We’ve all seen it before: A runner cruising down the road so gracefully that her feet almost appear to float above the ground in an artful dance. Her stride looks flawless and effortless, her arms and legs in perfect, beautiful synchrony, her face relaxed and warmed by a genuine smile. She is not an actress being filmed for a running scene in the next big feature film; she is a runner who has good form.
On the other hand, we’ve also all seen her counterpart (perhaps in our own reflection in the mirror next to the treadmill at the gym!): The woman barely shuffling along, hunched over, shoulders hiked up as if trying to conceal the ears, legs slapping in an uncoordinated jumble, and face drawn in a pained grimace. Whether this is you, or you simply aspire to more closely resemble the seemingly natural-born runner, it’s never too late to work on improving your running form.
Having good running form isn’t just a matter of vanity. It has benefits far more important than earning the respected kudos and turning heads of marveled drivers as they pass by. Good running form can improve your efficiency and economy as a runner, allowing your body to run further and faster with less effort. It can also reduce the risk of injury because running with good form is typically optimal for your body from a biomechanical standpoint. Running with poor form can over-stress certain bones, muscles, or joints or subject them to excessive loads with every step you take. Once your body has adjusted and “good running form” simply becomes your natural running form, you’ll be able to run more comfortably and effortlessly.
What Does Proper Running Form Look Like?
While we all might be able to subjectively qualify someone’s running form as “good” or “bad,” actually describing what constitutes proper running form—and then maintaining it for the duration of your run—can be tricky. Here are some of the key elements that go into good running form:
Your head should be in a neutral position, so that your chin isn’t tilted up or down, and your gaze is on the road ahead of you. You want to resist the temptation to stare straight down at your feet because it will cause you to drop your chin and compress your airway.
Your face should be relaxed. Try not to grimace. You should feel a slight bounce in your cheeks with the impact of each step. This helps conserve energy that might otherwise be wasted by tensing unnecessary muscles.
Running with good form involves running with good posture. In other words, your torso should be erect, your spine neutral, and your body upright. Your chest should be open, up, and proud. Envision yourself “running tall,” as if there’s a tether from the top of your head pulling you up towards the sky. Engage your core and keep your shoulders back—not hunched or rounded. This tall running posture helps ensure your lungs and diaphragm are unencumbered and have full capacity to expand. After all, you want to be able to breathe as easily as possible and oxygenate your lungs and working muscles.
Many runners underutilize their arms. The arm swing component of proper running form serves a couple purposes: It aids in balance and it provides momentum and power to help drive your legs forward. In order to reap these benefits, your shoulders should be relaxed with your shoulder blades pulled back. Your arms should be flexed about 90 degrees at the elbow, and they should swing back and forth alongside your body rather than cross and swing in front of your torso. When the path of your arm swing involves them rotating and crossing in front of your body, your form is less efficient because you’re wasting energy that could otherwise be propelling you forward.
If you’re on a training run, or running at a comfortable pace, your hands should be in a relaxed fist. Imagine you are cradling a grape in your palm and trying to squish it while still holding it inside your fist. When you are trying to sprint to the finish line in a race, or giving it all you’ve got in a hard interval, open your hand so that they are flat and outstretched, with your palms facing inward forwards your body.
Though hip imbalances and issues are often not as overt when a runner has poor form, much of good running form actually lies in the hip. After all, they are the start of the lower body. Even though running is a unilateral motion, meaning your legs are operating independently from one another and only one is supporting you at a time, you want your hips to be level and balanced. In other words, when you land on each leg, engage your glutes and core to keep your hips squared—or parallel to one another—rather than sink into the weight-bearing side. If you notice the top of your shoe catching the back of your opposite calf muscle when you swing your leg forward, you’re sinking into your landing hip and not keeping a level pelvis.
RELATED: A Runner’s Guide to Hip Pain
It should come as no surprise that a lot of the technique that goes into good running form hinges on using your legs properly. To make yourself the most economical and efficient runner, you want to control and power your stress by actively engaging your glutes and hamstrings. To understand how to do this, visualize yourself riding a bike. Rather than just pushing down on the pedals, and allowing your foot to passively ride up to finish the revolution, you want to pull upwards on the upstroke as well. The same principle holds when running: good running form balances the workload on the leg muscles. Your glutes contract to propel your leg forward on the swing component of your stride and your hamstrings contract after you land to pull your body forward beyond that leg.
It’s also important to run with parallel legs. A surprisingly common running form problem is allowing your knees to collapse in, such that you’re running with “knock knees.” This can put a lot of stress on the ligaments and cartilage in the knee joint. Strengthening the muscles in your hips—particularly gluteus medius—will help you control your legs and land with the parallel, stable position you need to run with good form. (Tip: To strengthen your gluteus medius, perform side-lying leg lifts with an ankle weight or do side steps with a resistance band looped around your ankles.)
Lastly, make sure you lift your legs enough so that your feet aren’t shuffling along and scuffing the road. Even though it may seem like shuffling conserves energy because you don’t have to lift your legs as high with each step, it’s actually inefficient and wastes energy lost to friction with the road that does nothing to move you forward.
Your feet are your connection point to the ground, so they play a key role in ensuring your running form is propelling you forward efficiently.
Proper foot strike also plays a vital role in injury prevention, both in the feet themselves as well as up your entire legs since your landing position and pattern dictates the shock absorption demand on your leg. Ideal foot strike should involve landing lightly on the midfoot. Heel striking not only transmits excessive force directly up the legs and increases the risk of injury, but it also sets up your stride to be in an unproductive position in terms of achieving forward movement. Similarly, landing with a heavy foot, almost like stomping with each step or slapping your feet down results in energy lost to the road underneath you—energy that could have gone into forward propulsion.
Putting It All Together: How to Improve Your Running Form
It can feel really daunting to change your natural running form, especially if you’ve been running for years. However, trying to train yourself to have better running form usually pays off in the end, even if it’s uncomfortable, awkward, and feels unnatural at first.
Start making changes gradually. For example, focus on just one body part per run. Use a queue or mantra that will prompt you to adjust your form and check in every few minutes during the run to see if you’re practicing the running form technique. For example, you might focus on the neutral head position with “gaze ahead,” or your posture with “run tall.” You can recite “steady hips” or “light feet.” By only focusing on one or two things per run, you can still run somewhat freely and naturally without overwhelming yourself with instructions. As you consistently practice those queues, you won’t have to think about them as much and you can introduce another component of proper form into your workout.
Be patient, but consistent; you can turn yourself into that graceful, efficient runner, gliding down the road with the smooth, effortless ease of the fastest gazelle.
Ready to take it to the next level? To improve your form with help from the experts, sign up for our Run College “Optimize Your Stride” course, available to Outside+ members.