Running form and efficiency are directly related. Quite simply, poor running form results in wasted energy. The less energy that is wasted due to form flaws, the more can be spent in getting you to the finish line faster.
Yes, there are runners who are able to race well with idiosyncrasies, or even ‘horrible’ form but using such cases as an excuse to ignore your own glaring form issues is likely holding you back. Nearly everyone can make improvements, and progress is possible with just a small amount of work.
Take a Look
A good place to start is posture. “We’re looking for a one-degree body lean,” explains Jay Johnson. “But most people lean from the hips and then lean too far forward. That causes them to land in front of their center of mass and it causes breaking force. That increases the risk of foot, lower leg, and even hip injuries. So the first thing is to correct posture.”
Often it’s work done outside of training runs that will clean up an athlete’s form. “My philosophy on correcting flaws is simple: I incorporate strength training, hurdle mobility drills, core training, acceleration ladders, dynamic stretches and plyometrics within an athlete’s program,” says masters racer and coach Carla Morilla-Kehoe. “If I can strengthen the whole individual, large flaws may decrease and a stronger, fluid runner may emerge.”
1. Wayward Arms: Your arms should swing front-to-back, elbows bent at roughly 90 degrees, and shoulders relaxed. As your arms swing behind you, think of ‘picking your pockets’; hands should reach just before where a rear pocket would be. When your arms swing forward, they can take a variety of positions depending on how fast you’re running. “For sprinting, hands come up near eye level. Then there are all of the positions in between,” says Johnson. Outside of consciously thinking about your arms while running, a strength routine in the gym can help. One exercise you can do to work on your arm swing, Johnson says, is to “work on arms with hand weights, focusing on keeping the elbows in. You can play with weight. Twenty seconds of slow with heavier weight, rest 30-seconds, then 20-seconds as fast as you can with a lighter weight.”
2. Hunched Torso: Tiring runners with a weak core tend to hunch forward when they run. “You can’t maintain good posture in the late stages of a hard run or race if you’re weak,” explains Johnson. As the core collapses so does the ability to get a full breath. The arms and shoulders aren’t getting a full range of motion. In addition to doing a full-body strength and core routine, think, ‘Stand Tall’ when running. Practice visualization by imagining there’s a string attached to the top of your head and it’s drawing you up; keep your entire body tall and erect from the top of your head to the base of your spine.
3. Stride Rate: ‘Ideal’ stride rate may be slightly debated but aiming for 180 strides-per-minute has been widely recognized as optimal. When running, periodically check your stride rate and make adjustments depending on where you fall. Here is where running drills can really help: A-skips, B-skips, straight-leg runs, butt-kickers and high knees are all examples of drills that reinforce good mechanics and help you get your feet off the ground with explosive power. Check out this link for an explanation on how to perform these various drills.
4. Leg Cycle: Odd leg swing and foot strike habits during the stride cycle are indicative of muscle weaknesses or other imbalances. Consulting with an experienced running coach or physical therapist may be the best option for pinpointing what doesn’t look right and how to correct it. Pay close attention to foot strike, with excessive pronation or supination usually indicating a sign of weakness in the glutes and hamstrings, or tightness in the pelvic region. Making sure your foot is hitting the ground squarely every time it strikes the ground, along with a corrective strengthening exercise routine, can help to smooth out inefficiencies.
Gradually Make The Shift
The problem many runners can get into with any adjustments to training, form included, is making the shift too drastically. It is crucial to gradually make small changes in order to lessen injury risk. Pick one area of weakness at a time, such as arm swing, and focus only on that issue until you’ve made improvements.
Implementing exercises, drills, and consciously adjusting your form during running also needs to be done gradually. If arms are your problem area, make it your goal to really think about correct arm movements for the last half mile of your runs, but only that last half mile. Repeat that distance for a week and continue to increase a half mile each week. Follow the same protocol for addressing any of the aforementioned problem areas.
Make sure any adjustments to your form, or new exercises, are done correctly. As the runner it may be hard to see yourself; have an experienced coach watch you run and monitor your progress. Feedback is helpful. In your mind you’ll feel like you’re making a huge change when, in reality, you may only be dropping your shoulders a few centimeters.
You may not end up looking like Galen Rupp, but we can all certainly strive for a smooth stride.
About The Author: Caitlin Chock set the then National High School 5K Record (15:52.88) in 2004. Still an avid runner, she works as a freelance writer and artist.