The video revealed that I was a heel striker — which I now know is a big no-no in running form. Yes, there’s a right way to carry your body when you run, a.k.a. proper running form. Proper running form helps you run efficiently, so you can go faster with less effort and less likelihood of getting injured. Unfortunately, many new runners set out to accomplish big goals only to be sidelined by injuries likely caused by the way they run.
If your running form is less than perfect, there are some things you can do to identify your mistakes and fix them for optimum speed and lower likelihood of injury.
So, how do you know you have proper running form?
Proper running form means you are moving in the most energy efficient way possible. That means your head is over your shoulders, shoulders over hips, hips over mid-foot (not heel), arms are bent at 90-degrees swinging near your sides, and fingers are lightly placed together like you’re holding one potato chip between your index finger and thumb.
Patrick Gildea, director and head coach at Knoxville Distance Project, says you can run down a mental checklist to see if your form is correct. Ask yourself if you’re running tall with relaxed shoulders, chin down, eyes ahead and fingertips at your waist.
“These are simple cues that you can use to remind yourself during the difficult stages of a run or race to get you back on point,” explains Gildea.
Biggest mistakes beginning runners make
There are common form problems for novice beginners that you should definitely know about, according to Gildea.
- Mistake #1: Heel striking. Your feet shouldn’t lead heel-first in front of your hips, since this will require more effort to push off the ground. Instead, you want to land mid-foot.
- Mistake #2: Tip-toeing. Tip-toeing is when you land on your toes. This also makes it more difficult to push off the ground.
- Mistake #3: Over striding. The bigger the stride, the faster the runner, right? Nope. Trying to lengthen your stride unnaturally is a surefire way to getting injured. Aim for shorter, faster strides.
- Mistake #4: Slow cadence. You want your feet to hit the ground 180 times per minute (count your steps for 15 seconds, then multiply by 4). The slower your cadence, the longer your feet are on the ground, and the more energy it takes to lift them up.
- Mistake #5: Stiff upper body. It may sound contradictory to run strong yet loose, but that’s the goal. Ensure your shoulders are dropped away from your ears, and your arms are swinging freely by your side.
- Mistake #6: Crazy arms. Just be careful those arms aren’t swinging excessively. They should move in a smooth, controlled motion.
How to fix running form mistakes
While these mistakes can potentially cause an injury, trying to alter your form overnight isn’t the answer, says Bobby Holcombe, personal running coach and founder of Knoxville Endurance.
“Sometimes runners will watch videos of other runners or video themselves running, and then they want to change their stride,” says Holcombe. “Everyone has a different stride, foot strike, etc. They shouldn’t try to change them immediately.”
Holcombe explains that trying to alter your running form overnight is sure to get you hurt. Instead, focus on simple exercises that will help you gradually improve your posture and become a more efficient runner. He recommends beginning runners add these exercises to their routine:
Drills. Speed drills improve form by improving communication between your brain and legs to help you become more efficient. The most common drills for runners include high knees, side shuffle, A-Skip, butt-kicks, straight leg bounds, backward running, high-knee butt kick, and carioca. Do each for 20 meters two times a week after a warm-up.
Barefoot running. Running without shoes strengthens your feet and leg muscles and teaches your body to land mid-foot. Jog in place or on soft grass for a minute four times. Do this twice a week.
Strides.Two to three times a week end a run doing four strides of 80 to 100 meters. Strides are where you run progressively faster so that you’re at top speed (your mile pace) in the middle of the distance. Strides help your body mechanics by teaching it how to run fast.
Jump rope. Jumping rope strengthens the muscles needed to bound off the ground quickly — without the impact on your joints. Aim to do a set of 100 rotations twice a week (after an easy run) to see an improvement.
Core strength exercises. When you get tired, you slouch — and excess pressure is put on other parts of your body. A strong core prevents slouching. Aim to do planks, side planks, bridge and bicycles for 1 to 2 minutes 2 to 3 times a week.
Dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching is active movements like lunges and leg swings where joints and muscles go through a full range of motion. Aim to do them before a run.
After a month of doing these exercises, runners will likely begin to see and feel an improvement in their running form.
How empowering to know that we can change and be better runners without wearing ourselves out or getting hurt. Put simply — you don’t have to run harder to get faster, just smarter.
A version of this story was published September 2019.
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