There’s more to knowing how to run than simply lacing up your sneakers, hitting the road and doing what feels natural. Research shows that proper running form puts less stress on the body and decreases the risk of injuries, allowing runners to go longer, train harder and get faster. From posture and arm swings to foot strikes and stride turnover, seemingly minor adjustments can make all the difference when it comes to running form. We talked to running form expert Pete Larson, author of Tread Lightly: Form, Footwear, and the Quest for Injury-Free Running and creator of Runblogger.com, to find out how small improvements can have big (and fast) effects.
Before we can finesse our form, it’s important to figure out what we’re doing right and what might need some work. “The main thing to remember is that the way you run affects the way forces are applied to your body’s muscles, tendons and joints,” says Larson, who is also a gait analyst at Performance Health Spine and Sport Therapy in Concord, NH.
If you’re prone to running-related injuries, or just want to know where you stand — or run — Larson recommends asking a running buddy to record you in action. Just a quick iPhone video should do the trick. Trust us, a video will be much safer (you’ll be less likely to trip on the pavement) than trying to stare at yourself in storefront windows as you run (not that we’ve ever done that, of course).
“A lot of times, you see things you didn’t even notice or feel before,” Larson says. “See what you look like when you run and be your own analyst.” That said, if you’ve never had running-related injury before, there may be little reason to change things up, Larson says.
Here are five tips to keep in mind for evaluating and improving your running form:
1. Shorten Your Stride
According to Larson, many people assume a longer stride means a faster finish time, and in part they are correct since stride length and stride rate determine speed. But, too many runners increase stride length by reaching the foot too far out in front of the body, which leads to overstriding. When it comes to proper running form, he recommends short, light steps where the feet don’t extend too far out in front of the body. Aim to have your knee above your foot and your shin vertical as your foot touches the ground. When you need to increase speed, increase your turnover and focus on driving the leg back from the hips rather than reaching forward with the foot. Many experts, including New Balance’s Good Form Running, say 180 steps per minute is an optimal cadence for the most efficient stride turnover.
2. Run “Tall”
Long distance runners often repeat mantras to stay motivated. When it comes to proper running form, Larson says the mantra should be “running tall.” Good posture is an important component of your form, so remember to stay upright (as if someone is pulling you up from your hair), with a slight forward lean to help propel the body forward. Check in on your posture throughout a run. Not only is it often the first thing to suffer when you’re feeling sluggish, a tall posture will give you a boost of confidence, too.
3. Move Forward
It sounds pretty obvious. The whole point of running is to move forward, right? But Larson says he often sees runners with a lot of side-to-side action, most often in the arms. Picture your body split down the middle. The movements of each side shouldn’t cross the middle line. Many experts recommend bending the arms at a 90-degree angle (though, some elite runners like Ryan Hall do let their arms hang low). It’s most important to “do what feels natural—just so they are going forward and back, not side to side,” Larson says. And the same goes for your eyes. “Unless you’re on a trail, don’t stare at the ground or at your shoes,” Larson advises. Keep your eyes off those storefront window reflections, too!
4. Stay Relaxed
“I see many runners with way too much tension in their bodies,” says Larson. As you swing your arms forward and back, it’s important to keep your shoulders relaxed and hands loose — no fist clenching allowed! Runners are often told to hold their hands as if they are holding drumsticks (to play the drums — not chicken wing drumsticks) or as if they have a fragile egg in each hand.
5. Avoid Extremes
Larson says many runners today worry especially about how their foot strikes the ground, not wanting to become known as — gasp! — a heel striker. “Just don’t do anything extreme,” he says. “Don’t land on your toes, but don’t have your toes pointing to the sky either.” To practice avoiding a huge heel or forefoot strike, Larson recommends heading to a track and leaving your shoes behind — sort of.
There’s more research (and debate) than ever these days on the barefoot running movement, which was spurred on in large part by the success of Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, and popularity of minimalist shoes like the Vibram FiveFingers.
While Larson admits it might not be for everyone and does require some transitioning, he says going barefoot and switching to a minimalist shoe occasionally can be valuable in your running toolbox. “When you take shoes away, things do happen to your form,” he says. At a track, sprint the straights and jog the curves in a racing flat or lighter shoe. Or head to the grass to run barefoot strides (60 to 100-meter speedy sets) with the intention of landing on the midfoot.
Still in doubt about whether you’re “doing this right?” Seek the help of an experienced running coach, who can analyze your form and offer advice in real-time (so there’s no need to keep replaying that iPhone recording). But remember, the best tip is to keep it simple, as proper running form can be different for everyone.
“Don’t mess with something that’s not warranted just to try to have a ‘perfect form,’” Larson says, “because that can lead to injury too.”