How to Score Perfect Running Form Like the Pros

How to Score Perfect Running Form Like the Pros
Photo by Ron Holden

When Blue Benadum hit hour 30 of The Speed Project, a 340-mile relay from Los Angeles to the Las Vegas, it was time to dig deep. And that didn’t mean sucking down an energy gel or turning up the beats in his ear buds (like many seasoned pros, he skips the tunes entirely). With Death Valley’s rolling hills underfoot and miles of empty road ahead, the elite marathoner focused on the one thing he always comes back to: his running form.

On day two of no sleep, the head Nike+ Run Club coach had already logged 50 miles, some of which were at a 5:30 per mile pace. Yet, looking at the photos (like the one captured above), you wouldn’t know whether it was his first mile, or his last. With each step, Benadum kept his eye line level, maintained a three-degree forward lean, and struck his feet precisely below his center of mass.

That precision paid off: Benadum and his team won the race in 36 hours, 20 minutes and 25 seconds, breaking the previous record by 35 minutes. (That’s an average pace of 6:20 per mile for those doing the math at home.)

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Benadum isn’t just a biomechanics nerd for the sake of his own trophy case, though. (For the record, he is a 2:23 marathoner.) One of his most satisfying pursuits is helping athletes of all levels find their speed. Most often, that’s through improved running form. “For your average person who asks, ‘Can I get better at running?’ Almost always, the answer is yes,” he says. “There are specific mechanics that the human body naturally — and is optimally — designed to do.”

Read on to find out how to nail those techniques so you can run stronger for longer.

Form Focus: Why Running Biomechanics Matter

Before breaking down Benadum’s form cues, it’s worth noting that experts haven’t always agreed on the formula for perfect running form. The Born to Run camp shunned heel striking in favor of a whisper-soft stride. Meanwhile, others contested that runners should simply run however feels natural — without meddling with foot strike or other so-called idiosyncrasies.

“Now, fast-forward 10 years, and you see that USA Track and Field unanimously stands behind the concept that there are actually proper running mechanics, which you can break down and identify — whether you’re a long jumper, a hurdler, a marathoner or a 100-meter sprinter,” says Benadum. “We’re talking about where the foot hits, where the foot is in relationship to the body, and how the swing phase looks.”

The consequences of all those seemingly tiny components could add up to a big win — or a major breakdown. Simply put: “The worse your mechanics, the less efficient of a runner you are. Add fatigue to that and it’s just a downward spiral,” says Benadum. In other words, bye-bye PRs — or worse, hello injuries.

On the other hand, if you harness the power of good biomechanics, you’ll save energy — and get to the finish faster. Here’s how.

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Perfect Running Form in 4 Steps

How to Score Perfect Running Form: The Lean
GIFs: Jordan Shakeshaft / Life by Daily Burn

1. Posture

It’s time to lean in. According to Coach Blue, runners should adopt a forward lean — from the shoulder down to the ankle — of about two to three degrees. “The more forward lean that you have, generally speaking, the more you’re utilizing gravity to your benefit.” He explains: “If you look at a sprinter starting in the blocks, they’re utilizing a super-extreme forward lean. In the drive phase, they’re really just falling forward. Then, when they come up out of the drive phase, they’re still trying to maintain a good amount of forward lean.” And it’s intuitive: leaning into the direction you’re going (without overdoing it, of course) will help propel you forward.

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How to Score Perfect Running Form: Head Position

2. Head Position

Next up, skip the head games. While running, take note of where your head is at — quite literally. “You don’t want to look up too high, chin up in the air, which can hyperextend your lower back. If you do, you can’t properly engage your core to bring your knees up,” Benadum says. “You don’t want to look down either, because that will collapse the back. You want to have a nice level head, chin parallel with the ground, eyes looking to the horizon.” This will also keep your chest open, which promotes better posture and breathing — both essential to running success.

How to Score Perfect Running Form: Arm Swing

3. Arm Swing

Guilty of an especially…unique…arm swing? It’s not just you. “People are all over the place with this. If you look at five runners, you’re going to see five different arm swings,” Benadum says. While a little variation is OK, the key is eliminating any rotation in the upper body. “To create forward momentum, you can’t have any sort of twisting whatsoever in your running,” he explains. That said, because there’s so much movement happening from the waist down, you do need to counter it with your upper half.

To do that optimally, “drive your elbows back, keeping them bent at 90 degrees. The pendulum happens at the shoulder,” Benadum says. “Then I always say, buff your nails on your hip. (I kind of stole that one from Ryan Hall.) It just ensures that you’re getting your elbow back far enough. You’re passing your hip with your hand and then coming back through to the front.”

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How to Score Perfect Running Form: Foot Strike

4. Foot Strike

This isn’t so much about where on your foot you land, but rather, where your center of mass falls. Coach Blue explains, “If you’re optimally driving force and power down into the ground, you also want to have your foot landing right below your center of mass.” Over-striding or stepping your foot too far in front of you is a common mistake — and one that will cost you. “It’s like pumping the breaks,” Benadum says. “Essentially, when you land on the ground, there’s a waiting period where the body has to travel over the foot before you can take that foot back off the ground. That entire process is a breaking motion, and you’re actually impeding your forward momentum.”

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As for where on the foot you land, Benadum is reluctant to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution. But he does encourage athletes to self-assess. “Jump up and down, or run in place. You don’t even have to really think about it, the body just reacts.” If you take a peek at what’s happening at your feet, you’ll notice that the foot is a natural spring, he says. “We’re more athletic when we’re on our toes.” And while that isn’t a mandate to become a forefoot striker overnight, it’s a good reminder to think athleticism first. “It’s not about looking for that toe strike every time, it’s about making sure the foot is driving like a piston down into the ground,” Benadum says. The pay-off: more efficiency, more speed.

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