Running with good technique and form helps prevent overuse injuries and improves running economy – the amount of energy you expend at a given pace. In other words, by making your running form more efficient, you’ll go farther and faster with less effort. Read on for three important form fixes you can incorporate into your running now.
Did you know that your arms are key to running efficiently? How your arms move determines how your legs move. The opposite leg and arm work together through the muscles of the posterior chain to effect the running movement. Just try running with your arms locked at your sides, and you’ll get it.
Here are some tips for an efficient running arm swing:
- Keep an approximate 90 degree bend at the elbow through the full arm swing – no cross country skiing effect by extending the arms on the backswing.
- Allow the arms to swing naturally forwards and backwards, in line with the running motion – not side-to-side, crossing the midline of the body, or with elbows pointed out (think chicken wings).
- Shoulders are relaxed and back, not hunched up toward the ears or rounded forward.
- Hands are relaxed – think of holding a potato chip, or feeling a pebble bounce while held in your cupped hand.
There’s been much debate over the past several decades about the correct type of foot strike, (aka footfall) in running. The current consensus – and what seems to make the most sense – is that a midfoot or forefoot strike is the most efficient and the least likely to cause long-term knee, shin and foot injuries.
When you run, a huge amount of contact force is being transferred from the ground up through the legs to your core. When you land primarily on your heel, a type of “braking effect” occurs on your forward momentum, and much of that contact force is born by the knee. In contrast, a forefoot or midfoot strike provides a slower, more effective force loading rate, allowing the entire leg to become a mini shock absorber.
A forefoot/midfoot strike is also what is natural for the body. Think about it: if you were to run barefoot, would you land on your heel first and roll through to your forefoot? Ouch! Definitely not.
Unfortunately, the majority of runners tend toward heel striking. The big shoe manufacturers have addressed this issue (and sold lots more high-priced shoes) by adding more and more cushioning to the heel area. This creates an even greater problem, because an elevated heel throws off your entire kinetic chain, forcing your knees forward and your hips and pelvis to tilt to keep you in balance. The result is more running injuries, which may in turn sell more shoes – a perpetual cycle that only benefits the shoe company.
If you’re not sure what type of footstrike you have, ask a partner to observe you running from the back and the side. Better yet, work with a running coach who can videotape your form and provide specific advice.
If you find you are a natural heel striker, take time to gently work on changing to a midfoot strike. This type of gait change doesn’t happen overnight, and when done too fast can result in sore shins and calves. If you’re currently wearing running shoes with a thickly cushioned heel, find some that have a lesser heel-toe drop (the height in millimeters at the heel minus the height at the toe.) A racing flat, for example, has a zero drop, but don’t switch to that right away – ease into it incrementally. Talk to your local running store or a run coach for guidance.
Learn to use gravity to improve your running economy with an effective forward lean. This means leaning from the ankles – not the waist. Try this simple experiment: stand about a foot from a tree or a wall. Placing your hands on the tree/wall, lean forward from your ankles. Now pick up one foot. What happens to that leg? It swings forward, thanks to gravity. Notice how this forward swing is exactly what your leg does when you run. By leaning forward from the ankle on your stance leg, gravity will help pull your striding leg forward with less effort needed from the muscles themselves.
Like footstrike, learning the correct forward lean running posture also takes time and patience. It’s the foundation for Chi Running, The Pose Method, and many other running methods. If you’re not leaning forward enough, you may notice it becomes more difficult to move your body forward as you fatigue, and your legs are working harder to move you forward and support you. Your quads are the muscles most likely to get sore.
If you’re leaning forward too much, as you fatigue it may become more difficult to bring your legs forward. You may feel as though your legs are dragging behind you, and your hip flexors may become stressed and sore.
Pay attention to your body’s signals during your running and afterwards. Run with a partner for feedback, or hire a running coach to evaluate you and provide drills and other tools to dial in your best posture.
Good running technique takes awareness, practice and patience – but is well worth the effort as you become a more efficient runner with a lower risk of overuse injuries.
Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES, is a Road Runners Clubs of America Certified Run Coach. She is also Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist accredited by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Based in Denver, Colorado, Laurie works with clients one-on-one at their location to help them live healthy and active lives, and achieve their unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.