Running without proper running form is like shooting a basketball underhand.
Or playing hockey only skating backwards.
And sure, you could play the sport like that…but you’d get injured. And not have fun. And look fairly silly.
Running is the same thing.
Every runner, from beginner to elite, should focus on proper running form.
Running form tips range from very technical to very basic, and today, I’ll go through most of the basics of proper running form.
Why? So you can evaluate your own form and make improvements so you can CRUSH your running goals this year!
Running Form Terms, Defined
Before diving into the specific running form tips, let’s take a look at some common terms I’ll use, and define them (as it relates to running form), so we’re all on the same page.
- Posture – The position in which you hold your body (specifically your core in this case)
- Alignment – Runners’ bodies should be aligned from head to foot in a vertical line (more on this later)
- Foot Strike – Where your foot hits the ground
- Arm Swing – Kind of self-explanatory (how your arms swing while in running motion) but we’ll dive in more later
- Cadence – The total number of steps taken per minute
- Also referred to as Stride Turnover or Leg Turnover
Some more advanced terminology we’ll cover later in the post:
- Braking Force – Force against the forward motion of your running body, often from landing in front of your center of gravity (heel striking, etc)
- Pelvic Drop – When your hip drops too much while the other leg is supporting all your weight during the stance phase
- Rotation – Think of this as another way of saying “twisting”
- Bounce – When your body goes up and down each step (instead of maintaining a forward motion only)
When I first started running, it took a while to learn and remember all of these terms.
So don’t worry if you don’t know them (just save this post for future reference).
Now that we’ve defined the majority of the running form terms I’ll use in this post, let’s move onto the basics of proper running form.
5 Basic Principles of Proper Running Form
Again, these principles apply to everyone, beginners to elite runners.
Following these 5 running form tips will reduce injury likelihood, increase running efficiency and overall make running more fun.
1.) Correct Posture
Posture, or how you hold your body, should be aligned from the head through the hips and down to the foot that’s striking the ground, with a slight forward lean in your upper body.
Keep you head still and don’t bounce up and down.
Also, try to relax and don’t get tensed up. Shoulders dropped and relaxed.
Tense muscles throw off your running form (and take the fun out of running) and that’s not a good thing.
2.) Straight Core Alignment
Hold your shoulders back (no hunched shoulders!), core engaged, and back fairly straight.
Head should be facing forward (not down).
3.) Center Foot Strike
This one was completely unfamiliar to me when I started running.
In fact, I apparently naturally tend towards striking my heel (the incorrect way), which has caused knee and hamstring injuries for me in the past.
Don’t be like (old) me!
Instead, focus on striking your foot directly underneath your body (not in front of it, or in back of it). This lands your foot under your center of gravity and allows you to naturally maintain forward momentum instead of adding a “braking force” (defined above).
Image credit: Runizmal.blogspot.com/2015/08/running-foot-strike.html
Keep your knees up, but forward and don’t over-stride…keep your stride small-medium. This may take some practice…see #4 for why.
4.) Leg Turnover Rate of 180 (or so)
Also known as cadence, leg turnover rate refers to how many steps are taken per minute.
Every body is a little different, but the general rule of thumb is to aim for about 180 steps per minute or so.
Well, the experts say 180 is the most efficient amount of steps per minute, and it reduces impact force the most.
The main benefit of a higher cadence is that it prevents overstriding, or making initial ground contact well in front of your center of gravity. Overstriding is often done with a very dorsi flexed ankle and a straightened leg.
Through this decrease in overstriding, a higher cadence reduces energy absorbed by the knee and hip. Step length, up and down body movement, braking, and peak knee flexion angle all decreased with an increased step rate.
How to improve
The first step is to determine what your cadence actually is. Once in a while during a training run, count how many times your right foot hits the ground in a minute, and double that. If you do find your cadence is a bit low, gradual changes over a longer period of time are the best. Try experimenting and find out what a cadence of only 5-10 more steps per minute feels like, and practice this. Over time, you’ll end up doing it automatically.
There are also tools that can be used, such as smart phone applications that match music beat to cadence. A couple neat ones are JogTunes and Cruise Control. A good old fashioned metronome can also be set at a cadence and followed along with.
Why is this important
Increasing your cadence is possibly the easiest way to instantly speed up. This can be during a tempo or long run when you are feeling fatigued or during the final quarter mile of a 5k. Instead of thinking “speed up”, just think about increasing your cadence. Haile Gebrselassie has been seen increasing his cadence to as high as 240 steps per minute at the end of a 10k!
And like we mentioned above, a higher cadence is a great way to decrease overstriding and the negative consequences of this. On flat ground at your habitual speed, stepping less than 160 times per minute means you are probably overstriding.
While it will always come down to the individual, cadence is simply another weapon in your arsenal to become a faster and healthier runner!
5.) Proper Arm Swing
Ahhh the arms.
Seemingly the least important part of running…yet, so important still.
The arms set the pace.
“But, I thought the legs set my pace?”
Well, yes, your legs move you forward, but the arms play a huge role in setting your rhythm and stabilizing your body.
Proper arm swing motion increases running efficiency too!
So keep your arms at a 90 degree angle, and pump them forward and backwards, NOT left to right across your body. That’s call rotation and we don’t want that.
- Keep your arms at a 90-degree angle
To envision this, never let your hands drop below your waistline, or go above your shoulders. Think of your arms as a pendulum, moving smoothly back and forth, tucked closely to your body so the elbows aren’t opening out wide, or collapsing in. This will allow your hips to rotate fully so you are in fluid motion.
- Resist the urge to lift your shoulders
If your shoulders, neck, or upper back get sore when you run, it’s because your shoulders are moving up and down with every arm swing. To see what it feels like to run with no shoulder movement, stand up and put your right hand on your left shoulder. Swing your left arm back and forth, putting your mental focus on the point of your elbow. Switch sides. You may need to practice this a few times before the swing starts to feel natural, but you’ll remove the tightness and feel more relaxed as you run.
- Run with loose hands
Some runners clench their fists, which causes unnecessary muscle tension. Your fingers should be curled inward, as if you were running with an egg in each hand that you don’t want to crush. Keep your thumbs on top and don’t stick them down into your fingers. Your thumb position will also be a reminder to run with your palms facing each other, instead of with your palms facing down.
- Push your elbows back
Make the emphasis of your arm swing a backward push instead of a frontward pull. You’ll see that when you push your elbow back, your arm will naturally come forward on its own. The one exception is when you’re running up hills. Because of the increased effort, you’ll want to focus on moving your arms forward. It will take some of the work off your legs as you find your legs will lift up more easily.
How to Evaluate Your Running Form
You may be thinking: “Crap, I don’t know what my running form looks like…how do I evaluate it?”
And that’s a great question!
There are 3 main ways to evaluate your running form:
- Have a Friend Watch You Run and/or Video You: If your friend is familiar with proper running form then they can relay their observations to you. If not, have them take a video (this works well at a track or a straight-away, or even on the treadmill although I personally find that my form is always a little weird on a treadmill anyway…)
- Take a Video of Yourself: Set your smart phone up nearby, and put it on video (make sure you have plenty of storage available). Then run by it, and go back to pause it. Set up a few different angles (from the front, from the back, from the side).
- Get Assessed by a Professional: Many marathoners get professionally evaluated to know exactly what muscle imbalances they need to work on, or what running form tweaks needs to be made, before training even starts. Running a half marathon or marathon, or trying to seriously increase your speed? Consider this option.
How to Improve Your Running Form
Once you evaluate your running form, you’ll know what aspects need improvement.
Important recommendation: Do not attempt to fix everything at once.
Instead, pick one thing at a time and focus on it for a while.
Some aspects of running form can be fixed without drills (like not hunching your shoulders, although there are posture drills available), while other aspects will drastically improve by practicing simple running form drills.
Running drills help train your brain and your muscles to know proper running mechanics.
Before going into the drills, here’s one more running form tip:
Make a plan for yourself.
If your running form has multiple things that need attention, create a plan (with running drills, etc) that will allow you to consistently work on it all over time.
If you’re already training for a race, add drills into your schedule so you don’t forget them!
Drills to Improve Running Form
Want some actionable running form tips?
Drills you can do to improve your running form and work towards the 5 principles discussed earlier?
I got you covered!
Here are 3 running form drills to practice, along with links to helpful videos that demonstrate the moves:
Drill 1: Knee Highs
Make sure to keep your knees and thighs perpendicular to the ground.
It will be tempting to lift the knees as high as they can go, but that is not the point of the drill.
Follow the drill as she does it, and you’re golden.
Drill 2: Butt Kicks
This video shows the most common butt kick drill, but there is another variation too.
You can literally kick your butt, or, as an alternative drill, only bring your foot up directly under you (and not literally kick your butt).
Drill 3: Straight Leg Bounds
This one will take some practice But it’s worth it!
Want more? See a few more in this short Running Form Drills video:
And, if you want to learn even more drills, here’s a great video of 7 Running Form Drills (drills from head to toe):