Running Form: Six Ways To Improve Efficiency

Apr 6, 2012   //   by James Dunne   //   Running Technique Advice  //  40 Comments

We All Run Differently…

With all the debate over the last few years around running techniques, it’s important to understand that there is a distinct lack of concrete scientific evidence supporting one method over any other.

In my experience coaching endurance athletes, it’s apparent that a midfoot strike pattern is certainly beneficial for a particular type of athlete. That is, if the appropriate progressive approach is taken to develop running technique from head-to-toe, and adequate time is taken to allow the body adapt gradually… a factor so many fail to apply appropriately!

There are however lots of endurance athletes who will be best served maintaining a heel striking technique while consciously working to develop a “light heel strike” rather than a heavy over-striding heel strike, such as that we see from so many runners who slam their heels into the pavement with each stride!

running_form

Often these particular athletes have a specific injury history or set of goals (Ironman or ultra running for example) which lead them to become more suited to developing a more ‘gentle’ heel striking contact, rather than moving all the way to a more aggressive midfoot or forefoot strike.

Look at Craig “Crowie” Alexander - come the latter part of an Ironman marathon, the three-time Ironman World Champion and brand ambassador for Newtons (forefoot running shoe company!) is definitely heel striking to some degree…

What’s important however is that even when fatigued Crowie still displays such great running technique from head to toe, that this heel strike occurs without a significant over-stride and therefore isn’t heavy or particularly inefficient. It’s what we refer to as a “glancing” (or proprioceptive) heel strike – landing gently on the heel before quickly transitioning to the forefoot where the foot fully loads.

Whether you’re a heel striker, forefoot / midfoot striker, barefoot runner, etc… there are a number of simple ways in which you can improve the efficiency of your running form.

Top Six Running Technique Tips:

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1. Avoid Over-Striding

Regardless of what type of foot contact you employ, the position of this contact in relation to the rest of your body has a large role to play in determining how heavy the impact and subsequent braking forces are.

A good rule of thumb in terms of over-striding is to look for the alignment of knee and ankle upon initial contact. Ideally we’re looking for the knee to be flexing directly above the ankle on initial contact. If the runner is over-striding, you’ll see the ankle ahead of the knee.

Heel Striking Over Stride  Forefoot Over Stride

Over-Striding: Both Heel Striking and Forefoot

Heel Strike Under Knee  Forefoot Strike Under Knee

Ankle Under knee: Both Heel Striking and Forefoot

Over-striding patterns such as those seen above can be the result of a number of factors, in particular tight / over active hip-flexors and a running cadence too slow for the given speed.

Try increasing your running cadence (stride frequency) by 5% and feel how it encourages you to reduce the over-stride. In turn you’ll feel lighter on your feet as your contact time decreases.

A basic digital metronome is a great tool for achieving and maintaining an increased running cadence.

2. Run Tall

Your running posture is one of the keys to achieving good, efficient form. The postures you sustain at your desk during the working day, in the car or on the sofa have a real carry-over into the way you run.

Most of us spend too much of the day sitting down (I’m sitting down writing this!), shoulders rounded forwards and hips flexed. Through sustaining this type of position, we get short, tight hip-flexors and other anterior muscles and weak, under-active glutes and other posterior muscles.

This then becomes an issue when we try and run, with the body needing to maintain an erect posture and adequate hip extension. Instead, we become a product of what we posturally do most often and run in a semi flexed position – particularly at the hips.

Good Running Posture

Image courtesy of ChiRunning (we are not ChiRunning Instructors)

Then, consider triathletes. Many of who suffer from all the desk-job related postural issues. We then jump on the bike for hours on end, which only goes to exacerbate the hip-flexor tightness which comes from excessive time spent in a sat down position.

In an effort to counter act the hip-flexor tightness, I get all my athletes and triathletes to perform the hip-flexor mobility exercise below before and after every session, in the gym, at the office… and generally whenever they don’t know what else to do during their day!

It’s all about working to undo the hip flexion pattern, and buy them back some range into extension.

3. Relax Your Shoulders

Tension in your shoulders, neck or upper back can inhibit your arm motion. You need your arms to provide balance, rhythm and power as you run.

As with your legs, the faster you go, the bigger the arm motion should be. Conversely, running slowly should require small, yet still active motions of the arms, swinging from the shoulder. The movement pattern doesn’t change, only the size of movement.

This will take some getting used to, but as you get fatigued keep your arms moving, as they help to keep the legs working at a steady rhythm.

 

4. Strengthen Your Glutes & Core

No matter how hard you work on improving your running form, a serious limiting factor to your performance and ability to stay injury free is your core strength and ability to activate your gluteal muscles. These two key muscle groups play a huge role in providing stability around your lower trunk, pelvis and hips.

Weaknesses and imbalances around these areas can directly lead to knee, hip and back injuries, as well as running related problems with the lower leg.

Incorporate regular strength and stability exercises into your weekly routine to improve these key factors and your running will reap the benefits in the long term. Both in terms of injury prevention and improved performance.

Below is an example of a short core routine we use for a Pro Triathlete we work with, developed to compliment her running specifically.

One great exercise to start practicing on a regular basis is the Single Leg Squat, as shown in the video below.

Read the following articles for more information about core, glute and general strengthening exercises for runners…

 

5. Don’t Bounce or Rotate Excessively

Running is a linear motion, as you move forwards in a straight line. Although many of the constituent movements at individual joints and segments require rotation to function correctly, your body shouldn’t be rotating excessively from side to side. Excessive rotation counteracts the end goal of making forward progression. In fact it costs us energy to control and stabilise – a big inefficiency!

In the same way, your energy should be directed in traveling forwards not upwards. A slow rate of cadence and therefore over-stride (see above) often results in excessive upwards displacement or “bounce” within the stride.

For those running a marathon, for example, an extra one inch of bounce with each step (which doesn’t sound like much), will equate to one extra mile traveled upwards across the marathon distance… what a waste of effort.*

*Actual figures vary with stride length – but you get the picture!

 

6. Control Your Breathing

The rhythm with which you breathe when running should fit in with the overall rhythm that the rest of your body is working to. The ratios with with you inhale and exhale will most likely vary as your intensity of exercise varies. Getting your breathing right is integral to your running technique and should be practiced so that you can maintain your composure on race day as your concentration is elsewhere.

More Information:

 

More Tips & Coaching Points…

We have created a specific online coaching course to further explain and develop the important concepts surrounding running form, presented in a step-by-step manner.

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About The Author

James has an academic background in Sport Rehabilitation and a special interest in Applied Biomechanics. He currently coaches a large number of Runners and Triathletes across all levels of ability and performance. He's grown a strong reputation for enabling athletes to improve their running performance and overcome running injuries through improving their Running Technique and developing Running Specific Strength.

 

40 Comments

  • This is a great article. I like that you said that there isn’t evidence that puts one technique over another. I have been working on my own running form and have read a few books about it. I take things from each book and put it towards my form. I like the hip flexor exercise and I will probably start using that in my stretching regime. Thanks for the great article.

    • Thanks Leon! I use exactly the same approach as you when it comes to working on my own technique, and that of the athletes I coach.

      I find that while it’s important to endeavour to understand as much as possible about different methods and ways of coaching running technique, the most important factor is to apply that information to find what works specifically for the individual athlete.

  • I’m an orthopaedic surgeon from Brazil and use to read all your tweets. It’s rare to find on medical journals this kind of discussion. Thank you.

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, Leandro. I hope you find all the Tweets and info interesting and useful, both in your training, and in your work with runners and their injuries!

  • I am surprised you describe Craig Alexander as a heel striker : I watch the following video and I do not see much heel striking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVTjKJn3IFw

    • Hi,

      Thanks for your comment. I have to disagree though. Check out the footage below. It’s from the same coverage at the same point in the race, but with the close-up angle on foot strike.

      At this late stage in the race, Crowie is definitely heel-striking.

      Not a bad thing though, as his brief heel-strike is close to under his hips, and the foot rolls through to load the midfoot very quickly – negating much of the usual impacts associated with a heel-strike.

  • Thanks so much, great information to take out and put into practice.

  • Txs a lot, James

  • [...] Running Technique: Top 6 Ways To Improve Running Efficiency __________________ If you knew that hope and despair were paths to the same destination, which [...]

  • Very useful information, and very timely. I do run barefoot already but often wonder if its the correct form and what I can do to improve my posture and technique. Thanks !

  • Excellent info..!

  • Brilliant. Thank you for such a clear analysis!

  • [...] have been doing running wrong all these years. My assumption was somewhat confirmed when I found this page on running technique and efficiency. I have been doing pretty much all of the six points mentioned [...]

  • Thank you. This is a really clear and well written article, which I would like to use for some of my patients. It is nice to see the advice I give as a physiotherapist reinforced – a bit of positive feedback for me as well as useful resource for my patients.

  • Thanks so much for sharing, this is such a great time for me. I had adopted forefoot running and it was going great, was going to do christchurch half marathon last weekend-when I developed an injury above medial maleolus. My sports physio thinks its related to when I broke my femur fell running 10 years go, my r) glutes are still weaker than my L) , also not helping is having a back op after child birth 3 yrs ago! What a wreck! Still determined to get back running, I am so interested now in biomechanics and getting my form right, think I may go back and improve light heel striking and cadence. Your exercises for glute/core strength, will be great. Cheers x

  • Thanks for putting out the some most crucial recommendations for long distance runners. It’s very useful to read and apply the techniques (which will require time)

  • Hi James! Thanks for the article. It is really good. It made me think about my technique. I’m a middle distance runner (1:53 for 800m). Would your tips be appropriate also for me as I run much faster comparing to long distance? I think that in the most of my running carrier I didn’t use much of my hamstrings and glutes, and I was a distinct fore-foot/toe runner. I’ve changed my techinque in last 3 yrs considerably. What do you say about high-knees drill? Could I use it as excuse that my speed requires a higher leg drive? Cheers

    • Hi Andrejs,

      Thanks for your kind words about the article. I’m pleased it has started you thinking about form. As a middle distance runner, you’ll certainly be running faster than long distance competitors. Thus with this increased pace, you will of course need to create a greater stride length (without over striding).

      In using your hamstrings to assist in the action of the foot coming directly up towards your butt (not flicking the foot behind), you’ll notice that your knee is pushed through and forwards in front of you. The higher you lift the foot, the higher the knee will be pushed forwards into the ‘high-knees’ position. This is where the extra stride length should come from, rather than simply driving the knee forwards, relying on the hip flexors and quads.

  • Thank’s for the instructive article. I just wonder if the vertical yellow line you drawn from the ankle position rather should be placed at the forefoot for forefoot runners? It seems logical to me that the location of the initial contact zone with the ground, not the ankle position, determines the degree of breaking force when overstriding. If so, then both forefoot runners in the example pictures are actually overstriding?

    • Thanks for the comment Jorgen. The marker we’re really looking for here as a simple indicator of over striding is ankle alignment versus knee position at the point of initial contact – regardless of whether this contact is with heel or forefoot.

      As the foot makes contact, we want to see knee flexing over the ankle, rather than being aligned posterior to ankle position.

  • Great analysis comparing Crowie and Lieto James! Trail leg pick up/ shortening of lever such a common issue as is premature dropping of knee prior to initial ground contact. One point worth making too is avoiding an excessive high trail trail leg instead of a focused shortening and quick heel to bum movement. Very much enjoy your twitter posts, keep up the good work!

  • The use of a bottle on the single leg squats is a great tip and being able to see the glute exercises really helps – when I’m with my physio it’s ok, but when it comes to doing them at home I’m not always sure my technique is correct. Great website. Thanks for sharing the knowledge.

  • [...] Finally, if you’d like something to read, this link was tweeted to me today: http://www.kinetic-revolution.com/running-technique-6-ways-to-improve-efficiency/ [...]

  • Thanks for the running tips link – excellent bits of advice in there. Perfect timing too as I’m about to embark on my first ever marathon. Done lots of halfs and hundreds of others but never that distance before, so I enter my training with some trepidation.

    I don’t know if this has anything to so with my running form but I’m developing very sore hips (on the very outside of my hips, practically on top of the hip bone itself – the area becomes very tender after running). I switched to Innov8s (5mm drop) a year back but found that trashed my calves too much so now have some Asics which are very light but have a 9mm drop (I always used to run in Asics Cumulus). I’ve 8 weeks to build my mileage on a fairly good base – recently completed my first middle distance tri (Beaver) in 5.12, and am looking for around 3.30 for the marathon….any advice?

  • Your tips are very very good. Appreciate it. Hope to see you coach me one day!

  • Hey James fantastic article! Have bee considering barefoot running for a while but am slightly worried as snapped my Achilles’ tendon a few years ago and wondering if this was the way to go? Hopefully a fee of your tips will help!

  • Brilliant tips & a very interesting read! As a Sports therapist it is nice to read about core & gluteal strength being an important aspect in running & technique. Something i struggled with a lot myself, before getting into Sports Massage. When i used to do a lot of running/sprint training. One of the reasons i studied & became a Sports therapist. Good to know the advice i pass on in practice is well & truly backed up here!

    Great core & Glutes session for improving pelvic posture!
    Single leg squats.. Killers -But great!!
    @TherapyMB

  • Some great advice! Many thanks

  • Great article. I’ve not long started running (June 2013) so I guess there’s hope for me before I get into any more bad habits!

    I do tend to over stride rather than increasing cadence when I want to go faster so this is definitely something I’ll be working on.

    Thanks for sharing the wisdom! :)

  • Loved this article and I love these kind of websites teaching about correct running form! Keep up the good work!

  • Thank you James, An excellent article I will be passing on to all my runners!

  • Great tips, loved it. Sure this will make huge difference with me especially the run tall advise.
    Thanks

  • […] Dunne, a running expert at Kinetic Revolution , says “A good rule of thumb in terms of over-striding is to look for the alignment of knee […]

  • Was chatting to a friend at the gym earlier about technique and came across this site following a search. Really enjoyed the tips which I’ll be implementing first thing tomorrow.

  • Hi James I’m currently recovering from two prolapsed discs I’m running the London marathon which is not far away ,if I use those exercises as in the clips posted will this help my back ?. My running times have increased due to a partially numb right foot still and some pain and discomfort any tips or help gratefully received .

    Kind regards
    Jules

  • […] Here’s a link to an which covers a few of these fundamental principals of good running form. […]

  • Great summary…any chance of a workshop in the north west James?

    Regards

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