Running Form

It seems like everyone is weighing in on running form. Some are writing books and becoming overnight experts at running form advising the world how we’ve been doing it all wrong all these years. Some even come up with new terms for their methods like “Pose”. Other people come to me to “fix” their running form because someone told them they looked stupid or something.

So, it’s my turn. Here is what I have to say about running form.
I will use a little logic, research and the power of observation as the basis of my comments.

Much as there are different swings in golf or baseball, different techniques in shooting free throws in basketball or different forms in bowling; there are different forms in running. We are not all created equal. If we were, we would all be Olympic runners if we just did the same workouts and “ran the same way”. Our bodies are put together differently (providing we have all the usual body parts). Our biomechanics – how all our body parts work together in movement – differ. Based on this alone there is no way to establish a single “best” running form. This exists only in theory and on drawing boards and for the rare person who biomechanically fits that form. Period.

Here are some things we know:

  • “Perfect” running form probably exists and can be drawn schematically or computer generated. There may be a handful of runners who possess “perfect” running form in the world. There are elements of “good” running form which create a more efficient runner.
  • Your form is a result of your bone structure and musculature. Bone structure for the most part is unchangeable. It can partly be changed or affected through orthotics. Your musculature is genetically determined and largely determined by development over your life through activity or non-activity. This can be modified through training. However, a misconception is that all muscles in the human body are located and attached exactly the same in each person. This is not true. Therefore, there can be limitations due to genetics much like with bone structure.
  • Fast runners have comparatively better form than slower runners… but not always. Less wasted motion leads to more efficient running which leads to faster running at all distances. The most dramatic comparison for you to make is one with an elite sprinter.
  • Beginning runners have poorer form than more experienced runners… but not always. As you get stronger, your form improves. If you do core strengthening exercises and work on weak muscle groups which do affect form (i.e. lower leg muscles if your feet point outward) then your form will improve.
  • Runners who run slowly all the time demonstrate poorer form.
  • Since I have been asked specifically on the Pose Method – this is for you. Independent research on the Pose Method indicates it may be easier on knees but much harsher on Achilles tendons (definitely not for me) and is less efficient than “conventional” forms. I would never recommend it for a serious runner… well, even a semi-serious… well… ok, I would never recommend it.
  • Even children are not “natural” runners. Just watch the huge variation in children as they run – from day one! There is no such thing as a single “natural” running form. It is beyond an absurdity to say “mimic running like children because it is so natural” like some articles and books have suggested.
  • As runners fatigue their form deteriorates – even at the Olympic level. Strides shorten and more excess (wasted) motion can be detected further into races. However, with elite runners they have also found that later in races leg-turnover increases (perhaps to compensate) and it has been shown that in the fastest race times (i.e. records) are negative splits, which means faster second halves are far more predominant. So, though form deteriorates, the runners run faster even though they are fatigued! This is a training issue you can affect.

Darwin could be at work here. Are better runners better (at least in part) because of their genetically more efficient biomechanics? If someone has poor biomechanics due to genetics can they overcome it by working harder than the genetically endowed? There is no definitive answer.

Paula Radcliffe and Don Janicki are a couple of my favorite elite marathoner examples. Watch Paula’s form. Though her leg action is extremely economical watch her arms. Anyone observing this would say there is excess movement and it is less than perfect running form. With that she is the world record holder in the marathon and no woman is close to her 2:15:25 in 2003 (By the way, no British male runner beat that time in 2003!). I used to train with Don in Tucson (on his easy runs!). He ran 2:11:39 and was ranked as high as #2 in the US in the 1980s. He runs so erect it’s like a poll is up his back. His stride is comparatively short and choppy. Their forms diverge from an idealized perfect form – their results cannot be debated. Most of us only wish we could run as well.

Of course we want to improve our efficiency to run faster or further or just not to get injured. Don’t ignore your form. If your running form is causing injuries then you need to change or you won’t be running long. This is different than effecting change in someone’s form, arbitrarily in the name of aiming for a “perfect” form. It is possible that running just isn’t for you if you are constantly injured! This sport is very hard on bodies! If it were easy… everyone would do it!

What no one can predict is what will happen if you do mimic the “perfect form”. You might get faster. You might get slower. You might get injured. You may simply lose the joy of being “yourself”. There are several research studies that show “form makeovers” result in less efficient runner. Less efficient means wasted energy to go at the same pace which means you end up slower.

The goal is to reduce as much excess motion as possible; move as easily and effortlessly as possible; keep your body moving forward with limited lateral movements; propel yourself forward more than upward with each stride – within the context of your uniqueness! Here is what you should do regularly as part of training:

  • Have a running-specific strength and form assessment done. (If you’re local, drop me a line. I can do this with you.)
  • Work core strength.
  • Remediate any weaknesses or discrepancies in muscle groups that may cause injuries.
  • Do running-specific drills, plyometrics and exercises to optimize your specific abilities as they relate to running. Use proper form during all drills.
  • Do hard hill repeats.
  • Do speed work.
  • Run more (within reason of course) and infuse runs with some high quality paces.

In the end we optimize who we are. We do not recreate ourselves in the likeness of someone else because it works for them. We must find the best “us” we can be. I have yet to hear a distance runner magically transformed into a great runner because their form changed. I have however heard a plethora of stories of how working hard at your sport has made someone great. Stop searching for a magic pill or the next form fad. Drop us a line if you want to know about running-specific strength workouts to optimize your running form.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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One Response to Running Form

  1. Pingback: Foot Contact Time II « The Running World According to Dean

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