Good running form and technique is key to preventing injury and improving performance as you tackle longer distances and faster speeds. You want to move as efficiently as possible so that every motion propels you in the target direction: forward.
It is also important to understand that no two bodies are the same, so no two people will look the same when running. Your gait is affected by how your body is built and the movement patterns you’ve learned over the course of a lifetime. Daily activity (and inactivity) also affects the flexibility and strength of certain muscles you use when running. There are common elements seen in efficient runners that you can adopt to approach your own unique perfect running form.
You’ll rarely find great sprinters and marathon runners slouching while they’re running. When standing tall, your ears are aligned over the shoulders, which are aligned over the hips, which are aligned over the knees and ankles.
According to top sports rehab therapist and running coach James Dunne, because we often sit all day at our desks, we end up with shortened hip flexors and weak glutes and hamstrings. When we get up and run, we end up bent at the waist, butt sticking out. This makes you expend more energy to run and reduces the amount of hip extension you can do, which limits your speed.
Head position also affects how you run because jutting your chin forward or looking down at the ground forces your neck and shoulder muscles to work harder to support it and creates a slouching effect on your posture. When you’re bent over at the waist and hunching shoulders up and forward, you also limit your breathing, making the run effort feel harder.
Aside from practicing this tall posture whenever you run, you should also perform exercises to increase mobility in the hip flexor and strengthen your glutes and core muscles to hold the posture.
Swing your arms.
The arm swing is an integral part of the running motion. It helps you maintain the rhythm in your stride: notice that when you swing your arms faster, your feet go faster as well. When your arms are held tightly to your sides, your leg motion also becomes more restricted.
The swinging motion also helps drive you forward according to Newton’s Third Law of Motion: any action has an equal and opposite reaction. So when you swing your arms, your body will naturally move in the opposite direction.
Watch out for the crossover, when your arms swing so that your hands cross the middle of your body. This causes your body to move from side to side rather than forward, resulting in wasted energy.
Dunne recommends thinking about driving your elbows backward rather than swinging them forward. This translates better into forward momentum. He also recommends keeping elbows bent at an 80- to 100-degree angle to help with the timing of your swing, which affects your leg cadence.
Increase your cadence to avoid over-striding.
Your preferred natural cadence may be different from your fellow runners, but increasing by 10% the number of steps you take at a given speed results in lower impact on the body, particularly the joints such as the hip and knee. Over-striding, or taking excessively big steps, loads the body’s joints and muscles with plenty of impact that can cause injury. When your leg reaches that far forward, the tendency is for your heel to meet the ground in front with an extended knee and cause a braking motion that increases impact. Observe for yourself how heavy your landing is with a bounding and bouncy stride versus a shorter one.
According to studies, shortening stride length (and thus increasing the number of steps you take over a given distance and speed) reduces impact loading, reducing risk of injury and allowing recovery from a previous injury. You can first determine your natural cadence by counting the number of steps you take running 15 seconds at a given pace. (It’s best if you’re already running when you start the clock.) Take that value and multiply it by 4 to get your steps per minute, or SPM. Practice running at an SPM higher by 10% for short intervals to allow your body to become accustomed to this new rhythm, and notice how it affects your feeling during running as well as how fast you can recover after a running session.
Dunne also recommends focusing on landing with your foot underneath a bent knee to help reduce impact stresses and correct overstriding.
Take your time when adopting changes to your form.
Running involves your whole body as part of a kinetic chain. Even subtle changes in one part will affect how the rest of the chain moves.
You can observe how changes you adopt affect your running when you focus on one thing at a time for a period of time. How you swing your arms or implementing an upright upper body carriage/posture can affect the rest of the way you run in unconscious ways.
The changes don’t have to be drastic, either. The adage goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Because each individual is unique, each will have individual idiosyncrasies that may or may not affect our running efficiency. The concept of minimum effective change argues that you can see and feel benefits even with small changes to your habitual technique, such as going from a heavy heel strike that puts the brakes on your forward motion to a lighter, more glancing heel strike that allows the foot to roll quickly forward.
You can make beneficial changes stick by being consistent in implementing them as you continue running. Perfect practice makes perfect and permanent.
Progressing toward the perfect running form for you will allow you to run longer and faster and really enjoy the sport and the lifestyle of running.