The road to proper running form is paved with scientific jargon: swing phase, stance time, loading rate, stretch reflex. What does it all mean? Well, sometimes, you don’t need a big ol’ chunk of science. You just want to pound the sidewalk and reap the benefits.
Proper running form: In short
Do away with all the complicated lingo — there are three easy tricks to get your running form back on track:
- Foot strike. Make sure your feet hit the ground directly beneath your hips.
- Posture. Run tall, with a straight back.
- Cadence. The accepted standard is 180 steps per minute, but find a cadence that feels comfortable for you. Bear in mind that increasing your cadence may bring down your chance of injury.
Avoid making running too complicated for yourself, and focus instead on keeping up your daily runs.
You’ve got this!
Instead of focusing on the overwhelming (not to mention boring) technicalities, we’ve rounded up these simple, actionable running tricks, as well as the reasons to work on your running form.
One study found that the wide range of gear, training methods, and inconsistent info may be factors behind the high occurrence of running injuries.
Cutting through the noise and getting comfortable with proper running form can dramatically cut your chance of overuse injuries.
Also, if you feel more comfortable while running, you’ll be more likely to keep up with your routine and reap the benefits of regular runs. You’ll likely enjoy it more and might see your performance improve, too.
The best part? You can do each of these things on your next jog. They’re super easy fixes.
Disclaimer: If it ain’t broke…
If you’ve been running for years and don’t have problems with injury or recurring aches and pains, you probably don’t need to alter how you run.
Experienced runners who make significant changes to their form often become less efficient. That’s right — their form actually gets worse.
What is your foot strike?
Your foot strike refers to the way your feet hit the floor with each stride.
What mistakes do runners make with their foot strike?
Many new runners tend to overstride by reaching out with their feet to take a longer stride.
This creates a heel-smashing, aggressive foot strike that’s a good idea to avoid. A heavy landing sends far too much impact shock through the leg. Overstriding also creates a braking action that actually slows you down on each step in addition to increasing the impact.
So, what’s the best approach to your foot strike?
The truth is that it doesn’t really matter where on your foot you land with each step. The findings from a research review suggested that landing on the back of your foot increases pressure on your knee and its surrounding joints. A front-foot strike, on the other hand, increases stress on your ankle and Achilles tendon.
There are enormously successful runners who are fore-, mid-, and heel-strikers. The most important aspect is actually where your foot lands compared to the rest of your body, rather than what part of your foot touches the ground first.
Ideally, your foot should make contact with the ground directly underneath your body, rather than way out in front of it. A helpful way to think about this is “putting your foot down underneath your hips.”
When there’s a straight line from your hips to where your foot lands, you’re not reaching or stretching the leg in front of your body.
How does switching up your foot strike help?
This change in form reduces the impact on your legs and reduces your chance of injury by creating a more fluid, efficient stride.
Your parents were right all those years ago: It’s best to stand up straight. This applies to running posture, too.
What counts as good running posture?
Slouching, or leaning from the waist, is a common problem for many runners who try too hard to perfect the “forward lean” they heard was part of proper running form. While a slight forward lean is part of good form, it should come from the ankles, not the waist.
The best part? You’ll naturally lean forward from the ankles without even trying. So, try not to consciously lean forward. Instead, try to focus on running tall with a straight, erect posture.
To help you remember, pretend a string is attached to the top of your head and an imaginary giant is pulling it upward. Creepy? Perhaps. But it’s an effective way to reinforce a tall, straight back with no slouching.
What is running cadence?
Cadence is the number of steps you take per minute with both feet.
So, what should your running cadence be?
The magic number for optimal cadence is thought to be 180 steps per minute, according to the legendary running coach, Jack Daniels. He observed at the 1984 Olympics that this was the average cadence of most elite runners.
But this isn’t a hard and fast number, just a general guideline. You may want to find a cadence that you’re comfortable with. A higher cadence might reduce your chance of injury, but it’s more about your enjoyment and the time you dedicate to leveling up.
Why is running cadence important?
With a shorter, faster stride, you’re “bounding” less and avoiding the stress of longer, more impactful strides. If you find yourself “bounding” in your stride, this can lead to greater vertical oscillation — meaning more ground impact force every time you come back down for the next step.
A small study found that increasing cadence by 7 percent reduced the impact force of an outdoor run. That jump is quite an increase, though, and it’d take some hard retraining to get to that point.
You’ll get hurt less often and may even run faster.
How to measure running cadence
The next time you go for an easy run:
- Count the number of times your foot lands in 1 minute.
- Double it to account for both feet and get your cadence.
Counting for a full minute might become tedious, or you might lose your thread due to distractions. In which case, count for 20 seconds and multiply by 3 or for 30 seconds and multiply by 2.
Do you really need to boost your cadence?
Well, it’s not 100 percent essential. It’s probably a good idea to boost your running cadence if you have a pretty regular history of injury or want to bump up your personal best for running speed.
Retraining your cadence might seem like hard work. But in a small study, a 12-week cadence retraining program saw a cadence boost of 5.7 percent. The study authors saw this as a potential way to reduce running injuries.
However, if it ain’t broke…
To recap, proper running form: Avoid overstriding, run tall, and up that cadence. And that’s it!
Most runners who seek coaching won’t need sophisticated form analyses in a running lab. Sure, those details can be fun, but typically, they’re not as helpful as easy-to-implement, sustainable tricks. Focus on these fundamentals and you’ll reap the rewards: fewer injuries, more enjoyable runs, and maybe even some new personal bests.
And doesn’t that make running a lot more fun? If you want to dive a little deeper into technical running lingo, we’ve got you covered on that, too.
Jason Fitzgerald is a USA Track & Field-certified coach at StrengthRunning.com and a 2:39 marathoner. To learn more about how you can prevent injuries, check out his free email course on how to run healthy.