While some runners look like graceful gazelles no matter what pace they run or how fatigued they may be, most of us feel a lot less elegant when we’re training and racing.
Running posture, stride and overall form are areas that have received a lot of attention in recent years, and everyone seems to have an opinion about what technique is best.
But does form even matter?
Does our posture and stride impact the way we run?
Should we try to change our form to fit an idealized standard?
More importantly, are we at a greater risk of running-related injuries if we don’t have the proper form?
Let’s address some of these common questions.
Why Running Technique Matters
If you look at a variety of elite runners, you’ll see that there is no “ideal” running form that suits every person. Boston Marathon winner and Olympian Meb Keflezighi is widely considered to have virtually impeccable form, while woman’s marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe has a much more unorthodox style.
Even though there is no perfect form, it’s important to have a posture and stride that helps you run effectively and minimize injury.
Running is a repetitive sport that places a great deal of impact on your body. While running form is not directly linked to injury, some variations lead to greater stress on your tendons, ligaments and joints. If your body isn’t conditioned enough to handle this stress, you may face a greater risk of injury over time.
Sheila Klausner, a senior physical therapist at AdventHealth, warns against this extra stress. “Incorrect posture while running or improper form can lead to unnecessary strain and unanticipated stresses and load on tissue that wouldn’t normally be stressed.”
Aside from minimizing injury, finding efficiency through a posture and stride that works with your body will help you run farther and faster with more ease. While some of this improvement is a result of muscle memory that comes over years of training, changes in form may help expedite this process.
Perfect your Posture
While stride length and foot strike can be incredibly variable among runners, the concept of good posture is more universal. A forced, stiff upright posture isn’t ideal, but running tall, relaxed, and moving forward smoothly will help optimize your form.
Not only that, but proper posture will help avoid compensations. Klausner notes, “If something is too tight, then it won’t allow the body to move through its proper range of motion. A sedentary lifestyle can trigger compensations because of tighter muscles. Compensations can lead to injury.”
Here a few easy cues to keep in mind:
- Relax: Try to relax your shoulders and arms to allow your arms to swing forward and back easily and avoid clenching your hands into tight fists.
- Run tall: As fatigue creeps in, it’s easy for your form to deteriorate and you may become hunched. Focus on running tall, almost as if someone is pulling a string from the top of your head. Your body should have a slight forward lean that starts at your ankles and keeps your body in continuous alignment, rather than bending forward from your waist.
- Focus on forward motion: This may seem obvious – running is all about moving forward, right? But sometimes we waste energy by movement up and down or side to side, especially with our arm swing. Focus on a strong, forward arm swing, keeping them around waist height, without allowing your arms to crisscross the front of your body.
Strengthen Your Stride
Stride and footstrike vary greatly from one runner to the next. Unless you have struggled with chronic injuries, making dramatic changes to your stride can often create problems instead of fixing them. Technique is an important part of healthy, efficient running, but don’t let it overwhelm you.
As with posture, there are some cues to help improve the stride that is suitable for your personal running style. Use the tips below to gently optimize your form and your running will benefit.
- Run quiet. If you hear your feet slapping the pavement as you run, try to think about running more quietly. One mental cue is to pretend you are running on hot tiles to keep your feet moving lightly and quickly. Running quietly will help you increase your cadence, or the number of times your feet hit the ground over a given period of time.
- Don’t focus on foot strike. Instead, think about letting your feet land underneath your body. Don’t “reach” with your lower legs — try to keep your stride short and your feet underneath you (rather than out in front of you) as you run.
- Shorten your stride. When you focus on your feet landing underneath you, your stride will naturally shorten. This helps you avoid over-striding and the kind of aggressive heel striking that can place increased stress on your knees and other joints.
- Increase your cadence. As your stride shortens, your cadence will naturally increase. This means that you’ll be taking more steps per minute. You may have heard that 180 steps per minute is the “magic number” when it comes to running efficiency. Everyone varies slightly in their cadence, so try counting your steps over the course of a minute and see what your baseline cadence is. If it’s well below 180 try to work on increasing it gradually by 5% to 10%.
While the specific techniques described above can help you optimize your posture and stride, improving your overall strength will benefit these areas as well. Work on glute and hip strength first, since weakness and lack of mobility in these areas often leads to overstriding, hip instability, and many other common injuries.
Whether you are new or experienced runner, you’ll undoubtedly continue to strive for improvement. Improving posture and stride requires subtle tweaks, rather than a forced, massive overhaul of how you run.
Make a habit of including some strength work in your weekly routine and use the cues above to fine-tune your running and help you feel more fluid and efficient when training and racing.
All of these tips can help prevent injury, improve your performance and keep you on your path to whole health.
If you need help along the way, turn to our physical therapy experts at AdventHealth Sports Med and Rehab, where our expert physical therapists can help you improve your form or help you recover from an accident or injury.