Running Form

Quite a few years ago while I was running a 6-mile fun run, a runner came up behind me and commented that I had my own style. I didn't understand what he was saying, but his comment started me thinking about the form that runners use. I enjoy watching people run, because I see many styles of running. Some runners bounce up and down as they run. Some wobble sideways with each step. Some run with a lot of vertical movement of their bodies, while others shuffle and barely move their feet off the ground. Some runners let their arms hang down, and others keep their arms bent with their hands reaching out to the front. Some keep their upper body erect while they run, and other runners slouch. Some runners strike the ground with their heels while others strike with their mid foot or toes. Some runners run with a slapping sound made by their toes hitting the ground.

I realized recently that this site didn't discuss form, and I decided to write a page to help runners have better form. My problem in starting the page was that I wasn't a great example of good form. I do run with my own style, but I don't want to offer that style as good form. So, I asked the runners who hang out in the forum at to express their observations about form. In addition, I've visited several running sites and books to learn about running form. This page gives an overview of what I've observed as I run and what I've learned from the sites and books of others. The ideas I give in this page aren't new. They are the same comments about form that are given by other runners. It is helpful, however, to have different authors express the same ideas, because they probably express themselves differently, and some readers may favor one author while other readers may favor another author. My approach to running-form is to emphasize the form that conserves your energy and that reduces the stress on your body, thus helping you run injury-free.


Be Yourself

Changing your form can put a lot of stress on your body, and that stress can lead to injury. So, as a general statement, begin by being yourself. We're all different, and what works for one person may not work for another person. Begin by running the way that you've been running (assuming you aren't having injuries from your running), and then make changes one at a time to improve your form. Introduce the changes gradually so your body can adjust to the new form.


Keep Your Upper Body Straight

Many years ago I read a comment in Runner's World Magazine that if a runner leaned forward slightly while running, the runner would be able to go faster. The author did caution that leaning forward would put more stress on the legs. I tried leaning forward and my legs didn't get sore or injured, and I formed the habit of leaning forward when I run. As I've gotten older, my leaning forward has increased.

The problem with leaning forward is that it moves your center-of-gravity away from your feet, putting more stress on your body, because gravity puts a torque on your body rather than pulling your body straight down. So, to reduce the stress on your body, try to keep your body centered over your feet such that your center-of-gravity is over your feet. This leads us to the next point of good form.


Don't Over Stride

A common mistake in running is that some runners take large steps in an attempt to run faster. It is true that you will run faster if you take larger steps, but you will also increase the stress on your legs, especially your shins. In addition, taking larger steps increases the tendency for you to lean forward. Therefore, don't take bigger steps to run faster. Your body will automatically increase the size of your steps as you get stronger, and by letting your body manage the size of your steps, you're insured that your body is adjusting to the stress of increasing the size of your steps.

There are two ways one can run faster: taking larger steps or taking more steps per minute. We've discussed the disadvantage of forcing larger steps. Now, let's look at taking more steps per minute. World-class runners take about 180 steps per minute (stride rate). The first time that I measured my stride rate, I was surprised that I was taking close to 180 steps per minute. For some reason, that was the stride rate that my body favored. I'm slower than world-class runners because I take smaller steps. Are world-class runners over striding? No, because part of each stride is moving through the air with both feet off the ground, and when their foot strikes the ground, it is under the center-of-gravity of their body. This flying through the air gives them a larger step. They have learned to let their body control the size of their steps.

In the following picture, notice that the runner on the right is a heel striker and is overstriding. The runner appears to be stretching to get a wider step, thus expending energy to perform the stretching. In addition, the leg is positioned such that the knee takes the brunt of shock of the strike. In contrast, the runner in the middle appears to be a mid-foot striker, there is no obvious stretching, and the foot is positioned such that the whole leg takes the brunt of the strike. The legs of the middle runner are things of beauty, while the legs of the runner on the right look awkward and clumsy. 

Incorrect Movement of Your Hips

Moving your hips sideways may be OK for dancing, but it is not OK for running. Obviously, you have to have movement of your hips to move your legs. However, incorrect movement of your hips, will cause your body to rotate sideways, and this wastes energy and puts more stress on your hips. Incorrect hip movement is one of the main causes of knee pain. You want your hips to move in the direction you are going, thus moving your legs forward.


Shuffling vs. High Knee Lift

According to Jeff Galloway in his book Running Until You're 100, keeping your feet low to the ground is the most efficient stride to conserve energy. This makes sense since you're not lifting your feet very high off the ground. Remember that your goal in running is to move your body horizontally not vertically. If your goal is to run long distance, you might consider becoming a shuffler to increase your efficiency. However, if shuffling is not your natural way of running, don't force yourself to shuffle. If your goal is to be a faster runner, you'll probably find that you need to bend your knees. This will cause your knees to be higher,  and you will get more energy into your body. In the video below, about the Boston Marathon, notice the high knee lift of the runners. In addition, to run faster without overstriding, your body has to "fly" through the air such that your feet are under your body when they hit the ground. This can't happen very well if you shuffle.


Bend Your Knees

I used to lift my knees higher to get more energy into my running, but I found that this takes energy to lift my knees higher. I recently read that one should bend his or her knees and lower ones hips by slightly squatting. This bend in your knees will (a) prevent you from using a heel-strike, (b) help you run with a mid-strike or a fore-strike, and (c) cause your knees to go higher. Bending ones knees takes less energy than raising ones knees, and it helps improve your form in running. I've tried it, and it does work!


Don't Bounce as you Run

A lot of runners bounce up and down as they run. I've noticed this with runners who toe-strike, but it can occur with runners who mid-foot strike and heel strike. I've already discussed foot-strike in another page, so I won't go into that here. But, I will point out disadvantages of bouncing as you run.

If you bounce when you run, you are causing vertical movement of your body. Your goal as a runner is to move your body horizontally towards the finish of your run, and vertical movement is a waste of energy. In addition, bouncing puts more stress on your body because it increases the shock on your body when your foot hits the ground.

The following video is a slow motion clip of the lead runners at mile 13 of the 2008 Boston Marathon. The computer making the slow-motion clip superimposed a horizontal line through the hips of the runners. As the runners run, their hips don't vary much from that line. They are moving their arms and legs a lot, but their upper bodies are essentially stationary.


How about Your Arms?

While you're focusing on the form of your body, don't forget your arms. Keep your arms bent at 90 degree angles such that your forearm is approximately parallel with the ground. In addition, move your arms forward and backward (but not sideways), synchronized with your legs. For example, when my left foot moves forward, I move my right arm forward. If you find that your left arm wants to move forward with your left foot, that is OK; move your arms in the way that is natural to your body. The faster you run, the more movement of your arms will be needed to pump energy into your body. Relax the muscles in your arms by curling your fingers slightly but not clenching your fists tightly.


Don't Forget Your Head

I'm reminded of the old saying, "If my head wasn't fastened to my body, I'd forget it". While you run, try to keep your head centered over your body with your eyes focused about 50 feet (15 meters) in front of you, although if you run tangents, you will need to look further ahead to see the next curve. Keeping your head centered over your body and minimizing eye movement helps relax the muscles in your neck. However, if you're running on busy streets or are running in scenic places, you will want to be aware of your surroundings, and that requires that your head and eyes are moving to observe those around you. Occasionally shake your shoulders to relax your neck and shoulders


Don't Slap Your Feet

Clapping your hands is a great way to enjoy the rhythm of music, but slapping your toes against the road is not a great way to run. Learn to be a stealth runner who makes little noise while running. This means that you have to run with a light touch such that your feet don't hit the ground hard and don't stay on the ground very long. Be aware that some shoes cause a slapping sound and that you may hear that sound even if you have a light touch. Bending your knees, as discussed above, will help prevent your feet from slapping the ground.


In Summary

Relax while you run. Let your body run in its natural way, and then introduce changes, one at a time, to conserve energy and to reduce the stress on your body. There are three videos about form that I like. The first is from and describes proper running form. The second is from Jeff Galloway (see Training Videos link in left sidebar). The third is from youtube and reviews the basic points of good form.


Anonymous said...

This article will put orthopedic surgeons out of business! Good stuff here. I'm still young, but ask any "old" person what they want back from their youth, and healthy knees will be near the top of the list.

Ronald Gallegos said...

Any kind of sports can cause injury one way or another. The only way to prevent it is to know the basics. Basic movements allow yourself to be fully aware of what's going to happen. A good example is swimming. First you must know the basics like strokes, breathing, hand position, foot position and so on. This will help you get full control when you're going to swim on the pool, sea, river or pond.

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