Home > Running Form > Your Running Form–Helping or Hurting?

Your Running Form–Helping or Hurting?

Disclaimer: The information presented on this site is based upon my opinions and experiences and should not be used as medical, personal, training, or professional advice or recommendations.

I’ve been running for many years, 34 to be exact, and competing for 30 years.  Over that time I have seen many many people with off the wall running form.  I’m not sure how they developed it, or if they are even aware that they are not running with a form that is at all similar to most others.  I want to help these people, but how do you approach someone with that?  “Hey!  Dude, what are you doing with your arms?  Trying to fly?”  I don’t think so.  I’m sure most people would welcome the advice, but who knows.  I wanted to put this post up to help those who seek it, and maybe those who don’t.

When I think of perfect form, or the perfect stride I think of the elite athletes, specifically the Kenyan distance runners who have dominated for so many years.  Very few people ever achieve that level of fitness and efficiency, but if you use that as the goal, it gives us something to strive towards.

ARMS

One of the most common yet easy fixes is how people carry their arms.  Your arms should be bent at a 90 degree angle.  Not 180 and not 45.  I see people that have their arms so bent and held so close to their chest they look like they are giving themselves uppercuts to the jaw.  Then I see others running almost straight-armed.

Here is the ideal.  Arms bent at the elbow with a 90 degree angle (like the letter “L”), swing the arms from the shoulder, the elbow shouldn’t bend much.  The hands should be positioned to just graze the hip bones.  The swing of the arms should come across the body slightly but never cross the imaginary centerline of you belly button.

Note: (If you are sprinting to the finish or racing a 400 meter or below your arms will swing more front to back, with no crossing in front of the body)

HANDS

Imagine you are holding an egg in each hand, if you squeeze too hard, it will break.  If you open your hands it will break.  Keep the egg safe and you will stay relaxed.  If you run with clenched fists, that tightness will go to your arms, shoulders and neck and mess your form up.

EYES

Eyes? Yes eyes.  Where you look is important because your body follows your eyes.   Look ahead at the road or trail in front of you, about 10-20 feet ahead.  Don’t look at your feet, this will cause you to hunch over and put more stress on your quads than is necessary.  Don’t look all around, left and right, this will pull your shoulders out of proper positioning.  This doesn’t mean you can’t EVER look around, but for the most part, if you need to look move your eyes, not your head.

FEET

How you land and push off is very important.  This is the main reason overuse injuries occur, improper form.  First let me tell you what you DONT want.  You don’t want to land on your heel and run heel-toe.  This is a sign of over-striding.  You also don’t want to run all the way on your toes.  This will tire you calves and probably give you shin splits over time.  The ideal is just forward from flat footed.  Landing on the balls of your feet but not on your toes.  Try to land on the mid-foot then roll through to the toes.

OTHER TIPS

Your posture is important, especially when you are tired late in a run or race.  Many runners, as they tire, start to bring their arms up to their chest, their shoulder slump, and the bend over at the waist.  This will make you tense and more tired.  At every mile mark or every ten minutes in training give yourself a “posture check”…

-back straight

-shoulders back, chest out

-arms relaxed, 90 degrees

-hands holding an egg

-mid foot landing

If you can maintain good form, I promise you, you will be passing runners who are in better shape with poor form.

Your cadence is also important.  Cadence is how many times your feet strike the ground per minute.  Elite runners have a cadence of 180, no matter their stride length or speed.  Check your cadence the next time you go out for a jog.  Count how many times your feet hit the ground in a minute.  If your cadence is low, try shortening your stride a bit.

DON’T BOUNCE, try to keep your head level.  If you are 5’9″ imagine you are running in a tunnel with a roof that is exactly 5’9” high, if you run with bounce you will hit your head.  Bouncing is wasted energy, you want to move forward, not up and down.  To focus on less bouncing run lightly, focus on quicker turnover, let your feet spend less time on the ground.  More bouncing means more impact and that can lead to shin splints and stress fractures.

To obtain the “perfect” stride and form takes practice.  You can easily correct many flaws just by focusing on them while you run, but to really master the stride and form takes practice and drills.  It has to be committed to muscle memory or it won’t happen on race day.  Some form flaws are due to muscle imbalance or weakness, so the form correction may require some strength training and/or flexibility work.  Add a comment or email me if you have a specific question about your form.

For a great chapter on running form and stride check out Matt Fitzgerald’s book Brain Training for Runners

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  1. July 6, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Although I agree with much of what you write, I find fault with “First let me tell you what you DONT want. You don’t want to land on your heel and run heel-toe. This is a sign of over-striding.” One can land on one’s heel without overstriding, and many an elite athlete does so. Take a look at the guys in this picture, who are running XC and presumably going at a good clip.

    Studies of elite runners show a wide variety of footstrikes. There are bunches of articles, including one from Science of Sport. On the other hand, more and more shoe companies are coming out with shoes with slight heel-to-toe drops, such as Saucony and its Kinvara as well as all of the Newtons. I personally am a heelstriker, and presumably have long been one.

    The two best workouts to work on form, in addition to drills, are hills and Repeats as defined by Jack Daniels. Doing form work is essentially to all race distances, from the track to the marathon.

    Now I have to keep reminding myself to hold the egg and keep my head up.

    • July 7, 2010 at 11:42 am

      Joe, the guys in that picture are me and some competitors!! It sure looks like I’m about to land full force on my heel…maybe that’s why I suffered through several stress fractures through college, or at least part of the reason.

      “Landing on the heel bypasses the use of the elastic soft tissues in the plantar fascia, calf, and Achilles Tendon that were designed to handle landing. Although there was some disagreement in the articles I read on whether landing should be on the midfoot or ball of the foot, they all agreed that landing should NOT be on the
      heel of the foot. The heel should only be used for balance. Sprinters mainly use the balls of their feet when running, but endurance runners should use their midfoot for landing.” — Over40runner.com

      However, I do agree many people land on their heel, and there are different levels of how hard you are coming down on the heel. If you are slamming down on the heel like a brake or if it just happens to be the first part of you foot that hits and you quickly roll through to the mid and forefoot. Check your shoe sole wear pattern to see how uneven the wear is in the heel portion to discover which category you fall into.

      I wish you luck in the running life. As for your running form, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. July 7, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    Thanks. I think in the end if one doesn’t have problems, don’t change. I just hate seeing people express as a “fact” that heelstriking is BAD. It is not necessarily overstriding and not necessarily braking, which would be bad. It uses different muscles than does mid-foot striking, but if it is more efficient for a particular runner and causes no major injuries, I don’t think change is appropriate. (Here’s a post I did (one of many).

    For the record, I am a heelstriker and presumably have been one for the last 39 years. My shoes don’t particularly wear in the heel, and I ran a 2:48 when I was 50. I don’t think I’m a heelstriker, but the photos prove otherwise. I have periods of injury, but none of significance in the last 4 years.

    From Science of Sport (as part of a series):

    However, if you can gradually change your landing, then I do believe that you can shift your footstrike. But it’s a gradual process. And more important, what is the point? There is no evidence that heel-strikers are injured more, no evidence that mid-foot runners are faster and perform better than heel-strikers, and so the ultimate question is:

    Why would you want to change your foot landing to begin with? Science has little to offer you in support of this. And so my advice, having read this far (well done!), is to forget about the possibility that you’re landing “wrongly”, and just let your feet land where, and how they land, and worry about all the other things you can when you run!

    If there is one thing you change in your running, don’t focus on your footstrike, but rather on WHERE your feet land relative to your body. Because if you are over-reaching and throwing your foot out in front of you, that’s a problem, but what happens when the rubber meets the road is less relevant!

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