In part 1, we discussed the importance of having the proper shoe type for your specific
combination of muscle tightness, joint mobility, joint stability, and coordination. In part 2, we discussed the importance of having a training plan. Motivation and desire is
not enough to get you to your running goals pain-free.
The third major necessity of running is having proper running form. The difference in a new and a professional runner is the ability to efficiently perform the action of running. There are many schools of thought who claim they have the best form of running: CHI, barefoot, etc. How do I know what is the best and where do I start? We sat down with Sandi Nypaver of Sage Running to talk about the basics of proper form.
Why is form important in runners? Do you feel like athletes ever underestimate the importance of form?
I’ve heard some people say don’t worry about form at all. The thinking behind that is that your body will naturally figure the best way to run on its own. Unfortunately, in an age where most people are sitting at work for most of the day, I don’t think that works a lot of the time. Moreover, we know from running biomechanical studies that the shoes we wear can greatly impact our gaits for better or worse. While I don’t promote barefoot running at all times since most of us run on artificial surfaces or rocky and steep trails if you’re a trail runner in Boulder, it’s also important to note that shoes do get in the way of some sensory feedback from our feet.
The two main reasons form is important are: 1) to prevent injuries and 2) to help a runner run as efficiently as possible at any speed. To go further on the second reason, you don’t want to waste energy running inefficiently when you could be using that energy to run faster at the same effort. An example of this would be a runner not engaging her glutes when she runs. Often there is some wasted energy in a hip drop in addition to not taking advantage of the powerful muscles that make up our glutes.
What would you consider to be an ideal running form?
• Run tall. For most people, this mental que will automatically get them running much more efficiently from the head to the feet. Think about your head reaching towards the sky, your shoulders back but relaxed, and having a strong core.
• Slight lean from the ankles. Please don’t do it from the hips! I’ve seen people who think they are leaning from the ankles, but are actually leaning from the hips. I’d rather have someone focus on running tall than focusing too much on the forward lean.
• Regarding cadence, while I’ve heard arguments against this, I’d still say the best evidence shows that a cadence above 170-180 is best for many runners. Often in races around a 10k or below you’ll even see runners get between 190-200 steps per minute.
• Extend the hip. If you know your hips are tight or weak, it’s time to fix that! You can generate a lot more power if you can get a nice hip extension.
• Engage your core. For starters, I like to tell runners to make sure they’re belly breathing (again, helps with running tall) and to make sure that they feel their glutes engaging just a little bit. The added bonus of belly breathing is that you take in more oxygen that way than chest breathing, so you’ll feel better in the long run.
• Land midfoot to forefoot (see more in the next question) and with your foot underneath your center of gravity.
Secondary ideas to think about is your arm swing, the relationship between the arms and legs, vertical oscillation (how much you go up), pelvic rotation, etc.-but that can get overwhelming and cause more harm than good. Get the first few things down until it’s second nature, then move on.
I want to touch on something that’s not talked about enough. Yes, there are some things people can do to improve their running form right away, but for some form issues you have to get to the root of the issue before you can change your form. When this doesn’t happen, problems can arise because you’re asking your body to do something before it is ready to. Recently I coached someone with an ongoing shoulder issue which was obviously affecting her lower body. By focusing on shoulder mobility, her lower body form naturally improved.
What are your thoughts on heel strike versus forefoot?
While there are tons of people that heel strike, some with success, studies have consistently shown that the fastest runners often have a midfoot to forefoot strike. This is most likely because heel striking results in a higher braking force and even reduced energy storage in tendons. (Think of your tendons like springs.) This does not mean your heel doesn’t touch the ground at all and you stay on the balls of your feet, as you want your achilles and calf to load up with energy that will then be used as you push off the ground. Most people do this naturally, so don’t overthink it! Also, I would never tell someone to go right from a heel strike to a forefoot strike as that’s a huge injury risk, but going from a heel strike to midfoot strike is normally reasonable and effective.
What are some common training errors you see in runners?
I see weak and tight hips all of the time. With beginners, there’s an insufficient amount of leg extension, and then instead of the knee naturally coming up, the knee barely rises and the lower leg even kind of kicks out. If you were to look at a picture, the person’s legs would make an upside down “V” when the back leg is extended. Or I sometimes even see someone’s leg swing to the side to get the leg forward because the hip flexor isn’t being used. This is why I think a little hip/core work (hips, glutes, hamstrings, etc.) twice a week can go a long way for most runners. It’s also easy for many runners, even advanced runners, to become too quad dominant, not activating their glutes at all. These are commonalities, and can differ with everyone. I always advocate filming yourself run or even getting a professional gait analysis.
What are some indicators that you need to work on form?
As you mentioned previously, unbalanced wear of shoes is one place to start. Then there are the pains that countless runners get every year such as IT band syndrome, runner’s knee, shin splints, etc.. Typically, there is a form issue or muscle weakness going on in those cases. Runners might also notice their knees rubbing while they run or that their feet make a loud sound every time they hit the ground. I don’t expect anyone’s feet to be completely silent when they land, but you don’t want to be running on a treadmill and have the whole gym hear you pounding away (though that’s still better than not even trying to run!).
However, I think it’s important to realize that not every little issue that comes up is a form
issue. Sometimes things come up from muscle tightness, a mobility issue, overtraining, not
enough rest, past injuries, running on the side of a rode which is normally at a slope, etc.
How often should the runner be ‘working on form’?
Personally, I think about form every single time I go for a run and I would encourage anyone to do the same. I know I’m not alone on this as I heard local Olympian Jenny Simpson say that she also focuses on form constantly each time she runs. (I suggest looking up a video of her running as her form is stunning.) I also drill it into my athletes’ heads to think about form whenever they’re tired, like during the second half of a long run or a race. Running studies have even shown that this will improve a runner’s pace as muscles begin to fatigue. With that said, I do discourage over-thinking it! It’s not worth taking some of the joy out of the run or I’ve even seen athletes over correct an issue that of course led to another issue.
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Also, check out some of Sage and Sandi’s strengthening exercises for runners at:
From a biomechanical perspective, we know there are a certain number of degrees that
each joint must move to achieve the motion of running. We also know that if a joint moves too much (lack of stability) or too little (lack of mobility) the body is smart enough to compensate to still achieve that motion. Ultimately, the compensation allows you to perform the motion over a short time period, but it is not sustainable. Compensating demands more of an area than it is anatomically and biomechanically designed for - THIS LEADS TO INJURY! Plantar fasciitis, shin splints, IT band pain, knee pain, and hip pain can all form due to compensation.
At Boulder Sports Chiropractic, we use selective functional movement screens (SFMA) to biomechanically evaluate your movement, allowing us to address the root of your problem, rather than treating the symptoms. We use the best techniques to address your source of pain and dysfunction including Active Release Technique, Graston, Trigger Point Dry Needling, and exercise therapy. Contact us today to schedule your appointment.