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Four exercises to improve your run mechanics

  • By Mario Fraioli
  • Published January 11, 2016

Form Fix 1: Run Tall. Illustration: Shawn O’Keefe

Form Fix 2: Shorten Your Stride, Increase Your Cadence. Illustration: Shawn O’Keefe

Form Fix 3: Start Doing Plyometrics. Illustration: Shawn O’Keefe

Form Fix 4: Practice Sprinting. Illustration: Shawn O’Keefe

More speed. Better efficiency. Fewer injuries. These are the three biggest reasons why runners should try to improve their running form. But how do you know which changes are right for you?

Fundamentally, a runner’s stride is a complex mix of two different energy sources: metabolic, energy produced by the muscles; and elastic energy produced by tendons and other connective tissue that stretch and recoil like a series of springs to propel you forward. A runner’s fitness level will limit the amount of energy the muscles can produce, while the functional strength of the soft tissue will dictate the most efficient way for a person to run.

“The more you utilise that elastic energy, the better you become at hitting the ground and absorbing those impact forces,” explains elite-level coach Steve Magness, author of “The Science of Running” and head cross country coach at the University of Houston. “The problem for novice runners is that their tendon strength tends to be very low, so they’re not really storing or utilising much of that elastic energy. They can make huge gains by doing things like plyometrics and practicing sprints.”

Good running form, then, is more a byproduct of continually improving your fitness level and functional strength than it is a conscious effort to employ a certain footstrike or adopt a one-size-fits-all style of running, such as Chi or Pose running techniques.

“New runners need to spend the first two to three months during a new training program to allow the soft tissue to stiffen,” says exercise physiologist and elite coach Greg McMillan. “It’s an important adaptation. Even just a small improvement can lead to huge gains.”

Translation—you can improve your form without consciously trying to improve your form.

In addition to focusing on functional strength and doing the right type of workouts to improve fitness, recreational and sub-elite runners can make huge gains in efficiency and reduce the likelihood of injury by regularly doing basic form maintenance drills that encourage a shorter stride and increased cadence. At the elite level, these improvements are marginal at best, given an already high level of fitness and strength attained from years of training. “If you consistently do the right training, good form tends to take care of itself,” Magness says.

We’ve outlined a series of universal form fixes all runners can work on to run faster and more efficiently with less likelihood of injury.

Form Fix 1: Run Tall
Why do you do it?
Taking a top-down approach to running form and aligning the head, shoulders, torso, hips and legs promotes balance and allows your foot to land under your center of gravity—regardless of what part of your foot strikes the ground first. “Telling someone to run tall is like telling them to sit up straight,” McMillan says. “It stacks the posture properly and gives your mechanics the best opportunity to work correctly.”

How do you do it?
Simply giving yourself the cue to “run tall” while you’re running can help straighten out 90 to 95 percent of inefficiencies, McMillan says. However, incorporating drills such as straight-leg running after easy runs will encourage you to stay upright while getting more leg extension from behind and landing squarely underneath your body.

Straight-Leg Running
Keeping your legs straight and your ankles dorsiflexed, pointing upward, run forward landing on your mid-foot, but do not let your feet lift too high off the ground. Maintain a straight torso, and focus on executing a quick turnover and landing directly underneath your center of gravity. Perform two 50-meter reps as part of your warm-up routine before setting out for a run, progressing to four as you build coordination.

Form Fix 2: Shorten Your Stride, Increase Your Cadence
Why do you do it?
Making a conscious effort to shorten your stride and employ a quicker turnover encourages you to land lighter. This reduces the impact forces on your legs, regardless of how your feet strike the ground, and lessens the likelihood of injury.

How do you do it?
Butt kicks and high knees are two effective drills that encourage a shorter stride and quicker cadence. Perform these drills two to three times a week following easy runs as part of your warm-up for faster workouts.

Butt Kicks
Using short strides—almost as if you were running in place—lift your knees slightly and try to bring your heel directly under your butt—not behind—with each stride. Alternate legs rapidly, focusing on executing a quick turnover. Perform two 15-meter reps, progressing to 30-meter reps as your coordination improves.

High Knees
Running in place, lift your knees to waist level while landing lightly on your forefoot directly underneath you. Stay tall and don’t lean too far backward or forward. Perform one 15-second set, progressing to two to three sets with 15 seconds of rest in between as coordination improves.

Form Fix 3: Start Doing Plyometrics
Why do you do it?
Doing a series of explosive jumping exercises two to three times a week while you’re building up mileage helps to stiffen tendons and develops your body’s ability to make better use of energy return from the ground. This is an important component of not only running fast, but it also helps prevent your form from breaking down.“Plyos teach you how to efficiently navigate the ground without even thinking about it,” Magness says. “Your tendons learn to absorb and respond to force really quickly, which translates to more speed and improved mechanics.”

How do you do it?
Keep it simple. Jump rope for 5 to 10 minutes three times a week as part of your warm-up before running. Alternate between two-legged hops, one-legged hops and alternating feet. Keep your feet directly underneath your hips and focus on coming off the ground with quick feet (pretend you’re standing on hot coals), whether you’re landing on the balls of your feet or your heels.

Form Fix 4: Practice Sprinting
Why do you do it?
Sprinting short distances helps strengthen tendons and connective tissue while improving your basic speed and power. “It’s a misnomer that efficient equals fast,” Magness says. “Even the best runners will give up a small amount of efficiency to be powerful and cover ground quickly.”

How do you do it?
One to two times a week after an easy run, practice sprinting for 10 to 15 seconds at close to top speed. Repeat this sequence 8 to 10 times, with one to two minutes of recovery between reps. Performing short sprints on a moderately steep hill (6 to 8 percent grade) will help recruit more muscle fibres and accelerate gains in tendon strength and explosiveness. Remember to run tall and stay relaxed while running fast.

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