Regardless of the level of runner learning proper running mechanics is important. Learning proper mechanics will improve your performance and help you avoid injuries.
Everyone’s form looks a bit different. Some individuals run low to the ground with little knee lift while others run powerfully, with high knee lift and a strong kick. Even within my own group I have athletes that run with a slight forward lean and others that run very upright. However, there are a number of elements that are common to almost all successful running styles. Good running form is a learned skill. As an athlete progresses to more advanced levels of running, the more important running form becomes.
Proper form involves having the chest out just a few inches with the shoulders back, letting the body fall forward, with the center of gravity being over the feet, and the arms at a right angle.
For distance runners, the most efficient foot plant is one in which the foot lands directly under the hips or your center of gravity. The ideal landing position is slightly toward the outside edge of your foot, just behind your little toe. Your foot would then naturally roll slightly inward while pushing off over your big toe. The slight inward roll of your foot is called pronation and provides some cushioning during the running stride. A small amount of pronation is normal and desirable, but excessive pronation can also be the cause of injury and stride inefficiencies. Excessive pronation can be caused by weak muscles in your lower leg or stride inefficiencies.
The most common problem I see in foot strike is landing on the heel. When you land on your heel, the leg is straight and extends in front of the body. This combination transfers a lot of impact up though to the knee and hip. Shin splints (pain of the front of your lower legs) is the common running injury that can be caused by heel striking.
A heel first foot plant also means you are over striding. You are reaching out in front of your body with each step you take. When you reach out in front of your body, you will land heel first and essentially be putting on the brakes with each step. You are wasting energy and making your training run harder than it should be.
Toe first landing is more appropriate for sprinters and not distance runners. Toe first landing places too much stress on the calf muscles.
Some time ago on my blog I wrote about my early days of running, and how I spent a year only working on form. This was important to become more efficient and eventually faster. A straight and erect back with a slight lean is what one needs to strive for. The very slight forward lean provides for a completely balanced posture. Balance is the key word. You should always feel as if your upper body is in balance above your hips.
Stand. Lean your body forward and backward. Notice how your position changes your balance. Only when you are standing with a straight upper body do you feel in balance. Now start to walk forward. When you are beginning to move shift your upper body very slightly forward. You are leaning into your movement. In a way when you walk you are actually falling forward and catching yourself with your legs. Running is the same. When you run you need to lean forward to keep your body balanced over your hips.
If you kept your body straight your balance would be shifted to the rear of your body. You would not be able to continue the action of falling forward. You would have to reach out in front of your body and pull your legs back to create forward motion. A backward lean will cause you to over stride and land heavily on your heel, which will also stress your knees, hips and back.
If you lean too far forward you will begin a stumbling, high impact stride. You will also put excessive stress on your knees and back.
Another common form error is sitting too much. This causes your feet to be in front of your body with a very weak push off behind your body. Essentially, you are creating additional contact time with the ground which can lead to Achilles problems.
Running with your hips forward will help your knee lift higher, with less effort.
Over striding is a very common problem I see when someone is trying to get faster. Forcing a long stride length will not improve speed or running efficiency. Over striding results in reaching out in front of the body with the foot and landing heavily on the heel, and causing a braking action. Remember your foot should land directly under your body with every step.
It is still important to still find your maximum stride length but without over striding. The key is not to reach out with your forward foot. Allow the forward momentum of your body to catch up with your forward foot so that no braking action is initiated. Think increasing your stride length by opening up your stride or making bigger circles with your feet and legs.
Your stride should be quick and light and all your effort should be forward. It is important to minimize any up and down motion which leads to wasting energy. In addition, listen to your steps. Your steps should be light and quiet. A noisy step means you are running with too much up and down motion, or are leaning forward too much.
Knee lift is less important in distance running compared to sprinting. A high knee lift requires the use of too much energy to maintain for a long period of time. A proper knee lift should feel like you are driving your knee forward, not up. A forward knee drive will result in a low to the ground and efficient forward running motion.
To initiate your foot plant, slightly pull your lead foot back gently so that it will match the speed of the ground moving under your body. That way you will avoid any braking action and will run very smoothly and efficiently. Immediately after your foot plant concentrate on quickly picking your foot up to continue the cycling motion.
Keep your arm swing compact and your elbows at about a 90 degree angle. The arms should hang loose and relaxed, close to the body. Avoid any tenseness in the shoulders and the wrists should be loose and floppy. Do not clench your fists. Drive your arms backward. Driving your elbows back when you run will help you run with a quick, light and efficient stride. This is important as a forward arm drive will encourage over striding.
The arm swing provides balance and coordination with the legs. As such, do not drive your arms above your chest or behind the midline of the body. Do not cross your hand in front of your body.
To practice arm drive use a light set of weights and mimic the running motion. Arms drive your stride!
Essentially, when one become more efficient as a runner, the outcome is three things:
1. Stride length becomes longer
2. Contact time with the ground is reduced
3. Cadence is quicker
By working on form, the above will be the natural outcome.