Nine Helpful Tips on Your Running Form

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Photo Credit: Dismal Days 2012 on Flickr by US Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District, used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo Credit: Dismal Days 2012 on Flickr by US Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District, used under a Creative Commons license.

A few Team Predawn Runner members have asked for help with their form of late. I’ve also been asked to provide some thoughts on the running form of one of the kindergarten soccer players coach.  My response? Maybe it’s a little early to worry about that…

Form is a tricky topic and in fact a bit of a “bunny hole”, particularly when coaching online. That’s partly because form is highly subjective and individual, and therefore “messing with it” can often be counterproductive. Since it is a common concern runners have, it’s worth sharing a few thoughts on a “form philosophy” that I’ve built over the years.

  • Form (just like shoes) gets overly blamed for injury issues.  More often, injuries arise from over training or from getting out of balance, where either our cardiovascular fitness proceeds faster than our musculoskeletal fitness or we develop (or possess) strength imbalances between competing or complimentary muscles.
  • There is no one right running form, but there is a right running form for each runner.  Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and the goal is to make our form align to those current realities – though these realities can be moved over time through such efforts as strength training.
  • Form follows function.  It is impossible to make certain “improvements” to form if they body isn’t ready to support it.  For example, one can’t successfully run with a forefoot strike if they don’t have the calf strength, foot function, and ankle mobility to support it.  Trying to force “form fixes” can be a recipe for injury.
  • Proper form can be tougher to sustain at a slower pace than a faster pace.  Thus extended periods of base building (run primarily at an easy pace) can exaggerate conditions that may be caused by form issues, which can then defeat the purpose of keeping training easy.
  • Form changes need to be made slowly, as you progress through four stages in making such shifts:
    • Unconsciously incompetent – you don’t yet realize where there are issues, so of course can’t address it
    • Consciously incompetent – you are aware of the issue, but don’t know how to fix it
    • Consciously competent – you are aware of the issue and can fix it, but have to concentrate on doing so
    • Unconsciously competent – the form “fix” has taken hold and become a part of the “normal” way you run
  • Form is best addressed one area at a time, proceeding through the above four stages completely before moving to the next element.
  • The goal of “good form” is to direct as much energy forward as possible, by minimizing extraneous movement in planes other than your sagittal plane (i.e., front/back).  Ironically, you resist allowing movement in the other planes by strengthening yourself in those planes, and this is the reason why core work is so valuable to runners.
  • Your running form often starts from the top and works its way down.  Specific, your body tends to follow your arms when you run, so directing your arms forward is the best place to start in terms of form cues.
  • Finally, changing your form, even when done thoroughly and properly, can actually set back your running efficiency and economy.  While the long-term gains may make it worthwhile, initially you may find exactly the feelings Brian Martin expresses below about moving to more of a midfoot running form.

Bottom line – there are a lot of other areas of your training (and maybe diet) that can have a bigger impact on your performance than “fixing” your form.  While a few minor tweaks may have a small positive benefit with just a little effort, a more whole scale undertaking may be more than you bargain for.  It may be better to let form “come to you” through focusing instead on strength and mobility and just a few minor cues.

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  • bob baks

    You don’t think having people increase their cadence, shorten their stride, have better posture by not sticking their head out on their neck, and hold their arms higher–you don’t think these simple things could probably benefit an awful lot of incompetent runners? Too many people just assume that some people “have it” and some just don’t. They may not realize that there are things that successful people do that they can emulate, and by doing so, improve their performance.

  • Greg

    Bob, first thanks for your comment. I did state that a few minor cues such as focusing on arm swing can be helpful for running form. I think that there is little evidence to support there being an ideal cadence for every runner (i.e., the magic “180 strides per minute”). Yes, may runners can be helped by taking shorter strides, but not necessarily all. Again, these are largely the minor cues that I mention though. The point is that I think it is futile to focus on such things as landing on your forefoot, not letting your feet cross the midline, etc. It is far better to let such changes happen naturally through focusing on form work and directing the motions that are easier to control – like arm swing.

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  • Paul Sawyer

    Thanks for the tips. I have also used the Galloway recommendation of just imagining your body as a puppet on strings, or being carried by a coat hanger, which if visualized as intended, causes the runner to straighten their posture and shorten their stride. As you say, not all fixes work for everyone. Galloway works for me… sometimes. Running form is like a golf stroke: some days you have it; some days you don’t. But when you do, you feel it. And it is good.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Paul, I agree that different visualizations work for different runners so there are no right or wrong ones. And I’ve written elsewhere that running form can be a bit like a golf swing in another way – if you focus on what not to do (“don’t swing your arms across your body”, “don’t hook this shot”) it actually tends to increase your probability of doing that very thing, so I agree with your golf swing analogy as well!

  • Jerry Gentry

    This is one of the best articles on the tricky topic of form that I have read. There’s a lot more to be discussed, but your approach is well considered. Every runner is different and, you are right, making too much change all at once can be problematic. I’d like to hear, if possible, how the type of shoe effects form (lift, cushion, etc.) if there is even a way to discuss that topic.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Hi Jerry and thanks for the comment. I tend to think that the shoe choice doesn’t necessarily help with running form but it can “fight” it – if you are a midfoot striker in a higher-heeled shoe, you may land a bit more on your heel (though not necessarily). So I guess I would suggest that shoe choice should follow your form; midfoot landers should choose flatter / more minimal shoes, while those who tend to land on their heel probably should opt for a shoe with more cushioning there. As I know you are already aware from your minimalist transition you described, you can’t force form through picking a different pair of shoes.