Running form is an aspect of the sport we think about even when we aren’t actually running — from the shoe-buying process all the way to pre-run drills and more. Though coaches often give guidance on proper running form, you may have wondered if this means you should be positioning your body the same way for a sprint workout as you would your long run. While your running form often won’t vary wildly between workouts, there are a few considerations you should make from run-to-run — and, here, we break down the basics.
THE BASICS OF RUNNING FORM
Running form can have small variations from person-to-person (for example, those who have visible supination or pronation) but generally, there is a running form considered ‘ideal.’ It actually involves the entire body. You want to pay attention to everything from your head down to your toes.
Proper running form includes: head relaxed with gaze straight forward (you can lower your eyes, of course, but not your whole head); a straight, yet relaxed, upper body with arms bent at the elbows, hands in light fists and an efficient arm swing that doesn’t cross the body; hips facing forward to help control forward motion and natural stride with feet landing midfoot.
Reading this is one thing, but putting it into practice is another — and it can definitely be intimidating. However, instead of trying to make big adjustments to your stride during every run (which could potentially lead to injury) there are things you can do in training to help improve little by little. Over time, the better your running form, the more efficient you will be. For example, if your arms often swing high and across your chest, working to get your arm swing moving from front to back helps you conserve energy and can actually help your upper body positioning, as well.
“The biggest mistake I see when it comes to running form is lack of practice to make it better,” shares Marc Pelerin, a middle school cross country and track coach, as well as an online running coach at TrainwithMarc.com. “Prior to a run, we should be doing drills that reinforce and emphasize good running form.”
If you are looking for specific drills to add to your routine, Pelerin suggests (at minimum) doing four drills: a walk, a skip, glute kicks and high knees. Doing these before a run, versus after, helps you do them on fresh legs and serves as a warm up to your run.
WHEN TO SWITCH IT UP
While you shouldn’t make any wild adjustments to your running form between workouts, there are a few things to keep in mind if you find yourself pushing your pace or doing a bit of climbing during training runs.
During Speed Workouts: “Varying the speeds at which you train not only helps you become more efficient, it also reduces your chances of injury by breaking up repetitive-motion patterns,” explains Art Ives, owner and coach at The Way of Running. “The precise coordination required to sustain even a slightly faster pace, combined with the corresponding changes in cadence and habitual stride patterns, alleviates the stress of running at the same pace mile after mile.”
When doing speed workouts, your running form changes to handle the change in your stride and the break from that repetitive motion (as Ives states). The changes aren’t drastic, but involve more direction and pull from your core. Your body should still remain relaxed, however.
“When doing speed work, your stride length will increase,” notes Pelerin. “It’s important to remember to lead with your belly button and get your hips over your planted foot with a nice, gentle forward lean.”
During Hill Workouts: When it comes to form for hill workouts, our bodies often want to take on a more hunched form — especially when going uphill — because it takes more work than running on flat terrain. When thinking of your form you should break it up into two sections: uphill and downhill.
When going uphill, you want to remain upright and run tall, like you would in ‘regular’ running posture. You must resist the urge to slump or do what Ives refers to as “bearing down into the hill.” When you crest the hill and start your descent, you want to lean forward (from your ankles, not hips). To stay stabilized both up and down hills, Pelerin instructs keeping your hips — which are your center of gravity — over whichever foot is planted on the ground with each stride.
“Leaning forward, even on a gentle slope, is uncomfortable for many people at first because they feel like they are close to losing control,” admits Ives. “Hill running, within the limits of safety, commands your attention and pushes you to focus. Each foot stretches farther with each step, so the nervous system must learn to control the foot, ankle and leg while accelerating.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
When it comes down to achieving proper running form, Pelerin says it best: “The ideal running form is efficient, resistant to injury and gets you from the start line to finish line using as little wasted energy as possible.”
If you’re doing drills consistently and focusing on your form at crucial times — such as during hill workouts, working with a coach or using an app like MapMyRun with form coaching features — you will see an improvement in your overall posture. Just don’t go overboard in a way that makes you overthink and overcompensate, which can lead to injury. That is why a lot of instruction surrounding form urges you to remain relaxed.
“On the one hand, apprehension about how well we are running can disrupt our performance by loading our mind with anxious thoughts about doing it right,” notes Ives. “On the other hand, the conscious shift of periodically focusing our attention on our running form helps us become aware of negative mental chatter so we can calmly repurpose those same thoughts.”