One often overlooked subject when learning to run is your running mechanics or running form. Many recreational runners make the assumption that running form is only important for competitive athletes. That assumption is wrong. It is just as important for a new runner to learn proper running mechanics. In many ways it is even more important for a beginning runner to learn proper form. Learn it early and you will avoid picking up bad running habits that can cause you to become injured, frustrated and an inefficient runner. If you have bad running form habits correct them now. It will improve your performance and help you avoid injuries. Everyone’s form looks a bit different. Even among the elite, world class runners, you will see many different specific running styles. Some run low to the ground with little knee lift while others run powerfully, with high knee lift and a strong kick. Some athletes run with a slight forward lean and some run very upright. Despite the large variety in specific running forms, there are a number of elements that are common to almost all successful running styles. Each of these elements can be practiced and adjusted. Good running form is not something a runner is born with. It is a learned skill. I have been running for more than 35 years and I am still continually making small adjustments to my form. The science and study of running mechanics can get very complicated and involved. As you progress to more advanced levels of running, your running form will become more and more important.
One of the most important phases of running mechanics is the position of your foot when it lands on the ground. When you foot strikes the ground it will land either; toes first, ball of the foot first, flat footed or heel first. Many runners make the mistake of reaching out in front of their body and landing heel first. That type of foot plant is inefficient and can be the cause of a long list of injuries. When you land on your heel, your leg is straight and extended in front of your body. The combination of a straight leg and a hard heel landing transfers a lot of impact through your heel and up through your knee to your hip. The excessive stress a heel strike places on your joints can cause pain and injury to your hips, knee, ankle and foot. Shin splints (pain of the front of your lower legs) is an example of a common running injury that can be caused by heel striking and over striding.
A heel first foot plant also means you are over striding. You are reaching out in front of your body with each step you take. When you reach out in front of your body, you will land heel first and will be putting on the brakes with each step. It is like trying to drive your car while pressing on both the gas pedal and brake pedal at the same time. You are wasting energy and making your training run harder than it should be. Landing toes first is not an efficient style for distance running. Toe first landings result in a lot of up and down motion and puts a lot of stress on the calf muscles. Toe running is more appropriate for sprinting than for distance running.
As a distance runner, your most efficient foot plant is one in which your foot lands directly under your hips or your center of gravity. You may land on the ball of your foot or flat footed. The ideal landing position is slightly toward the outside edge of your foot, just behind your little toe. Your foot would then naturally roll slightly inward while pushing off over your big toe. The slight inward roll of your foot is called pronation and provides some cushioning during the running stride. A small amount of pronation is normal and desirable, but excessive pronation can also be the cause of injury and stride inefficiencies. Excessive pronation can be prevented through the use of motion control shoes. That type of shoe has strong heel inserts that stop the inside rolling motion of pronation. While motion control shoes will temporarily solve the problem, it is like putting a band aid on a cut that will never heal. It solves the immediate problem but it not a long term cure. Pronation can be caused by weak muscles in your lower leg or stride inefficiencies. Doing some barefoot walking and running will help strengthen the ankle and foot stabilizing muscles in your lower leg. Doing exercises and drills on an unstable surface such as a wobble board or stabilization pads can also help with this problem. If you pronate severely I would suggest consulting with a physical therapist to find out of there are alternatives to motion control shoes in your specific case.
Years ago, when I was first learning how to run, I was taught to run with a very upright and straight posture. I was told not to lean forward or backward. Nearly every coach taught that same technique. They coached that way because it was the way they learned to run. I ran successfully using that technique in the early stages of my career but as I advanced to longer, more difficult training runs and higher levels of competition, that technique was no longer adequate. I began suffering from back pain and leg injuries. Running became more difficult and my enjoyment level plummeted. So, I made changes. If you watch world class runners on television, you will notice that they appear to run with no effort. They seem to be gliding smoothly along the road or track. I watched the most successful runners. Nearly all of them run with a straight and erect back, but they lean forward very slightly. This very slight forward lean gives them a completely balanced posture. Balance is the key word. You should always feel as if your upper body is in balance above your hips.
When you are standing still your upper body is very straight and balanced on top of your hips. Go ahead and try this. Stand up and feel your body. Lean your body forward and backward. When you lean forward you begin to lose your balance in that direction. When you lean backward you feel your balance shift to your rear. Only when you are standing with a straight upper body do you feel in balance.
Now start to walk forward. When you being to move shift your upper body very slightly forward. You are leaning into your movement. In a way when you walk you are actually falling forward and catching yourself with your legs. Running is the same. When you run you need to lean forward to keep your body balanced over your hips. If you kept your body straight your balance would be shifted to the rear of your body. You would not be able to continue the action of “falling forward”. You would have to reach out in front of your body and pull your legs back to create forward motion. That would make your running more difficult and inefficient.
The most efficient posture is one that is upright and relaxed with a slight forward lean. Your chest should be out and your shoulders back. If you lean too far forward you will begin a stumbling, high impact stride. You will also put excessive stress on your knees and back. A backward lean will cause you to over stride and land heavily on your heel, which will also stress your knees, hips and back. A visualization that may help is to imagine your hips and legs being a motor. You just want to keep your upper body balanced over your motor.
Keep your hips pressed forward and your butt tucked in. Visualize standing face first against a wall. Press your hips forward so that the bones of your hip touches the wall. Running with your hips forward will help your knee lift higher, with less effort.
Another common form error is called “sitting in the bucket”. This is especially common among beginning runners. This style is caused by the hip and butt being pushed back, into a slight sitting position. This causes your feet to be in front of your body with a very weak push off behind your body. Keeping your hips pressed forward will eliminate this form fault. Keep your body as relaxed as possible. Tense muscles will slow you down and force you to work harder. Concentrate on keeping your shoulders, jaw, torso and legs nice and loose.
The most common form flaw I have observed in runners I have coached is over striding. Forcing a long stride length will not improve speed or running efficiency. Just the opposite happens. Over striding will result in reaching out in front of your body with your foot and landing heavily on your heel. This will cause the braking action that I mentioned earlier. In a proper stride, your foot should land directly under your body with every step. Concentrate on running with a quick and light stride. Your stride should be like a rotary motion with your foot landing directly under your center of gravity at the bottom of each cycle. Over striding is a form flaw, but in order to run as efficiently as possible, you must extend your stride to its maximum, without over striding.
You should increase your stride length by opening up your stride or making “bigger circles” with your feet and legs. Do not reach out with your forward foot, but allow the forward momentum of your body to “catch up” with your forward foot so that no braking action is initiated. Your forward foot should land directly under your body. If you reach out with the forward foot, you will land on your heel and initiate a braking action with each step. This will excessively stress your knees, hips and back, in addition to slowing you down.
All of your effort should directed forward. There should be very little up and down motion. Runners that bounce or hop when they run are wasting energy. They are also putting excessive stress on the knees, hip and back. You should feel as if you are gliding along. Imagine you are running with a beanbag on your head. If you bounce too much the beanbag will fall off.
Your stride should be quick and light. Visualize trying to sneak up on someone while you are running. Your steps should be light and quiet. If your steps are heavy and noisy, you are running with too much up and down motion, or are leaning forward too much.
You should not exaggerate your knee lift when running long distances. A high knee lift is much more important when sprinting or when running hard for the finish line. An exaggerated knee lift will require the use of too much energy to maintain for a long period of time. Knee lift is a very misunderstood term. Many believe that knee lift means to lift your knee straight up, which results in a bouncy, up and down motion which wastes a lot of energy. A proper knee lift should feel like you are driving your knee forward, not up. A forward knee drive will result in a low to the ground and efficient forward running motion.
To initiate your foot plant, slightly pull your lead foot back gently so that it will match the speed of the ground moving under your body. That way you will avoid any braking action and will run very smoothly and efficiently. Immediately after your foot plant concentrate on quickly picking your foot up to continue the cycling motion. It may help to think of your legs moving in a continuous cycling motion, very similar to pedaling a bike. A rather amusing mental cue is sometimes use is imagining I am moving like the cartoon “road runner”. I imagine my legs spinning is a continuous circular motion and my body is just going along for the ride.
The main purpose of an arm swing is to provide balance and coordination with the legs. The arms should hang loose and relaxed, close to the body. Avoid excessive movement. You want to avoid any tenseness in the shoulders. Your wrists should be loose and floppy. Do not clench your fists. Your hands should be held in a relaxed manner. You may try imagining that you are holding a butterfly in your fingers. Do not crush the butterfly. Any tightness in your hands will transfer all the way up your arm.
During the arm swing, your hands should not travel above your chest or behind the midline of your body. Try to avoid crossing your hand in front of your body. Keep your arm swing compact and your elbows at about a 90 degree angle. Do not drive your arms forward. A forward arm drive will encourage over striding. There is only one direction for arm drive - backwards. Driving your elbows back when you run will help you run with a quick, light and efficient stride.