Running is a large part of nearly every endurance sport and arguably, the most important aspect for which to train. Yet, because most of us come by running naturally—having acquired this ability as very young children—we often don’t realize it’s a skill upon which we can improve. How we run, or more specifically, our running form, can be as important of a variable in our success as the miles that we log.
Good running form involves more than just moving your feet. It’s an orchestrated movement that involves your head, arms, trunk, legs, and ultimately, your feet. Each of these components can be maximized to achieve the most efficient—and effective—running form.
For this TRAININGPLACE article, I will highlight five basic elements of efficient running form: Foot strike, Stride, Carriage, Arm Swing, and Head Position. Attention to improving these elements will improve your finishing times, and significantly increase your enjoyment of running.
1. Foot strike: Simply speaking, this refers to the moment when your foot strikes or impacts the ground during your stride.
Generally, you’ll see runners with three variants of foot strike—heel strike, forefoot strike, and mid-foot strike. Many people are taught to heel strike (land heel first) which unfortunately causes a braking action, slowing you down and generating a large impact on the leg. Another pattern is a forefoot strike. These runners are often said to be “running on their tip-toes.” Forefoot running can put a large strain on the connective tissues of the leg leading to frequent soft tissue injuries. The third type of foot strike, the mid-foot strike, is the most efficient. In this form, the foot contacts the ground evenly and directly under your center of gravity while moving backwards. This variant decreases braking action, and loads the muscles in your leg evenly.
Take a moment to observe the most efficient runners that you know, and you’ll notice that they land on their mid-foot—they land evenly or slightly forward on their foot with their weight distributed primarily over the front two-thirds. They then drop down on their heel for an extremely quick moment—to absorb shock and load the muscles of your legs evenly—before rolling back onto the front of the foot. It’s important to note that the foot is never still during a mid-foot strike. This is one of the reasons that this manner of foot strike is less taxing on your body.
Changing your foot strike can be challenging. A drill that I have my athletes use is the “Short Step”, or “Hot Coals Drill.” To perform this drill, start by jogging in place with short steps. Pay attention to the sensation of how your feet are contacting the ground. Since your center of gravity is directly over your feet while jogging in place, you will automatically be in the ideal position for a mid-foot strike. As you start to get a feel for this new efficient foot strike, slowly begin to move forward. Keep your focus on maintaining shorter steps and a smooth mid-foot strike. If you feel adventurous, find a grassy stretch, take off your shoes and try it barefoot. You’ll get the best feedback from your feet doing so.
2. Stride: The swing of your legs into position under your body as you run is called your stride. Some people have longer, gazelle-like strides, while others have short, quick, and economical ones. The next time you’re out on a run, look around–you’ll see a spectrum of strides.
Your stride can make a huge difference in how efficiently you run. Runners who want to increase their speed often turn to adjusting this element to pick up their pace.
The two main factors affecting running speed are stride length and stride frequency. Stride length is the distance that you travel from one foot strike to the next. Stride frequency is the time that lapses between the moment your foot leaves the ground to the next foot strike, and is most often measured in steps/min.
There is no definition of a perfect stride length; the best stride lengths depend on each runner’s natural form. Start with that natural stride, and see where it takes you. The perfect stride length will be the longest stride that you can take while maintaining a high and efficient stride rate.
In general, however, a short, quick tempo stride tends to be more economical in distance running. A long stride can cause you to lose momentum and waste energy by pushing too far ahead of your center of gravity–hence, the term that you’ve heard, “over-striding.”
There have been multiple studies recommending 180 steps per minute as a goal turnover rate for most endurance runners. To achieve this yourself, start to record your own steps over short segments during your runs. I recommend counting the stride frequency of ONE of your feet for either 30 seconds or 60 seconds multiple times on several runs each week. Spread out the number of times that you measure the frequency throughout your run to get a better idea of how many steps you are averaging. Once you are comfortable counting steps, start to aim for 180 steps per minute which is equivalent to 45 steps if you’re counting over a 30-second interval, or 90 steps if you’re counting over a 60-second interval. By tracking this variable, you’ll be able to figure out that sweet spot in your running where stride length and frequency mesh into an efficient stride for you.
3. Carriage: Quite simply, this is how you carry your upper body. More technically, carriage refers to the position of your upper body and hips relative to the ground.
While running, your trunk should be more or less perpendicular to the ground and your hips should be slightly forward. This alignment of your upper body allows the bones of your skeleton to support themselves while taking strain off of the surrounding musculature. Additionally, it encourages proper motion at your hips and shoulders.
When I’m teaching this component of form, I instruct runners to visualize a plumb line attached from their hips through the top of their head straight up into the sky. I then instruct them to run as if the string is being held taut from the sky overhead.
4. Arm Swing: Arm swing refers to the movement of your arms while running. Your arms act as counterbalances to your legs, and help you to maintain momentum while you’re running.
A good arm swing originates at your shoulders, where a majority of the movement should take place. Your arms should move in rhythm with your legs, swinging forward and back, preferably not sideways. Keep your elbows in and slightly—comfortably— bent. You should have your hands relaxed, with your thumb on top, and fingers cupped lightly like you’re carrying a potato chip. You don’t want to drop it, but you also don’t want to crush it.
A classic exercise used to practice this skill is the “Seated Arm Swing Drill.” Start by sitting on the floor with your legs outstretched and arms bent at right angles, elbows back, hands beside the hips. Swing your arms in a running action, brushing the side of your hips with your palms as the arms pass back and forth. This drill allows you to isolate your arm swing so that a majority of the motion will happen at your shoulders, encourages a nice bend at the elbow, and gives you a great feel for how effective your arm swing is. In fact, when this drill is done correctly, as you speed up your arm swing, you’ll actually start to move forward.
5. Head Position: The head serves as the rudder for the rest of the body and should be directed towards where you are going. Maintaining good head position will keep you running in a straight line and as we all know, a straight line is the shortest distance to any destination.
There are lots of ways that coaches suggest holding your head, but I’ve always found the simplest way to address your head position is to focus on where you are looking while you run. I recommend that my runners keep their eyes on the horizon in front of them. It’s hard to stay on track if your eyes wander all over the place; where the gaze goes, you’ll probably go too.
A perfect way to drive home this point is best done on the track. Pick an uncrowded lane and start your run. Close your eyes for 3-4 seconds on each straight-away (not on the curves!). You’ll find that you have a hard time staying in your lane for those 3-4 seconds, and wander off your normally straight running line. Closing your eyes, much like looking around while running, takes your gaze off of where you are headed. Ultimately, the resultant corrections of constantly going off course slows you down. For safety purposes, you should not try this while running on the road.
When you address any of these elements with the goal of improving your running form, be patient. As the saying goes, “Rome was not built in a day.” Likewise, it takes time to successfully modify your form. By not rushing, you’ll avoid getting injured, and find that the modifications that you make to your running form are more effective over the long haul.