With a new article or research study about “good running form” popping up just about every week — each seemingly contradicting the other — the thought of just how much attention you should pay to your running form can seem daunting.
Should I change my form? How do I get started? Should my cadence be exactly 180, do I land on my forefoot or midfoot, and what the heck is hip extension?
The truth: There is no single best way to run.
Actually, let me rephrase that. There probably is some biomechanically perfect way to run based on the laws of physics and optimal efficiency. Unfortunately, due to your individual biological makeup, it’s virtually guaranteed that your optimal and best running form is going to differ slightly — or maybe even dramatically — from this biomechanical “optimum.”
Now, that’s not to say that working on your running form isn’t important. Improving your mechanics and efficiency can help reduce injuries and allow you to run faster. If done correctly, it can be one of the best things you can do for your running.
But, if there’s no single best way to run, how the heck do you go about making changes to your running form?
One Size Does Not Fit All
The difficulty in changing form is that there is no absolute “perfect” running style you can copy.
While we do know the basics of what good running form should be, how that looks for each runner will be quite different. To that extent, improving your running technique isn’t about mimicking another runner’s form. The “perfect” form for you is one that allows you to train injury-free month after month, year after year.
In addition, changing your running form is a difficult endeavor. The most complicated factor is that no one aspect of your running form occurs in isolation. For instance, changing the position of your footstrike impacts your hip flexion, cadence, stride length and almost everything in the biomechanical chain.
To give you an example, I coached a runner who was convinced she needed to start running on her forefoot after reading an article about how heel striking was bad.
So, she started consciously trying to land on her forefoot. Unfortunately, she didn’t address her posture or lack of hip extension in the process. She simply focused on changing her foot strike.
The result? She got a stress fracture. Why? Because without first addressing her posture and hip extension, she was still over striding significantly. She simply transferred the impact force from her heel to her forefoot, which created a stress for which her metatarsal wasn’t ready.
The lesson here is that you shouldn’t approach biomechanical changes by reading the latest article about “proper form” and then trying to change one singular aspect. You need a comprehensive, step-by-step plan that addresses how to improve form in a logical fashion that is unique to you.
The following four-step plan and will help you avoid the most common mistakes:
Step 1: Become aware.
Start by identifying the specific flaws in your own form. The best way to do this is to take a video of yourself running. I like to do this on the treadmill because it’s much easier to set up and focus on specific areas of your gait.
Just set up a camera to the side of yourself and at the back, and run at an easy pace. It doesn’t have to be long — 10 to 30 seconds is enough — since you can use video playback to loop, slow motion and pause as you dissect your stride.
From here, you can do one of two things — you can analyze your form yourself and, using the principles of the running gait, identify areas that need improvement. If you’re not confident in your ability to analyze your gait or want an expert opinion, you can also send your video to a biomechanics expert.
Now that you have your video taken, you’ll want to learn about basic biomechanics. Even if you’re sending your video to an expert, you’ll still want to learn this part, as it will help you visualize in the third and fourth steps. Since breaking down the gait cycle is an article on its own, here is a great step-by-step introduction to running biomechanics for beginners.
Step 2: Eliminate structural limitations.
Armed with an assessment of your biomechanics from your video analysis and an understanding of the gait cycle, you can now learn how to improve your efficiency.
This is where you start to implement the foundation of the physical work to improve your form – strength and flexibility.
Improving strength and flexibility is paramount and the first step to improving your form (not drills or mental cues) because no matter how much you understand biomechancis or are aware of your flaws, if you don’t have the strength or flexibility to actually execute good form, all the conscious attempts to change will fail.
This is one of the biggest mistakes many runners try to make. They read articles and watch videos and “see” what good form looks like and they want to run out the door to start with drills or consciously trying to fix their form while running, but it never works.
Because if you have a flaw in your form, it’s very likely related to some type of weakness or inflexibility. That’s why it’s present in the first place.
So, before you can make changes while on the run, you need to get strong and flexible. I can’t possibly go over all the strength exercises and stretches you should implement to get started in this article. But, I’ll give you a few.
For strength work, begin by performing these running-specific, basic core exercises for 10-12 repetitions or holding for 60 seconds, three times per week.
For flexibility, you’ll want to employ active isolated stretching. With active stretching, you will hold a stretch for only a second or two, before the myotatic reflex kicks in. You will then relax the muscle and repeat 10 times for each body part. Using this technique, the muscles should exhibit a greater range of motion over the course of the 10 repetitions.
Step 3: Get mental.
Now that you’ve developed proper strength and flexibility over a 3-6 week period, you can start adding form drills and then mental cues during your run to mentally engage and actively improve your form.
Running drills are an excellent way to learn and develop efficient movement patterns that your body will then be able to automatically select as an economical way to perform when you are out running.
Drills also improve proprioception (your awareness or connection between what your body is doing and what your mind is telling it to do).
Mental cues are similar. They allow you to engage in quick reminders for short periods during your run so you can transition the feeling of good form through drills, strength and flexibility to the run itself.
Like the strength and flexibility, you have a ton of drills to choose from. Most drills are focused on one or two specific aspects of form. If you don’t have a comprehensive plan you want to follow yet, here are a few drills that target different areas of running form.
Step 4: Implement slowly.
Once you’ve reached the point at which the changes to your strength, flexibility and proprioceptive awareness have evolved so that you begin running unconsciously with better form, you’re at step four.
At this point, you’ve started to move you towards a point where you can run with more efficient form without thinking about it, but you need to maintain your learning and physical work for things to stick.
Your goal in this phase is to identify any potential issues you may still have, begin correcting them, and then continue to implement the drills, exercises and routines for another 3-6 weeks (or longer) to make the changes to your form permanent.
This step-by-step process will ensure you improve your own running form in a way that is specific to your biomechanical needs. You’ll avoid the common pitfalls of trying to improve form and help yourself stay injury-free and run faster.