Can We Define ‘Perfect’ Running Form?

I was at the wedding of two great friends last weekend. Inevitably the wedding reception small talk very quickly presented the classic ice-breaker question:

‘So, what do you do?’

I explain that my work is mainly with athletes, and that I focus primarily on running biomechanics and injury rehabilitation, and that this often involves fine-tuning an athlete’s running technique as part of the rehab process.

This normally prompts a bemused look from my (non-athletic) inquisitor. Followed quickly by two more questions:

‘Can you really change how an individual runs?’

‘Is there one overall BEST running technique?’

In this post, I want to focus on the second of these two questions, it’s an interesting one…

From a coaching stand-point, is there one model of running form which all of our athletes should aspire to achieve?

In Search of Perfect Running Technique

So Many Variables

The first important point to consider is that as a fundamental movement pattern, running involves a huge number of variable factors, and very few true constants. This simple fact holds true both from individual to individual, and from event to event.

Individual Differences

Within the endurance sports community, we are all very different in so many ways. For example:

  • Anthropometry (height, weight, etc…)
  • Body Weight : Strength Ratio
  • Available Range of Motion at Key Joints
  • Neuromuscular Control & Strength at Key Joints
  • Lifestyle (professional athlete vs office worker)
  • Injury History & Subsequent Compensatory Patterns

Differing Event Demands

In much the same way, the demands of the many disciplines which all fall under the ‘running’ banner vary significantly.

It’s fair to say that the 5000m high school track athlete, and the middle-of-the-field 50mile ultrarunner are partaking in very different sports, yet both running, both aerobic, and both endurance in nature. These two athletes, however will be running at very different paces for completely different time-frames, both when racing and when training.

Would I coach an ultrarunner to run with the same form as a teenage 5000m track athlete? Absolutely not! 

In general terms, I’d be looking to help the ultrarunner develop a form that achieves each of the important constants we look for (as described below) while maintaining a level of sustainably easy running, for a long period of time.

The track athlete in comparison will most likely need help in developing their running form to optimize stride length, cadence and efficiency at higher speeds, as well as developing a strong ‘kick’ when fatigued, without sacrificing the constants we hold true as desirable across all runners.

A Few Important Constants

There are however a small set of important factors we look for when assessing running form, almost regardless of the type of runner we’re working with.

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means…

1) Avoid Over Striding

Regardless of pace, the athlete shouldn’t be landing their foot excessively ahead of their body. Over striding in this way results in an increased braking effect as the foot loads on the ground.

This has been discussed to death around the blog-o-sphere…

Some coaches will look at any contact ahead of the centre of mass (read ‘hips’ for simplicity) in a vertical plane as being an over stride. This may be relevant for sprinters, but for endurance athletes, I find it more important to reference the knee against the ankle at the point of initial contact – distance runners will invariably land ahead of their hips, as they’re not sprinting.

If the knee is posterior to the ankle at initial contact, then the athlete is beginning to over stride, landing with an excessively extended knee. If the knee is flexing over the top of the ankle as the foot lands, the athlete is doing a good job of not over striding.

N.B. Keep an eye out for how the tendency to over stride will vary from pace-to-pace within the same athlete, especially under fatigue.

2) Posture & Body Position

No matter how fast or slow you’re running, maintaining good posture is important. There are many subconscious factors which dictate an athlete’s posture – almost all of which get worse with fatigue! Here are four big area to be aware of:

  • Pelvic Position & Hip Mobility
    A lack of neuromuscular control around the hips and pelvic can result in the loss of the desired neutral (+/- a few degrees during gait) alignment of the pelvis, the important cross-roads between the torso and lower body. The same can be said for a lack of hip mobility, where the pelvis then has to move through excessive range to achieve a full running gait cycle in lieu of hip range of motion. This is particularly true when hip extension becomes restricted.
  • Posterior Chain Strength
    Without sufficient gluteal, hamstring and lumbar erector strength, and particularly strength endurance, the runner will find it difficult to maintain the desired upright and ‘tall’ posture. When these important muscles fatigue, or are inhibited, the tendency is for runners begin to adopt a ‘jack-knife’ posture, bending forwards at the hips as their posterior chain muscles begin to fail in their extensor tasks.
  • Shoulder Girdle Posture 
    Many office workers will be far too familiar with this one. The typical rounded-shoulder posture we see again and again in recreational athletes leads to postural issues local to the upper body, but can also affect the ability of the body to maintain effective running posture. Compensations can be caused at lumbar and pelvic level as a result of poor shoulder posture. Often athletes who have poor shoulder girdle posture fail to make effective use of their arms when running, affecting the balance of a runner’s body as an efficient machine.
  • Thoracic Spine Mobility
    We want to see runners able to display the thoracic extension and rotation needed to load the Anterior Oblique Sling (see video below), enabling the runner to effectively recruit their core muscles within running gait.

    Instead of this thoracic extension and rotation, we often see athletes running with restricted t-spine extension, protracted and internally rotated shoulders (see point above) and a running action where the arms drive across the midline of the body. Lots of rotation, but not enough extension to load the ‘sling shot’ of the Anterior Oblique Sling.

…What about Cadence & Foot Strike Pattern?

Commonly discussed running technique elements such as running cadence and foot strike pattern both fall in the variables bracket. Variables we can affect with certain coaching cues, as discussed on our recent podcast interview with Brad Neal about gait re-education.

Interestingly, while the variables are usually quite easy to affect ‘on the run’ immediately with the right verbal, visual and kinaesthetic cues and feedback, being able to affect the constants listed requires a process more reliant on longer-term exercise-based rehab/prehab work.

Insufficient Running Research

It’s fair to say that none of us have the all the answers right now. ‘Running form’ certainly seems to be an en vogue research topic at present, which provides us coaches with lots of information to digest, and figure out how best to apply to each individual athlete.

You can’t go far wrong by keeping an eye on Craig Payne’s blog when it comes to staying up to date with running research!

In terms of barefoot running (another en vogue topic). This review paper was published last month – well worth a read.

The overwhelming message we seem to be getting from all the research currently available, is that best running form is most likely completely subject specific. What will work for one athlete, will quite possibly overload another. As coaches, this is one of our biggest challenges!

I’m looking forward to the running research 2014 has to offer…

Last updated on March 2nd, 2021.