Running technique is an incredibly important part of your performance. If you don't spend time thinking about your movement patterns and gait and working to make it as effective as possible, you are missing out on a simple way to run faster or farther without more physiological training. Understanding and applying the science of technique will help you maximize your efficiency on the road and improve your performance.
Why Technique is Important
The ideal running technique is the one that optimizes "running economy" which is the amount of oxygen used in relation to a given distance travelled. The more efficient your stride, the less effort you will have to exert. Good technique also optimizes injury prevention by reducing the impact of each step on your muscles and joints. In scientific terms, you want to convert as much of the potential energy of your muscles into the kinetic energy of motion as possible.
If we break down running technique into its component parts, stride length is one of the primary issues to address. The distance you cover with each stride has a significant effect on your energy use. Research has shown that the most efficient running stride length is the one that is chosen freely by the individual. Which means that if you are trying to improve your technique, you need to begin with what comes naturally to you. However, improvements in efficiency and strength should eventually lead to an efficient and effective stride that may be longer than your original freely chosen stride.
We do know that runners who over stride by stretching their legs far out in front of their bodies with every step, dramatically increase the impact on their muscles and joints and engage in a braking action that reduces their momentum with every stride. To minimize energy loss and muscle damage, you should try to place your foot landing just in front of your hips as you run. If you watch experienced runners, their foot strikes do not land far in front of their hips.
To optimize efficiency, you need a technique that eliminates any motion that does not drive you forward. A good example is arms swaying past the midline. Runners who introduce motion that is not in the direction they are travelling, reduce their ability to transfer energy from their leg muscles into energy that directs forward motion. If you picture an experienced or elite runner in your mind, you will note that there are very few extra motions in their upper body as they run.
As for the other parts of your biomechanics, try to look 30-40 m ahead of you so that your head is up and you ears are in line with your shoulders. You should maintain an upright posture as if you are being pulled up into the sky by a thread, keep your elbows close to you body, cup your hands lightly, and swing your arms in the direction of your motion. It is also important to keep your hips and your core open and fluid to control lateral movement of the torso while promoting fluid transfer of energy from the upper to lower body.
Improve Your Performance
Here are the things you should consider when assessing or improving your technique:
- Try running quietly for 100 m or so – you will find you make adjustments naturally and can make note of them. You can also try running barefoot on a safe surface in order to feel your natural running stride.
- Avoid over striding and try to land with your feet just in front of your hips
- Keep your head up and your ears in line with your shoulders
- Maintain an upright posture
- Keep your hips and core muscles fluid but firm
- Avoid swinging your arms across your body
- Avoid bouncing
How to Teach Your Body to Run Differently
Once you have a sense of the essential components of effective running technique, you need to assess your own style. Since running in front of a mirror is a bit tricky, you will need to get feedback from someone else or have them take a video for you to review. Look for movements that are counter to smooth forward motion and identify the parts of your technique that need to improve.
Long runs are a good time to try new things because you are running slowly and usually have other people around. Begin by consciously moving your body in the new way and then focus on trying to repeat that motion consistently for an extended period. When making a change, you can start with 5 minutes of new technique at the beginning of the run and then progress to the new style for an entire run. Before you know it, you will be running exclusively with your new technique. This will develop and refine your body's running motor patterns to the point that the new movement becomes natural and your overall performance improves.
You should also think about how you use time at the gym to teach your body to move. A simple push-pull exercise using a pulley system is a great way to practice holding great posture during movements like running. The other benefit of this exercise is that it stretches your hip flexors and trains your core! Start in a lunge position with the hand holding the pulley or tubing, then rotate the body forward as if you are punching:
You can also do the reverse to train the opposite muscles.
With the proper technique and exercises to support it, you can improve your efficiency, lower your times and enjoy running with more ease.
1 Daoud AI, Geissler GJ, Wang F, Saretsky J, Daoud YA, Lieberman DE. (2012). Foot strike and injury rates in endurance runners: a retrospective study. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise
Greg Wells Ph.D. (www.drgregwells.com, @drgregwells) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto in the Faculties of Medicine and Kinesiology. He was the sport science analyst for the Olympic Broadcast Consortium during the 2010 & 2012 Games, and is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World's Best Athletes. Jessica Caterini is a member of the Human Physiology Research Unit in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Toronto.