Running gets a bad rap from most in the strength-training world. Trainers love to cite high injury rates and point to marathon runners as skinny fat in order to justify their lack of love for an essential human movement. But at some point you may need to run. It could be a marathon or just a 5k. It could be Spartan or Tough Mudder. It may even be a full Ironman. Or it may be for military or law enforcement recruit training. So it’s in your best interest to have some background knowledge on how to run.
Like most things in the fitness world running has also been affected by fads and marketing. While there is definitely some technical detail to running beyond “just run” it also isn’t rocket science.
I’m not sure perfect form exists in relation to running for most of us. With individual discrepancies in limb lengths, heights, and even body composition most of us will never move like an elite runner. Trying to shoe horn your body into someone else’s mechanics can be a fast path to injury. That being said there are some consistencies that hold true for all of us that can be worked on.
The Head. A neutral spine has a head position that is the same whether you are sitting, standing, or running. If your head is pushed forwards because you spend all day staring at a screen or slumped in a chair you’ll carry that same head position when you run. Because the head is so heavy it needs to be counter balanced somewhere else in the body. What happens is that to counter the weight of your head going forwards you tend to push your butt out behind you. This leads to a break at the hips so that you are never actually standing tall as well as heel striking.
With the head held in a neutral position you should be able to look at the ground at a point about three metres in front of you while simultaneously being able to scan for low branches.
The Shoulders. Good running involves little in the way of upper body rotation. In fact, the entire reason for moving your arms is to counter rotation to keep the upper body still. One of my pet peeves is people trying to run with what looks like military posture. If you try to run ramrod straight you won’t be able to use your arms effectively. The shoulders should round slightly, not enough to cause rounding of the upper back, but enough that the arms can swing freely.
The Back. While the back shouldn’t be held ramrod straight, as if you are a soldier standing at attention, it shouldn’t have excessive curve to it. An excessively curved back is a sign that some strengthening is needed to maintain posture while running. Without good posture you won’t be able to effectively counter all the forces created while running.
The Arms. The arms should hang in a relaxed manner from the shoulders. It’s all too common to see runners with their shoulders shrugged up near their ears and wonder why they unduly fatigue when running. The goal of running is relaxed economy and the arms play a big role in that. In distance running the arms swing from a point just outside the body to a point almost in the centre of your body, in line with the bottom of your sternum. As one of my triathlon coaches once said to me you should think of flicking your nipples as you run. As you speed up the arms will move in a straighter line so that they travel more parallel to the hip instead of this slight cross-body action.
The arm action itself is not one of pushing the arms forward, but pulling back and letting it relax on the way forward. It is the elbow drive backwards that pulls the opposite knee up and forward, so focus on elbow drive backwards, rather than on arm swing forwards.
The arms themselves will be held at about a ninety-degree angle at the elbow on the backswing. As the arm swings forward this will close. The main thing to remember is to stay tight and compact without wild swinging motions of the arms that waste energy.
The Hands. The hands should be loosely clenched as if holding a small stick in each hand. One well-known triathlon coach, Brett Sutton, even makes his athletes run with M&M containers in their hands to enforce this. They are easily spotted even years after moving on from him as they all run with imaginary M&M containers in their hands with thumbs suspended midair over where the top of the container would be.
The wrists should not be loose and floppy. Every time your wrist bends or the hand flops around you are wasting energy. Like with the back we don’t want joints held rigidly but there needs to be some firmness. Think of making the body like a young tree branch – springy and bendy, yet firm enough to give structure. If, on the other hand, we make the joints rigid and hard like an old branch, we become stiff and inflexible, unable to generate the kind of bounce needed to run well.
The Pelvis. Many people spend their days in what is called anterior pelvic tilt – that is with the pelvis rotated forward. While this may be your natural stance it is not ideal for running. This position is often due to overly tight hip flexors. This over tightness needs to be addressed otherwise the thigh is not free to extend backwards on each stride. For many people slightly rotating the pelvis forward will simply bring them back into neutral. A good test for this is that if you push your hips as far back behind you as you can (imagine Beyonce twerking to get this position) you’ll feel your abs are disengaged. If you begin to pull your hips towards your rib cage you’ll feel your abs start to engage. At the point where your abs are lightly activated you are now in a good position to run where the leg can swing freely underneath the body. The pelvis and the back must be working together to allow you to “run tall”.
The Legs and Feet. Before we discuss how the legs and feet operate we need to differentiate between “ground contact” and “landing”. Merely having your foot on the ground doesn’t equal having all your weight on it. Some great coaches have had the following to say about ground contact versus landing:
Toni Nett, a West German sports scientist, stated that all good runners, at all distances, land first with the outside edge of the foot. In faster races, such as the 800m, the foot lands high on the outer edge of the metatarsal arch – what can easily be thought of as the forefoot. Yet at greater distances such as 1500m or more the runner will contact somewhere between the heel and metatarsus, which we can think of as the outer, forward edge of the heel.
This landing should occur close to directly under the centre of mass. Many runners have a tendency to try to position the foot directly under them, and for slow running this will work, but as you get faster you’ll see the landing take place slightly in front of the body, but with the foot directly under the knee with a vertical, or near vertical shin angle. Dr. Manfred Scholich, another East German scientist, said that, “the landing should be as close to the centre of mass, i.e. as close to under the body in both the longitudinal (head to toe) and transverse (side to side) plane as possible”. This puts the runner in the best position to utilize the body’s elastic recoil system and avoid the braking effects that can accompany landing on an extended leg in a typical heel-striking stride.
To reiterate the point on the landing position, which many will claim is heresy having been told that the foot should always land under the body, Bill Bowerman said that “the point of contact should be directly under the knee”. You’ll note nothing there about the exact placement of the foot under the body, only that the foot should be under the knee. If you spend some time videoing yourself running you’ll note that the only way o run with the foot landing directly under the body is to run in a completely upright, high knee style that offers little in the way of propulsion and looks like you are trying to step over small hurdles while running.
There is lot of total BS written about footfall by people who don’t WTF they’re talking about. No, your forefoot shouldn’t be the only part of your foot landing if you’re running distance. That is a one-way ticket to tearing a calf in inexperienced runners. Developing calves strong enough to deal with landing forces takes some time. But regardless of that the whole foot touches down. The heel doesn’t touch first, as I wrote above, but it will touch with a light kiss. Rather than spend time trying to explain this just watch the video below showing one of the all time greats running in slow motion.
Percy Cerutty believed that running should be a free and uncomplicated movement. Work on relaxation before you worry about speed or distance – think easy, light, and smooth. We’ll get to fast eventually, but to start with let’s work on those three. One of the biggest benefits of running slowly is having the mental space to work on the dynamic relaxation required for running. If you can’t run relaxed and economically at 6min/ km you certainly won’t do it at 5min/ km or 4min/km.
Like with all training there needs to be a focus on quality of movement. I am lucky enough to have many friends who are very fast. One of the fastest, a 2.20 marathon runner, told me that he tries to make every step better than the one before it. That means no ipods – don’t let tune out from what the body is doing. If you need to be distracted from your running it is because you’re trying to run too fast or too far for your current level of fitness. Focus on getting all the points above right and breathing in a calm, relaxed fashion.
The final point is that many focus far too early on running fast with a focus on intervals and sprints. This is a huge mistake and is a large part of the reason for such high injury rates in runners. If someone is getting hurt running it is usually because they tried to run too fast or too far for their level of fitness. Start with easy and light before worrying about hard and fast.
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