Updated: May 1, 2020
While treating runners it does not take long for the topic of running form and technique to come up. Runners are always looking for the edge to improve performance and decrease injury. How do the top performers make running look so effortless as they are lapping the field?
Most runners at some point have thought about improving their technique, however, it is a mighty task. Eventually, most people default to whatever feels natural despite suffering injuries and being frustrated with their performances.
For the most part, a common belief is “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”. Meaning, if you feel fine then keep trucking along. For the most part, this holds some truth. However, aches, pains, and injuries will inevitably occur with individuals competing. Even sorer if you are someone that is lacing up the shoes after a long absence.
My philosophy with running technique and cueing is that we should all strive to perfect the stride. If you are logging 10-50 km a week, why not focus on good technique for even a small proportion of those kilometres? From experience improving form takes time but it is possible. Start off with small improvements and progress.
When we compare injured runners and underperformers to higher-level runners or uninjured runners, we see patterns emerge. There are ways in which you too can run with an effortless stride. My goal is to offer up four ques that you can use as soon as your next run to start you on the path of good form, high performance, and injury-free running.
Cue 1: “Run tall”. Picture an imaginary string pulling the top of your head up to the sky and another pulling the front of your chest or sternum slightly forward.
Reason: running tall aligns our spine in its natural curve and opens our chest. This allows our lungs and diaphragm to expand and relax optimally allowing oxygen to fuel our muscles. Additionally, it puts less stress on our shoulder and upper back and allows for better hip extension to propel us forward.
Cue 2: “Run quietly”. Make as little sound as possible and avoid stomping those feet. Imagine as if you are the fastest ninja and you want none of your competitors knowing you are quickly approaching.
Reason: if you sound a little like a galloping Clydesdale you are probably striking those heels hard on the ground and not running tall at all (see the first cue). It also means we are most likely over striding which is not a good thing. With a nice short running stride, we are keeping our momentum moving forward and conserving energy. With heel striking there is a small breaking force applied with every step. Additionally, it causes stress through the bone of our heel and transfers it into the bones of our legs. This causes a host of injuries including plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis, and shin splints.
By running quietly we naturally strike the ground with our midfoot and forefoot. This will allow us to run a little taller and allows our muscles of our legs and hips to accept the load of our body weight. When muscles are accepting loads instead of our heel and leg bones it eliminates the chance of injury and reduces those aches and pains. A bonus is we naturally will shorten the stride which increases our running cadence (step rate). Running cadence is beyond the scope of this article, but the consensus is that a higher step rate or cadence is seen in runners with less injury and higher performance.
Cue 3 “Run wide”. Never let your knees touch while running. Imagine a there are magnets on the inside of your knees which forces your legs out slightly.
Reason: if your knees or even ankles touch while running then you are demonstrating a cross over gait (decreased step width) while running. A study by Meardon et al. (2012) titled ‘Step Width Alters Iliotibial Band Strain demonstrated that decreased stride width led to a greater amount of ITB strain. Relatively small decreases in step width substantially increased ITB strain as well as strain rates. Running with the feet just 3cm wider reduced ITB tension by up to 20%.
Added tip: if this one is hard for you to try running up a hill. By running up a hill we are forced to engage our buttock muscles and naturally widen our width. Running up a moderately steep hill makes it impossible to keep a narrow width. When you are running up the hill make a mental note of what running wide feels like and take this to the road.
Cue 4: “Imagine you are holding eggs in your hands”. Keep those wrists and hands relaxed. While running you should not be squeezing a stress ball but rather an egg that you do not want to crack.
Reason: when we squeeze our hands tight it sends a cascade of muscle tension through are arms into our shoulders, upper back, and neck. If you do not believe me then try it now as you are sitting. Then imagine pumping those tight fists back and forth for 10,000 steps or for 45 minutes. Then imagine doing it in the cold when we naturally tend to shrug our shoulders anyway.
If you keep a tight fist or tense neck during your runs, then not only are you wasting valuable energy. You may develop soreness in your neck and shoulders either during or after your runs.
Running is a cyclical motion. What happens when your right leg takes off directly relates to the impact on the left side. If there are areas where you are not working efficiently then everything eventually breaks down. Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Not so fast, there is some good news! If everything is connected, then incorporating just one of these small cues has a chain reaction of positive effects on your entire technique.
If one of these cues hit home with you then simply try that one for a small portion of your run. Changing your running gait doesn’t happen in one run but rather it is a habit that builds throughout. Changes happen in four stages.
Unconscious incompetence: you have not thought about your gait and maybe doing something that causes injury or underperformance.
Conscious incompetence: You have now thought about your gait and are falling into one of the previously mentioned poor movement patterns.
Conscious competence: you incorporate one of these cues and can run with pretty good form but must think about it and it does not yet feel entirely natural.
Unconscious Competence: You have finally reached the holy grail. You can run most of your run without thinking about your form or any of these cues.
So, my request to you is this. Take one of those cues that makes the most sense to you. Maybe you notice you are squeezing your fists too tight and have noticed some neck and shoulder pain while running. Put that in the memory bank and try to hold those imaginary eggs in your hands. Start by consciously becoming competent in short spurts of your run. If you happen to wear a running watch that goes off every lap, then use that as your conscious alert. When it goes off, make a mental note about your form and imagine your cue. Before you know it you will be unconsciously competent! You will not only feel better but you too may look like you are running effortlessly compared to your competitors. Even if you may not feel like it on the inside!
If you would like to further dive into running form, technique, cadence, or rehab then book your own running assessments with our experts!
Mearden et al.: Step Width Alters Iliotibial Band Strain During Running (2012) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23259236