The act of running may seem straightforward, almost instinctive – it’s something we do from the time we’re toddlers, after all! Yet, achieving a proper running technique is an art and science that significantly influences racing performance, energy efficiency, and your ability to stay injury-free.
Improving – and perfecting – your running technique has a greater impact on your running performance than any other aspect of running. In this guide, we’ll discover the important of proper running technique. We’ll look at some common myths and misconceptions around perfect running form, as well as the science of good running technique, and some exercise drills you can to do promote better energy efficiency when you’re looking those miles.
This is how to achieve a proper running technique.
- The Importance of Proper Running Technique
- Myths and Misconceptions about Running Technique
- The Science Behind Proper Running Technique
- The Key Elements of Proper Running Technique
- The Mental Aspect of Running
- Common Technical Mistakes and How to Correct Them
- Are There Any Shortcuts to Improve Your Running Technique?
- Drills to Improve Your Running Technique
- Injury Prevention Through Proper Running Technique
- The Journey to Perfecting Your Running Technique
The Importance of Proper Running Technique
Running technique, combined with proper training and commitment, are vital to any runner’s performance.
With reduced effort and an increase in efficiency listed as just two of the benefits of maintaining proper running technique, here are a few other upsides that will help you make the most of your run:
- Better motor patterning
- An increase in muscle strength and recruitment
- Reduced fatigue and risk of falling prey to common running injuries
- The ability to run faster for longer
Myths and Misconceptions about Running Technique
Misconceptions about running technique often arise from runners who feel that there is no improvement to be made or that do not fully understand the importance of proper running technique.
And while there are far too many misconceptions to cover in this article, we’ll look at a few of the more common myths and misconceptions people have about running and technique.
#1: Running Is Bad for Your Knees
Yes, running is a high-intensity exercise, but that does not necessarily mean it is worse for your knees than walking, cycling, or swimming. Running helps build muscle and increase the strength of the cartilage of the knees and legs, often staving off common conditions like arthritis, tendonitis, and knee issues in general.
#2: Runners Should Focus On Achieving the Perfect Stride
Want to know a secret? There is no perfect stride when it comes to running! Running takes on different forms and techniques largely due to height, body composition, muscle strength, and running style. While one stride may work for one person, it could be harder for another who is shorter, has a higher body mass, or has an injury or ailment that affects their stride.
For example, Michael Johnson notoriously ran ‘too upright’, and the legendary Emil Zátopek’s torso swung from side to side.
It certainly didn’t stop them from collecting a few medals over the years.
#3: Running Faster Is Always Better
Speed is key when taking part in a race or marathon where time is of the essence. But, this is not always the case and depends largely on the type of running you’re doing and your goal. Runners should, instead, focus on improving their pacing, form, and cadence to improve their running performance.
#4: Feeling Pain While Running Is Normal
No! If you are feeling pain while running, there is something very wrong, and it could indicate that your running technique is not up to scratch or that you have put too much strain on a muscle or joint.
While running can be uncomfortable at times, it should never hurt. Proper running technique can reduce the risk of injuries and help you improve your running performance based on your gait, cadence, stride, and body composition.
Don’t believe everything you read about running technique. Rather focus on what science has shown: Proper running technique will help improve your running performance while reducing your risk of any number of common running injuries.
The Science Behind Proper Running Technique
Let’s get onto the technical part of this guide by looking at the science behind proper running technique as we explore the following:
- Biomechanics of Running
- Efficiency and Energy Conservation
- Injury Prevention and Longevity in Running
The Biomechanics of Running
Running is a science and uses various muscles, limbs, and joints to help you move through space as you run a race or enjoy a jog. Let’s look at the biomechanics of running, focusing on the most important elements.
Muscles are one of the most crucial elements of the biomechanics of running, as they work together to help propel the feet and legs forward while running.
The main muscles used for running are:
- Gluteus Maximus
- Gluteus Medius
- Tensor Fascia Latae
- Adductor Magnus
- Tibialis Anterior
Like muscles, joints are crucial for proper form and technique when running. Muscle strength is vital for the efficient rotation of joints and can help improve your stride and gait while running.
Joints work in sequence when running and are crucial for the following phases:
- Stance phase
- Swing phase
- Float period
- Heel strike
Gait refers to how you run. Cadence and stride are just two elements of your gait that determine your running technique and are an important part of improving your running performance.
Running cadence – the number of steps per minute – is directly affected by gait and is one of the key indicators of your overall running technique. Focus on improving your cadence to prevent overstriding and to run faster.
Using video analysis, the knowledge of a good running coach or trainer, or a stride sensor, you can analyze your gait and determine if your form is efficient or whether you’re doing damage (read our section on tools to improve your running technique to find out more about these fantastic tools that can improve your running performance).
Efficiency and Energy Conservation
One of the most important things you need to know about speed and efficiency in running is that they are not the same thing. While speed refers to how fast you are going, efficiency refers to your energy utilization while running and is the more important aspect to focus on.
Sure, speed while running is great if you are taking part in a race or want to meet a time goal, but efficiency is key to ensuring that you are running effectively to reduce fatigue and the risk of injury while on the run.
The following are the most common factors that affect your overall efficiency as a runner and require training and a change in technique to overcome.
This is when you land with your leg too far out in front of you. Your strides should be kept even, with a shorter stride increasing your cadence and improving your running performance. Overstriding can lead to strains and tears over time.
A runner’s cadence refers to the number of steps you take per minute. And while many runners think that taking fewer yet longer steps is better, the opposite is, in fact, true. Aim for 160 to 190 steps per minute to maintain a good stride and improve running performance and efficiency.
Coordination Between Muscle Groups
Flexion, the act of flexing your muscles correctly while running, greatly impacts your running performance and needs a bit of coordination to master your running stride and increase your overall performance.
Neurovascular Coupling (or neuro coupling), a term we’ll be using a few times in this article, is important to understand and refers to your knee and hip muscles flexing together to create a good stride and reduce strain on any of the joints and muscles used for running.
Injury Prevention and Longevity in Running
One of the biggest benefits of a proper running technique is that it prevents or reduces the risk of injury while running and can help you maintain longevity.
Proper running technique serves to engage and support the various muscles while running. It contributes to the overall strength of the muscle groups we outlined in our previous section.
Say goodbye to sore, achy muscles and joints when you’re running, and say hello to improved performance and longevity.
The Key Elements of Proper Running Technique
Now that we’ve looked at the science behind running, let’s dive into the key elements you should focus on when improving or perfecting your running technique.
While they might seem pretty obvious, there are certain key points you need to know to help you perfect your technique and improve your running performance.
Posture: Alignment from Head to Toes
Do you feel that you can maintain good posture while running? Also referred to as running form, your running posture greatly impacts your performance and should be a key focus while looking at ways to improve your running performance and endurance.
You should focus on keeping your body aligned from head to toe. This might sound complicated, but it’s easy if you consider your body to be like a stack of blocks. Keeping your head, neck, shoulders, trunk, hips, legs, and feet aligned (like stacked building blocks) is vital while running. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, your body can only perform as well as its “blocks” are aligned.
Foot Strike: Heel, Midfoot, or Forefoot?
Foot strike refers to the way your foot lands while running and is very much down to body composition, height, and previous injuries. It can, however, impact your performance if you’re landing incorrectly.
Heel or rearfoot strikes are among the most common for runners and are great for use as a braking mechanism when running downhill or on twisty running terrain that takes you through winding trails or forest paths. But heel strikes are proven to be quite taxing on the body and have a considerable impact on energy output. It’s also the foot strike that holds the highest risk of injury when maintained over distance.
Midfoot strikes are considered the best for running, especially at high speeds. Midfoot striking allows for better cadence (steps per minute) while running long distances. These strikes ensure even distribution of shock impact and are less likely to cause injuries like plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and tendonitis.
Forefoot strikes are a must for hills or while doing sprints. Landing on your forefoot can help you battle a tricky uphill while keeping you upright and balanced. They can, however, cause pain in the calves and Achilles tendon if you maintain this foot strike for prolonged periods.
Choose your foot strike according to the terrain, elevation, and distance you will be running. Don’t stick with a heel strike on flat terrain or a forefoot strike when running downhill – this is asking for an injury.
Cadence: Understanding and Optimizing your Stride Rate
Did you know that your cadence when running – the number of steps you take per minute – significantly impacts your performance and stride?
The ideal cadence rate for most runners is anywhere between 160 to 190, but several factors also influence this. Legendary running coach Jack Daniels (unrelated to the whisky), did an analysis at the 1984 Olympics and found that elite runners had a cadence between 180 and 200. This informed the cadence that many coaches now recommend.
Don’t fret if your rate is below this – there are ways to increase it that will, in turn, improve your running performance and stride.
Cadence depends on a few factors: your body composition, the type of running you are doing, and your height. Taller runners tend to have lower cadence as they take longer strides, while shorter runners will have higher cadence as their legs can’t take very long strides.
To improve your cadence, do the following:
- Set yourself a cadence goal appropriate to your specific body.
- Work on improving your strides – music or a metronome is a great way to force you to stride based on the beat.
- Maintain good posture while running to improve your cadence – keeping your body aligned allows your legs to operate optimally.
- Do a few drills in your warm-up session – high kicks, butt kicks, and skipping are great for cadence (read our section on drills later in the article).
Arm Swing: The Often Forgotten Aspect of Running Technique
If you feel silly swinging your arms while running, know that you are not alone, and many of us initially feel this way. But scientific research verifies the benefits of swinging your arms when running.
Swinging your arms helps to counterbalance the momentum of your legs and provides stability while running. Again, neuro coupling comes up as the legs and arms work together to find a stride that suits your unique running technique, form, and style.
Here are a few tips on how swinging your arms can help your running technique:
Tip #1: Avoid swinging your arms across your body and focus on swinging them backward and forward in a 12-to-6 motion. This helps your body propel forward and keeps your body and limbs aligned.
Tip #2: Swing your arms from your shoulders, not your elbows. This helps to provide stability while running and ensures you don’t develop a wobble or sway.
Tip #3: Relax your hands while swinging your arms to prevent unnecessary strain on the muscles in the arm while running. Rather than keeping your fists tightly closed, imagine that you are holding an egg and gently cup your hands.
Breathing: How to Sync Your Breathing With Your Strides
Your breathing rate and how you breathe can affect your running performance and endurance. Focusing on your breathing while running is key to building stamina and improving performance.
Runners should, ideally, breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth while running, increasing diaphragmatic breathing and rhythm. Incorporating this breathing pattern into your run is easy as you inhale and exhale on every third foot strike.
This inhale-exhale rate can be adjusted based on your needs – if you are running uphill, you may need to breathe on every second stride, and running downhill, perhaps every fourth is better. Experiment and see what works best for your heart rate, form, and technique – if you feel your shoulders starting to slouch, you may need to breathe more.
The Mental Aspect of Running
Running can be as much of a mental challenge as it is physical and comes with a few challenges as you try to harness your willpower and commitment to complete a challenging run.
Let’s investigate the mental aspect of running as we focus on the following:
- Visualization and Focus
- Listening to Your Body
- Incorporating Mindfulness in Your Runs
1. Visualization and Focus: The Runner’s Mindset
Visualization while running can help you overcome the toughest obstacles in your running performance as you harness the power of the mind to set goals and challenge yourself at every turn.
Imagery and imagination are key while taking part in running events and have been used successfully by runners who imagine the course in their minds before they even set off from the start line.
Focus on the positive and negative aspects of the course ahead, and use your willpower and commitment to motivate yourself to tackle the challenges head-on. Come up with a little mantra that you repeat to yourself when the course gets tough (like “I CAN do this” or “I’m capable of doing hard things”) and see for yourself what a difference a positive mindset can have on the outcome of your runs.
2. Listening to Your Body: Adjusting Your Technique on the Fly
Only you can feel when something is wrong with your body while running, giving you complete carte blanche to change or adjust your technique to improve your performance and increase your endurance.
Listen to your body and focus on those little niggles, as they are often the first indicator that something is wrong and that changes must be made to avoid discomfort or injury.
Staying in tune with your body’s cues is vital and helps improve your running technique more than any trainer or coach could.
3. Incorporating Mindfulness into Your Runs
Do you want to improve your overall running performance? And no, we are not talking about a warm-up exercise or a change in your technique. Incorporating mindfulness into your run can help not only calm your mind but also help you focus on your technique while running, and it should be an important part of every run – training or race.
Focus on and pay attention to your breathing while running, creating a rhythmic breathing pattern that reduces fatigue and boosts your stamina. Also, keep your posture, gait, stride, and cadence in mind as you breathe, allowing you to focus on how your body is coping.
Mindful running keeps you present in the moment, allowing you to focus on your surroundings, technique, and body.
Common Technical Mistakes and How to Correct Them
Are you making little mistakes with your running technique that are affecting your running performance? Of course, you wouldn’t know if you were without knowing what these mistakes are, so let’s look at a few common signs of bad running form, and how you can quickly and easily correct them.
Overstriding: The Stride Length Misconception
Overstriding is one of the most common mistakes runners make when focusing on their running performance, as they tend to reach too far forward with their leading leg and land with their knees extended. This uses more energy than necessary and can cause several injuries.
You can correct overstriding by improving your cadence, increasing your forward lean while landing to engage the core, and focusing on posture while running.
Ignoring the Upper Body: Underestimating the Role of Arms and Core
Too often, runners ignore their upper body, letting their arms move outwards or tucked too close to their sides and not using their core muscles while running. Posture, gait, cadence, and stride are all made possible by using the core muscles correctly, so focus on using your core and arms to your advantage.
Remember neuro coupling? Using your arms and legs together can help improve balance and stability while engaging the core muscles to improve running performance while reducing the risk of injury.
Poor Running Form at Different Paces: Slow Vs. Fast Running Mistakes
A great number of mistakes come from having poor form while running. And while many of them have to do with how you carry yourself (posture), several are also due to overstriding, swinging your arms incorrectly, and of course, your running technique.
Let’s look at a few of these mistakes as we categorize them according to the speed at which you are running.
Slow Running Mistakes
- Hunching your shoulders while running. This can make breathing harder and affect your gait and posture. Keep your shoulders back and stand tall while running to improve the strength of your cardiovascular system.
- Looking upwards. Looking up shifts your center of gravity or mass as you strain your neck muscles. Keep your eyes ahead of you and your neck straight while running.
- Craning your neck. The position of your neck determines the strain on your neck muscles while running. Keep your neck straight and focus on what’s ahead while running to prevent aching joints. Looking up or down for longer runs can leave your neck and shoulders tired and tight.
Fast Running Mistakes
- Swinging your arms from side to side. This is a big no-no and causes your torso to rotate to maintain your running balance. Swing your arms backward from the shoulder and enjoy increased stability while running faster. As we mentioned – your elbows should be moving from 12 to 6 o’clock, not flapping around all over the place.
- Overstriding. This leads to less efficient running and increases the weight or load on your hips. See our section on overstriding for tips on how to improve your stride.
- Not engaging your muscles correctly. Running is a great, high-intensity, weight-bearing exercise that engages the glutes, hamstrings, calves, core, and many other important muscles. Learn to engage these muscles to create the perfect stride, posture, and running technique.
- Running on your toes or forefoot. Forefoot running has its place when tackling uphills but is not recommended for long-distance running as it can result in shin splints. Focus on landing on your midfoot for even shock absorption.
Are There Any Shortcuts to Improve Your Running Technique?
Thanks to technology and advancements in the field of running, you can use many great shortcuts to help improve your running technique.
The most popular tools are as follows:
- Using a running coach or trainer
- Video analysis of your running technique
- Wearable tech
- Strength training and flexibility
Let’s look at each of these in more detail as we look at ways you can improve your running technique.
Using a Running Coach or Trainer: Get Personalized Guidance
A trainer or running coach is best placed to assess your body composition, biomechanics, stance, gait, stride, and cadence and advise where you can improve and what you need to change to improve your overall running technique.
And, while the services of a running coach or personal trainer might not exactly come cheap, it’s an important investment you should make to increase your running performance and improve your technique.
Video Analysis: Seeing Your Technique in Action
What could be better than watching yourself run, frame by frame, to see where you are going wrong and what needs improvement? Video analysis of your running technique is a great tool to help you identify dysfunctions in your running technique and make the necessary changes.
Wearable Tech For Rapid Data Feedback
The latest technology for runners, including GPS watches, heart rate monitors, and stride sensors, help measure cadence, stride, length, vertical ratio, contact time, balance, and oscillation of the legs and feet.
Use your GPS watch to help track your heart rate and focus on pacing, or use a stride sensor to assess your current stride and how it impacts your overall running performance and technique. This is a great option if you love looking at your running metrics (who doesn’t?!).
Strength Training and Flexibility: Essential Complements to Running
If you’re not incorporating strength training into your training schedule, you might as well kiss your running performance goodbye.
On a serious note, strength and flexibility training go a long way in improving your running performance as it helps build muscle, increase your cardiovascular health and V02 max rate, and help you maintain good form while running.
Flexibility is key for maintaining balance while striding when running and can help you make more efficient use of your energy to improve your overall time and endurance. Make strength and flexibility training an essential part of your workout to improve your running technique.
Drills to Improve Your Running Technique
Next up, we have some simple drills that can improve your running technique over time. Before we get into the drills, let’s consider what they do for your body. They improve:
- Muscle, joint, and tendon strength
- Communication between the legs and brain
Let’s look at a few of the best drills and how to do them.
High knees are a great form of cardio exercise and help strengthen the hip flexors, leg muscles, and, most importantly, the core muscles.
Here’s how to execute the perfect high knee:
- Stand with your feet hip-distance apart, keeping your back straight.
- Raise your leg to no more or less than hip height, keeping your weight on the ball of your foot.
- Bring your foot down, raising the other leg as you do.
- Alternate legs and move forward while doing so to move the legs and work the muscles.
Butt kicks have similar benefits to high kicks and are ideal for building muscles and increasing flexibility, especially in the hamstrings and quads.
Here’s how to do them:
- Adopt the same stance as you would when doing a high knee.
- Bring your knee up to touch your butt before bringing your foot down and raising the other leg.
- Increase your speed as you do your butt kicks to engage your hamstrings and loosen your quads.
There is no specific exercise you can do to increase your cadence, but rather a series of exercises. As cadence deals with the number of steps you take per minute, focus on exercises that will increase your step count and get your heart pumping much-needed oxygenated blood to your muscles.
A-skips, fast feet drills, and sprints are great for increasing your cadence, as is running to a metronome to run to a beat. Each drill should be done over 20 to 40 meters, and you should do 2 to 3 reps of each drill.
Hill sprints help increase your stamina and are an essential form of cardio that builds muscle and increases your cardio strength.
Here’s how to execute hill sprints:
- Mark out your distance. Start with 50 meters.
- Sprint up the hill at an RPE of 9.
- Turn around and slowly jog or walk back to the start.
- Take a short 20-second break.
- Repeat this four to five times for effective endurance training.
Injury Prevention Through Proper Running Technique
Improving and perfecting your running technique can help reduce the risk of common running injuries. No technique in the world will make you 100% resistant to injuries. But if you get the basics right, you stand a much better chance of keeping your knees, ankles and muscles in good shape.
What Common Running Injuries Are Associated with Poor Technique?
There are many common injuries that runners with poor technique are at risk of experiencing.
Here are a few of the more common injuries:
#1: Shin Splints
Shin splints are among the most common injuries caused by poor form or overstriding. Often painful, shin splints can set you back a few weeks of training as you let your body rest and your shin splints heal.
#2: Plantar Fasciitis
Plantar fasciitis is caused when the band of tissue that connects the heel to the front of the foot is overstretched. This can be caused by choosing the wrong foot strike, wearing the wrong type of shoes for running, and poor running form.
#3: Runner’s Knee
Runner’s knee can affect absolutely anyone but is most commonly experienced by runners as the constant pounding of their feet while running causes damage to the surrounding cartilage. This painful injury can be caused by landing on the midfoot or excessive force when running longer distances.
Tendonitis of the Achilles tendon is commonly caused by landing on the heel of the foot when running. Resulting in inflammation and damage to the tendons; tendonitis is painful and may require surgery to repair.
The Journey to Perfecting Your Running Technique
Improving your running technique is not something you can do overnight, as it takes the proper assessment, several changes, and your commitment to get right. It is possible to improve your running technique, but as with most things in life, it takes a ton of patience.
Patience and Consistency: Key to Long-Term Improvement
We’ve all heard the saying: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” And this is how you should approach improving your running technique
The first step is to allow yourself the space to make mistakes, accepting that no one has a perfect running technique when starting out and that it takes time. But, with patience and consistency in training, you can also improve your running technique for the long term.
Making small yet impactful changes now will make a big difference later, so keep your eye on the prize and focus on changing your cadence, stride, gait, or foot strike to improve your running technique.
Celebrating Small Victories: Progress in Running Technique
It can take some time to perfect your unique running technique. A great way of motivating yourself to keep at it is to celebrate each small change you make, viewing them as victories in a long-standing battle.
Upped your cadence? Great, celebrate it! Managed to change your foot strike? Excellent, celebrate it!
Progress is progress, no matter how small or slow, so use your “wins” to motivate you to keep working on your running technique and see your performance improve for the better.