If Allyson Felix’s incredible Olympics performance has you googling sprint workouts, same. But while getting *all* the inspo from the pro is encouraged, you’d be wise not to copy her running form—or anyone else’s for that matter. Here’s why.
Proper running form is totally personal. “It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to become a sprinter or a marathoner, you should not copy the techniques of [another] runner,” says Annick Lamar, New York Road Runners (NYRR) Coach and Runner Training and Education Lead. “Their running form is so unique to them, and it is not necessarily the best running form for you.”
You see, we all have “quirks” in our running form (think: a vigorous arm swing, bouncy stride, or head bob) and the ideal way to run is super individual. “Even if I have two runners about the same age, same running styles, and they both have knee pain, I might not give them the same kind of feedback [on their form],” adds Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) physical therapist Yukiko Matsuzaki PT, DPT, OCS, SCS.
Here, we’ll break down how to find your unique stride so you can run faster, farther, and more efficiently.
What Even Is “Proper” Running Form?
So, both experts agree that there is no hard and fast rule on what proper running form is. Generally, the best form is the position that takes the least amount of energy for you to cover a specific distance, Lamar says. That means that a sprinter’s “ideal” form will look different from that of a marathoner’s.
And, interestingly, there’s actually slight differences in form when it comes to treadmill running, according to Matsuzaki. “If you run outside, you have inclines and declines and uneven surfaces. So it’s not going to be the exact same as a treadmill running, which is very even.” Some studies have even shown certain runners have a higher cadence on the ‘mill, though other research shows that it’s similar. (Go figure!)
All that said, here are a few components of form to consider and be aware of.
The Components Of Proper Form
You want your entire body from your foot to your head to be ever-so-slightly leaning forward, Matsuzaki notes. However, recent research notes that it’s a delicate balance and leaning forward too much can lead to injuries. Matsuzaki suggests thinking about running “tall” and not bending forward from the hips. Paying attention to how your foot lands can help: Coaches will often work with their runners to make sure their feet land under their center of gravity rather than out in front of them.
While sprinters should ideally be on the forefoot, if you’re running longer distances, it’s ideal to have a mid-foot strike, per Matsuzaki. But, heel strikers take solace: If the angle between the bottom of your shoe and the ground is pretty low, Matsukaki says not to fear. The risk of injury really goes up (not to mention your performance goes down) when you’re slamming your heel into the ground with your toes pointing high towards the sky. Also note that over the course of, say, a marathon, your foot strike may change from mid-foot to heel strike which is also totally normal. Try having a friend film you running on a treadmill so you can see what your foot strike pattern looks like.
“Arm swing during running is super critical to counterbalance the momentum produced by your legs, but very often, arms swing, especially when we fatigue, can start to actually torque our upper body and there’s a loss of efficiency,” says Lamar. To avoid the “torque”, picture a line running down your midline from your head to your feet. You don’t want your arms to cross through that midline when they swing. Also, keep them relaxed (unless you’re sprinting).
If someone took a video of you running from the front, your knees should be in line with your hips and ankles as you come down on one leg, Matsuzaki says. “Sometimes [runners will] have a very knock-kneed position, where [the] knees go inwards. That position is known to be related to knee pain, shin injuries, and bone stress fractures.”
Why You Should Focus On Form
“Running is a super repetitive activity,” says Matsuaki, explaining that you’re constantly moving forwards rather than side-to-side or backwards as you might in other sports. “If you don’t have good form or biomechanics, that can eventually lead to overuse injuries like knee pain, or runner’s knee, hip pain, or stress fractures.”
Adds Lamar: “Injury prevention, running performance, and biomechanics are all deeply woven together. “When you get repeated injuries and it starts to hurt your running economy, you actually start to have issues with how efficient you are and then also performance.” Sprinters in particular spend a tremendous amount of time on form because they have a very expensive real estate—they only have a few seconds to perform, she adds.
How To Improve Your Running Form
So while it’s not necessary to try to mimic the pros or even intentionally change your form at all so long as it’s working foryou (so, you’re not injury-prone), there are a few surprising things you can do that’ll shore up your biomechanics:
Improving your running form isn’t as simple as saying “I look like I’m shuffling along, maybe I should pick up my knees higher when I run.” For that runner, weak glutes and quads could be to blame—and strengthening them could improve their form. Another common area of weakness Lamar sees in runners is a lack of core strength.
She suggests thrice-weekly strength sessions and they only need be 15 minutes each and can be totally bodyweight if you like. The key: Strengthen the “primary movers” involved in running, which are the glutes, hamstrings, quads, core muscles, and back muscles. “Those are all very integral to healthy running form and running economy,” Lamar notes.
Up Your Running Cadence
If Matsuzaki were to offer just one piece of advice that applies to most runners, it would be looking at their cadence—or the number of steps taken in one minute. Ideally, it should be around 170 to 180. “If you’re low, let’s say you’re only 160 or 162, then that may be a sign that you might be over-striding, or you’re losing efficiency somewhere,” Matsuzaki says. Increasing your cadence by as little as 5 percent has the potential to improve form and running economy and ward off injuries. Some GPS watches will keep track of cadence or you could film yourself on the treadmill from the side in slow-mo for 10 seconds and then count the number steps that you take and multiply that by six.
To up your cadence, there are metronome apps which Matsuzaki says are great for providing auditory feedback. Or, try spending one mile focusing on your cadence during the course of a longer run (and spend the rest of the time running “normally”). Lamar says to think about taking quicker, lighter steps, as if you were running on thin ice. It’s not about going faster—but instead taking more steps within the same amount of distance/time. Just take your time—you don’t want to go from 160 to 180 in one run!
Use Cue Words
Lamar likes to teach these cue words when she works with runners, encouraging them to use them on their own throughout a run to remind themselves of proper form:
Stand tall. Lamar says to imagine a string coming out of your head that’s pulling it to the sky.
Put your hands in your pockets. Often, people ball their hands into fists and hold them close to their chest as they fatigue. “These cue words remind us that we need to get those hands so they’re gently grazing past the hips, where pockets would be,” she notes.
Eyes on the horizon. When we fatigue, emotionally and physically, our eyes start to go to the ground, which means we curve our neck and our cervical spine, and that starts to impact our running form, Lamar says. “If you just put your eyes on the horizon right out in front of you, instead of at your feet, you do change your running form.”
When To Call In A Pro
If you have suffered an injury and especially if you’ve had repeated injuries, Matsuzaki says it may be time to consult a physical therapist or someone who’s trained in running analysis. And if you’re coming back from an injury, that could be a good opportunity to get some pro feedback as well.
Injuries aside, calling in a pro can help you to improve your running performance if you have goals to run faster and/or longer. “With the running analysis, we don’t do it to fix every little thing—again, there’s no one perfect running form—but it does expose a lot of faults and things that could be fixed,” Matsuzaki says. “I try to correlate the findings with what the runner’s goals are and make specific recommendations based on that.”
Don’t Forget About Everything Else!
Lamar reiterates that running form is just one piece of running performance. “Biomechanics is an important element to running success, but aerobic capacity plays a huge part here, mental attitude plays a big part here as well.” Matsuzaki adds that nutrition is also a factor, as is the amount of sleep you get.
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