in while trying to flatten your back, sending the bottom of your pelvis forward.
Repeat the movement with your knees and notice how much higher your knees can drive. In the latter position, you also likely engaged your glutes by squeezing the muscles in your rear. The gluteus maximus muscles are responsible for producing the power that propels you forward, and for this reason you are also able to drive your knees higher.
Strengthening your lower abs and pelvic floor muscles can lead to better hip alignment which is important for running. To work on your core, practice engaging your low abs by drawing your belly inwards and trying to align your tailbone with the rest of your spine.
As you have experienced in the previous demonstrations, knee drive is correlated to other issues, such as pelvic alignment and posture. However, we have not discussed why knee drive is important.
This concept may seem counter-intuitive, because we already discussed that forward motion is better than vertical or lateral movements. However, efficiently being able to lift your knees is necessary because this will increase the length of your stride, as well as your power and foot strike, which will ultimately lead to faster running.
In a perfect world, the most natural foot strike would be for a runner to land firmly and evenly on the ball of his or her foot. However, many factors result in very few people actually achieving this ideal, even among professional runners. Instead, many runners strike on their heels, which is not only less efficient, but can lead to a number of injuries.
In order to understand the difference between a heel strike and mid-foot strike, walk across the room on your toes, and now walk across the room on your heels. Which style of walking was easier? Which style seemed to use the fewest muscles? Walking on your toes should feel more natural, and should also lead to better propulsion, while walking on your heels can give the sensation of taking one step forward and two steps back.
For our final thought experiment, consider for yourself what gets from point A to point B quicker: a pogo stick, or a bicycle? You should take this thought into consideration the next time you go for a run. Are your movements more vertical, or more horizontal? In an ideal world, your head would move in a straight line with no additional “bounce” as your feet touch the ground.
How does Poor Form Develop?
Have you ever noticed a child with exceptionally bad running form? Likely not, as children have more relative functional strength than their adult counterparts.
Over time as children transition into adults they begin to sit for longer periods of time (thus inactivating their glute muscles), become tense in the shoulders while sitting at a desk, and develop muscle imbalances from seemingly benign activities such as crossing one’s legs while sitting, carrying a purse, tilting the head to talk on the phone, driving for long periods of time, or even carrying a wallet in a back pocket.
Other factors such as the widening of hips and the gaining of weight also throws off running form. Carrying a water bottle or a phone while running can also change a person’s natural form over time.
Nature vs. Nurture?
Many runners question whether form should be changed. To determine what the most natural form is for an individual, go to a track or other quiet area and try to run as quietly as possible, meaning you should try and limit the amount of noise your feet make when they hit the ground, while still running at a normal pace.
The way in which you run during this experiment is the most natural form for your body and is what you should strive to achieve. Some coaches argue against trying to change a person’s form too much, given that too drastic of a change my lead to injury, especially if new muscles are utilized. For this reason, finding the most natural form for each individual and working towards that ideal is better than trying to fit into a one-size-fits-all mold.
Fixing Bad Form
How should bad form be fixed? The most important tool to use is mindfulness. Simply knowing that your form would be better if you cocked your hips differently or held your arms at a different position can go a long way.
Perhaps an even easier way to fix form is to run more miles. The human body naturally wants to expend less energy and will develop methods on its own to make the additional miles more energy efficient.
Form drills can also help the body create an awareness of the form that is desired while strengthening the muscles required for implementation. Finally, strength training of specific body parts or muscle groups can also lead to improved mechanics.
Should Shoes be Used to Fix Form?
Certain running shoes, especially those from the minimalism trend, are marketed as being able to fix a person’s bad running form. While this assertion is true to an extent (i.e. these shoes will force a person to run more on his or her toes as opposed to on the heels), no one should leave it solely up to a pair of shoes to repair bio-mechanics. Minimalist shoes can be used as a tool, but additional work is required.