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The Five Most Common Run Form Mistakes

  • By Brandon Laan
  • Published March 15, 2012
  • Updated February 7, 2014 at 8:48 am

Just like swimming, running is a technique sport. Of course, the impact of bad technique might not be so immediately obvious, but it’s very spot the difference between a free-flowing fast runner and someone slogging away. Here are the most common form mistakes out there.

There is a lot of chatter surrounding proper running form in today’s running world, which makes it very difficult to discern which approach is appropriate or suitable for you. To make matters worse, we have witnessed the likes of Paula Radcliffe set world records with what looks like a hiccup in her stride and more recently, watched Meb Keflezighi win the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials while displaying what some would argue is impeccable form.

There are several top athletes and coaches doing their part to share proper running mechanics with the running masses. Elite runner Marilyn Arsenault of Victoria, Canada hosts a revolutionary clinic called Mindful Strides. These clinics are aimed not only at helping people run fast, but more importantly to enjoy the sport of running while avoiding injury.

The Mindful Strides’ clinics focus on four key components of good running form: Posture, Alignment, Pelvis Stability, and Hip Strength. Arsenault implements running drills that “imprint proper and efficient biomechanics through the entire gait cycle”. In the following pages we’ll identify six of the most common mistakes made in regard to running form and offer advice on how to address these flaws.

1. Slow Cadence
Running speed is a result of stride length multiplied by stride frequency. That said, many runners will first attempt to increase stride length, which in turn reduces their stride frequency, which, under optimal conditions should be around 180 foot strikes per minute. The easiest way to count stride frequency is to count your steps for 15 seconds and multiply by 4. If you count 40 steps in 15 seconds of running–meaning your are currently taking 160 foot strikes per minute–gradually make the jump to 180 foot strikes per minute by focusing on increasing your turnover.

Take a few minutes to listen to your feet hit the pavement when you run. The more time your feet spend on the ground, the more energy is required to propel it forward. Focus on increasing your cadence, and in turn, your efficiency.

2. Heel Striking
Slow cadence often goes hand-in-hand with heel striking for many runners–or, as I like to think of it, your hips are behind your feet.

Imagine this: you cannot push off your foot when it is in front of your hips. Your hips must come over your feet in order to propel you forward.

Arsenault argues that “most people suffer from a poor sense of the relationship between timing of forward movement and foot contact on ground. This results in reaching the foot forward to land and pushing off too far from behind to propel.”

A lot of attention has been given to the barefoot and minimalist running movement. Arthur Lydiard, one of the most well respected coaches of our time, encouraged minimalist footwear decades ago. Why? To avoid heel striking. One of the advantages of running barefoot or in minimalist shoes is that it will hurt if you strike with your heel.

If someone asked you to sprint on pavement with little or nothing on your feet, you would likely run as you were intended to run. Try running on carpet, grass, or turf barefoot for short periods of time–20-seconds at first, working your way up to a minute or more, and let your body find its natural stride.

3. Lack Of Mobility
As mentioned earlier, stride frequency and stride length are the two components that determine running speed. Check out this video analyzing the stride of Chris Solinsky, the former American record-holder in the 10,000 meters, which shows how hip separation can help propel you forward, and consequently cover more ground.

Mobility trumps all else when it comes to running fast and staying healthy. If you lack complete range of motion anywhere in your lower body, you are going to be more susceptible to injury. A good way to increase running-specific mobility is through Active Isolated Stretching, a method made popular by stretching guru Phil Wharton. His techniques are focused on how to lengthen the muscles properly in order to prevent injury and improve performance.

Lastly, lets take a look at momentum, ideally of the forward variety. One of the best ways to establish forward momentum is to lean from the ankles. This forward lean will also help you avoid running vertical miles. Keep your head as level as possible, and avoid bouncing up and down as you propel yourself forward.

4. Unrelaxed Upper Body
One of the most difficult things to teach a runner, beginner or experienced, is how to run fast AND relaxed. A good way to do this is by using the example of a world-class sprinter. If you slow the footage down, you will see how relaxed his or her jaw is, how effortlessly their knees drive up toward and through the hips, and how the shoulders are relaxed and hanging away from the ears.

Here are a few tips to ensure that your upper body is relaxed and you are carrying your arms properly.

* Keep the angle of your elbows at 90 degrees, and be sure not to release that angle in the back swing, as it will only waste precious energy.

* Raise your shoulders to your ears at each mile marker during a race, and then drop them back down into their ideal, relaxed position.

* Perform the “Hands on Head” drill. Start by interlocking your hands on your head. Focus on keeping your core solid and straight while keeping the hips and shoulders level and relaxed. Start jogging. This drill will help you to eliminate any left to right movement through the hips and help eliminate a criss-crossing, side-to-side arm carriage.

5. Not Running Fast
University of Colorado cross country and track coach Mark Wetmore, who said: “Distance doesn’t kill speed, not doing speed kills speed.”

So what’s the easiest and most effective way to work on your speed? Start by performing a few strides after your easy runs, or add a session of weekly hill sprints into your schedule. It’s hard to run fast, especially uphill, with inefficient form. From there, start sprinkling some small doses of speedwork into your training schedule, which will help fine-tune your form, while improving speed and efficiency.

Tim Bailey, a sub-4-minute miler from Great Britain, once said it shocked him that people never learn how to run despite most sports having a foundation that is primarily running-based. Arsenault also mentioned that the biggest mistake people make is “not taking lessons to learn or improve running technique.”

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