If you’ve ever watched a professional runner at work, their stride seems simple, light and effortless. But what makes these runners so skilled isn’t just natural ability; they have perfected their running technique to become models of human efficiency.
So what exactly constitutes good running form? We spoke with Denise Smith, running technique specialist and owner of Smith Physical Therapy & Running Academy in Crystal Lake, Ill., to learn more about the must-dos to move toward that elusive perfect running form.
From head to toe, efficient running technique requires a laundry list of instructions, which Smith admits is nearly impossible to process all at once. Instead of trying to remember dozens of tips during every second of your run, she recommends focusing on three areas of your body: shoulders, hips and feet.
Beginning at the top of your body, Smith recommends zeroing in on your shoulders, which should be loose and relaxed. Many runners will subconsciously hold their shoulders high near their ears, which tightens the upper back, chest and neck. According to Smith, loose shoulders can help unweight the entire body, allowing your stride to feel lighter and more efficient.
Think about rolling your shoulders down and back, which will automatically raise your chest and help relax your upper body. Correct shoulder posture will also help keep your head held high and your gaze at the road ahead of you, two other points of correct running form.
Studies have shown that many kinds of running injuries can be traced back to the hips, where a large portion of a runner’s motion is originated. Weak or misuse of the hips can lead to knee, shin, ankle and even back pain so it’s important to understand proper hip position.
Smith says you should keep your hips forward, holding them underneath your body instead of behind it. Doing so will help you keep your body in a straight line from your feet to your head, preventing a forward lean at the waist.
“Many people are weak or tight through the hips,” Smith says. “This causes runners to hold their hips back and lean forward from the waist, which can lead to lower back pain.”
Holding your hips forward also sets you up for correct footstrike placement, which plays a major part in your overall stride efficiency. Smith emphasizes the importance of landing underneath your body, instead of in front of it. When your foot lands too far in front of you, each step acts as a brake, slowing down your forward momentum.
Your running cadence—which is defined as the number of foot strikes per minute—is another area of focus for Smith. A quick cadence means that your legs are turning over quickly and your feet are spending less time on the ground.
“The quicker your feet are on and off the ground, the less chance you have of injury,” she says. “But increasing your cadence doesn’t necessarily mean you have to increase your pace.”
To improve your cadence, try running to a metronome or—if you need music when you run—an app that plays songs with beats that match your cadence goal.
Do You Have Poor Form?
So what should you look for as a sign of poor running technique? Smith says the number one thing her clients complain of is pain. If you have recurring pain that intensifies during or after running, your form could be to blame.
She also recommends checking your shoes for signs of uneven wear, such as on the lateral side or at the heel. And if you’re experiencing early fatigue or muscle cramping, it could be time for a form evaluation.
Inefficiencies in the way you run could have serious negative effects on your ability to improve and, more importantly, could lead to a number of serious injuries in the long term. To learn more about your form and correct any problems, Smith recommends having a video gait analysis or working with a running technique specialist in your area.
Erica is a runner, gym rat and outdoor buff based in Austin, Texas. She is a lifelong athlete, having participated in a number of sports from her youth years well into her adult life. Erica has a passion for creating and sharing information, motivation and inspiration to help athletes-in-training across the world. She previously worked as the Running Editor at ACTIVE.com (find her articles here), where she connected with runners of all levels to help them reach their running and fitness goals. You can follow Erica on Twitter or Instagram.
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