We all know we should run with good form, but what does that actually mean?
Growing up as a swimmer we did drill after drill after drill in the pool. Technique was a huge part of training, and I fully embraced its importance. After graduating college, I was desperate to start a new sport and entered a road marathon. I bought a pair of running shoes, pulled on some shorts and a cotton t-shirt and just ran. No warm ups, no drills, no polarized training, no clue that running form mattered. It didn’t take long for injuries like runner’s knee and IT band syndrome to pop up. Sixteen years after that marathon, I am now doing drill after drill after drill on the roads, track, and dirt. If you want to run with better form, improve your running times, and decrease your risk of injury here are some tips on running form:
What are we talking about when we say running form?
Firstly, let’s define a few running biomechanics terms and how they are measured.
- Cadence: The number of steps you take per minute. Cadence metrics are provided by most GPS devices. Data collected by Garmin reported that the 70th – > 95th percentile ran with cadence ranging from 174 – > 183 steps per minute. If you take walking breaks within your run this will greatly impact the overall average cadence for the session.
- Stride length: The distance between two successive placements of the same foot. Imagine you had wet blue paint on the bottom of your right running shoe. If you ran down the street, your stride length would be the distance between two of your blue footprints from your right foot. When you increase running speed, the majority of this is done by increasing stride length. Professional runners such as Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele have stride lengths during races upwards of 2 meters. But even amongst the professional ranks, each individual has a unique combination of stride length and cadence to reach the same speed.
- Vertical oscillation: How far your center of mass travels up and down while running. Data collected by Garmin reported that the 70th – > 95th percentile ran with vertical oscillations ranging from 8.1 cm – < 6.4 cm. If your running gait is too bouncy, you will need to expend more energy to move forward at the same speed.
- Ground Contact Time: How long your foot remains on the ground in a running cycle. Data collected by Garmin reported that the 70th – > 95th percentile ran with ground contact times ranging from 248 ms – < 218 ms. As running speed increases, ground contact time will decrease.
- Leg spring stiffness: This measures the stiffness of your leg muscles and tendons. This metric is all about energy return. We don’t want to lose a lot of energy to the ground when we run. Ideally, we would get good recoil from hitting the ground to propel our bodies forward. If your legs are very floppy (less stiff) then you won’t get good recoil for forward motion. So, the aim is to have a good amount of leg spring stiffness for elastic recoil in the running gait cycle. The exact number will be dependent on the individual, and it is measured in Kilonewtons / meter.
- Vertical ground reaction force: The vertical force applied from the ground to your body upon your foot landing. The heavier your landing the greater the vertical force. In addition, the further your landing foot is in front of your center of mass the steeper the vertical ground reaction force will be.
- Foot strike patterns: heel vs midfoot vs forefoot striker. Foot strike patterns can be seen with the naked eye provided you have good video footage. To get a more detailed analysis of foot strike patterns, a motion capture system would be required. It is important to mention that there are heel strikers who won’t get injured and midfoot strikers who will get injured. If you are currently using a certain foot strike with no issues or injuries, there is no need to purposely change from a heel striker to mid-foot striker for example.
- Angles such as knee adduction and hip internal rotation: A biomechanical analysis using a motion capture system would be able to provide angles throughout the gait cycle. Two that are often talked about are knee adduction angle and hip internal rotation angle. The angles at various joints can provide information on potential muscle imbalances, why you are prone to certain overuse injuries, and exercises to include in your strength and rehab programs to improve your joint angles.
All of these values will be unique depending on the individual and much of this data can be seen with GPS watches and products like the Garmin running dynamics pod or a motion capture system in a laboratory setting.
It can be tempting to get bogged down with numbers but overall, the most important factors are that you have adequate mobility, stability, and strength to run in an efficient and healthy way. For example, if your ankle is very stiff you will lack the ability to achieve proper ankle dorsiflexion in the running cycle. If your core is weak your pelvis may take too much strain when running.
It may also be useful to work with a physical therapist or qualified strength and conditioning coach in assessing problem areas.
What should I do to improve my running form?
Simply having running form metrics available to you won’t improve your form. For example, you can’t forcefully will yourself to have a lower vertical oscillation. Let’s break this down into more practical tips.
- Mobility Routines: As we age and with sedentary lifestyles, our joints become stiff and lack the proper range of motion required to run efficiently. Daily mobility routines can help improve range of motion in places such as the ankle, hip, spine, and shoulder. It can be as simple as 10 – 15 minutes per day. I find doing mobility first thing in the morning and / or before a run to be the most effective.
Coach David’s follow along mobility routine
- Running drills: Drills are a great way to prime your neuromuscular system before a run. They can improve aspects of running form that we’ve discussed such as increasing cadence, decreasing ground contact time, and improving joint angles.
Joe Uhan’s running drill series video
- Incorporate Speed Work: Including speed work as part of your training improves physiology such as lactate buffering capacity, cardiac output, and VO2 It also improves running form metrics such as cadence, stride length, and ground contact time. If you are new to speed work start with running strides. After you feel warmed up, run 5 – 6 x 30 second sprints with 2-minutes of easy jogging between strides.
- Strength train: Incorporating strength training improves your longevity within your sport, may reduce the risk of overuse injury, and improves your ability to produce power in the running gait.
Jay Dicharry’s Running Rewired book and strength plans
Book a strength consultation with high performance strength coach, David Leith
Finally, at the Performance Project, we offer in-person running form analysis with video, discussion, and accompanying drills to incorporate into your training. This service is provided for endurance athletes local to the Triad, North Carolina (Greensboro, High Point, Winston-Salem).