Being a running newbie is an exciting time. As you learn how to master running, you will begin to find your stride whilst discovering your own strengths.
It’s important to realize as a beginner you are in a powerful position. You have the chance to get off on the right foot. What bad habits other runners have picked up along the way is none of your concern. Your main goal should be on adopting a healthy running form that feels right and will allow you to enjoy running safely.
We can’t underestimate the importance of listening to your body during this phase. The basics of a good running posture will prevent the coming running injuries you often hear about. Notice you feel tension in your shoulders or back? This is a sign you need to adjust your form.
Why the Correct Running Form is So Important
It’s important you start off with the right technique. Diving straight into the deep end with minimal knowledge and preparation may cause long-term damage due to the high-impact nature of running.
Certified running coach Nancy Howard lets us know there isn’t just one way to run. Everyone's different and will have different strengths/weaknesses. We really need to give ourselves time and be patient as we let our bodies adapt to running for longer periods of time.
Recent research has also revealed that 79% of runners experienced injuries in the past year alone. This comes down to several reasons from structural imbalances to progressing too quickly. However, another major factor of running injuries is due to incorrect running form. This article on Running Competitor lists some of the most common injuries experienced by runners and what running form flaws they are linked with.
Finding your own running style will come with time and is one of the exciting aspects of the activity. Only you will know if your current way of running is comfortable and efficient. Over time you will develop your own rhythm (also known as cadence which we’ll discuss later) and a posture which feels comfortable and relaxed.
Once you get the correct running form down you won’t only improve your performance and lower your risk of injuries but you’ll instant notice the difference.
The basics of good running form
Before we go into a detailed running guide, let’s just cover some basics. Just like when you’re sitting, standing, walking – your posture is an important part of maintaining a healthy physiology.
With your head held high and in the center of your shoulders, you want to ensure your back is erect. Be wary not to drop your head forward too much and vice versa as your neck will become fatigued. This could potentially lead to other issues starting in your shoulders, back and hamstrings. As you can see, one small thing can have a big impact on the health of your body which is why a good form is crucial.
A few other things you want to be sure of are:
- Where you look. Your gaze should be focused on roughly 30 yards in front. You want to avoid looking at the floor whilst you run as this puts pressure on your neck and spine. This may cause you fatigue at an earlier stage.
- Keeping relaxed at all times. Being relaxed in your posture and face especially can help everything to run smoothly. Focus on maintaining a relaxed jaw and neck. This is because many of us tend to hold tension in our face which leads to us tensing up in other areas too. If you find you work at a desk for most of the day, you will likely carry tension in you shoulders, arms and back.
Taking breaks for stretching will help keep you loser throughout the day and simple massage techniques can also help. Also choosing the right running route can help keep things stress-free. Surround yourself with relaxing sights, sounds and the smell of nature for the ultimate peaceful run.
- Shoulders are kept parallel to the ground. Be mindful that shoulders can pull together when you are tense. Keep them relaxed and hanging loose with a minor swing forwards. You may notice them rising after you have been running a while and start to tire. When you feel them come closer to your ears simply give your arms a good loose shake.
This is a brief snapshot of how to tidy your form up in just a glimpse. You’ll want to focus on spending time perfecting your entire form however. We will focus on the specific body parts and aspects of running in the next section. Starting with your arms and hands…
Proper running form: Arms & hands
Did you know that the arms dictate the movement of the legs? This means that runners must work on their arm muscles ensuring they are strong enough to maintain the pace. For example, if you want to speed up then focus on the swing on your arms and pick up the rhythm there first instead of lengthening your stride.
This YouTube video points out some great points for getting your arms working optimally for your run.
Your arms are your propeller which help move you forward powerfully and effortlessly during the running motion. The right placement of your arms and hands will contribute to a healthy overall posture and get you one step closer to becoming a brilliant runner.
Here are some ways you can improve your alignment and motion in this area:
- Ensure hands a cupped gently. Try imagining you are holding an egg and you’re cautious of squeezing it too tightly. In other words, you don’t want to clench your fists but instead keep the hands loose.
- Wrists loose. Another thing that will help the right hand position is keeping your wrists floppy and will also promote good shoulder position.
- Bend elbows at approximately 90 degrees and pointed away from your torso. Ensure your elbows don’t swing above or below the waistline or chest when you’re in motion. If they are too high you will tire quicker and notice shoulders become tenser.
- Don’t let arms cross body’s midline and remember to get your swing motion from the shoulders. This will enable you to build up a consistent pumping action for more power.
- Remember to speed up arm movement when you want to pick up the pace. When you put in special exertion up hills or when sprinting you want to make sure you’re not enforcing too much power.
Good running form: Breath
Did you know that breathing the right way can not only help you improve your running but it can also lessen the chance of injury.
Breaking away from the chest habit of breathing and moving into breathing from the diaphragm is tricky but well worth it. As marathon running coach Mindy Solkin states “Better breathing equals more oxygen for your muscles, and that equals more endurance.”
Budd Coates wrote ‘Running on Air: The Revolutionary Way to Run Better by Breathing Smarter’ and published a video which helps you identify your current breathing technique.
Strengthening your diaphragm, which accounts for 80% of the breath work whilst running, will really help strengthen your overall endurance. Run at a steadier speed for longer without becoming fatigued.
Bottom line- whether you breathe through your nose, mouth or body, you need to ensure that your breaths are steady, relaxed and deep. Another great benefit is that it prevents common side stitches that come with shallower chest breathing.
Here are some practical things you can do to enhance your breathing technique:
- Practice diaphragm breathing at home. In your own time when lying down flat on your back, place an object on your belly. Breath in and see the object rise and breathe out make sure it goes back down. It may seem tricky at first but you’ll get the hang of it with practice and find it easier to incorporate in runs.
- Work on your abdominal muscles to help support your breathing and strengthen your diaphragm.
- Exhale powerfully on every breath with your lips pursed. Always check your body to ensure its upright to give your lungs space to expand and deliver oxygen to your body.
Proper running form: perfecting your stride
There have been many myths where stride and cadence is concerned. You may have heard that all elite athletes run at 180 steps per minute. This is not true however and as a runner, you shouldn’t think you have to aim for that stride turnover in order to be strong.
You’re just starting out still and you want to make sure you’re not making common mistakes that often befall new starters. Many runners often over stride when begin by extending the dominant foot too far in front.
This causes your feet to strike over your center of gravity and create a breaking effect. You will often find runners with knee issues and shin splints have started running with an overstride.
- Try shorter but quicker strides. This will allow your hips to move fluidly whilst you also obtain better posture and slowly find increase speed.
- As your leg turnover quickens, you’ll also find your stride may lengthen. As you have started with the right form, you won’t be overcompensating in any way instead your rear leg will be propelling you forward.
- Watch out for a high knee lift as this can cause your quad muscles to become tense and tighten up.
Perfecting your running form: footstrike
Footstrike refers to how your feet hit the ground and is yet another element of running form where agreed best standards are debatable.
It’s comforting to know that certain studies have been carried out which delve into the positives and negatives of each style. This means we have been able to access sound information on how to perfect your footstrike.
To keep injuries minimal, you want to run with the least amount of musculoskeletal stress possible. As author of ‘Anatomy for Runners: Unlocking Your Athletic Potential for Health, Speed, and Injury Prevention’, Jay Dicharry states that it’s essential for “feet to land as close to your body for a given pace as possible”.
This image below from Runners Connect compares the various foostrikes so you can see them at a glimpse.
- Heelstrike: Also known as heel-to-toe, is used by what’s thought to be 75-90% of runners. Heelstrike is when runners land on the heel first then rolling to ball of the foot). Toes are pulled up and knees tend to be straight and the ground force drives you backwards. As you get stronger, you will likely adapt your footstrike naturally but this is the most natural way to start running.
It’s thought this way may increase injury risk as more pressure is put on your knees, shins and hamstrings. If you do run with this style, it’s important to ensure there’s a good heel cushioning system inbuilt to help reduce impact.
- Midfoot strike: this is when you essentially land in the middle of your foot. Your feet point straight ahead and toes are not pointing downwards contact with the ground the contact point is in front of the ankle joint so foots getting pushed up and shock will be absorbed properly by calves which takes pressure of shin and prevents splints. It also helps your knees to bend on impact and so it won’t be taking that powerful reaction force backwards. It really propels us forward too so we can run more efficiently.
This video helps demonstrate the difference between both mid and heel strikes.
- Forefoot strike: is when the out when you hit the ground on your toes and the midfoot and heel come down after. The issue with this technique is that if you are doing long distance running this will cause a lot of tension in the lower legs. So avoid running too far out on the balls of your feet. If you want to see this style in motion watch this video.
Top tip: no matter what footstrike you use, your main goal is to run comfortably, efficiently and minimize ground contact time. Always strike below your center of gravity (not too far in front) which is a sound way of harnessing a safe running form.
Perfecting your running form: hills
Keeping your form on tougher terrains can be tricky. That’s because uphill or downhill running requires different usage of muscle groups and different techniques. For example, when you run uphill you need more strength from your glutes, calves and hamstrings. Whereas when you run downhill, your quads get activated.
According to Runners World, hills can have a dramatic impact on the following:
- Stride speed
- Stride length
- Ground contact time
- Air time
It’s important to have adequate rest days during your hill training however. You only want to do hill runs once or twice a week when starting. However, hill training can be a great workout. Not only do you burn more calories, increases stamina, increasing endurance and speed and overall making you a better runner on flat surfaces.
Techniques for efficient and safe uphill running form:
- Go slow but maintain a strong attack. You don’t want sharp increases in effort but a steady pace with sustained power works best. Speed isn’t be all and end all for hill runs.
- Keep strides short and use a high knee drive off the hill. You want to land just in front of your dominant foot (your center of gravity).
- Use your arms to build speed. Pump your arms harder as this will give you the power you need to keep climbing.
- Keep your head looking 30 meters in front and keep an open chest.
- Using the ankle as a starting point, lean into the hill. Leaning from anywhere else in your body can potentially cause harm. So basically like the image below shows, you want to lean in without bending at the waist so keeping your body straight.
Techniques for efficient and safe downhill running form:
Downhill can in some aspects be harder and cause more potential damage than uphill, especially when it comes to the knees and quads. This is because gravity is pulling you downwards and your quads are doing all the work.
Plus, add your body weight on top of this and your muscles have a lot to contend with. Keeping things slow and ensuring you adopt the following tips for proper form is essential:
- Try to keep the same form you would when running on flat
- Avoid leaning back but try and maintain a minor slant forwards at the ankles.
- Use your arms for balance and to help you keep your tempo steady instead of utilizing them for speed and power.
- Your footstrike should be more midfoot and targeted towards the ball of your feet as you land as lightly as possible.
Using this guide when you start running will help you get an amazing start. This should be your bible as you refer to the pointers for good form and how to stick to it. Doing this will help build confidence in your running technique, enhance your ability and keep your joints healthy.