I’m a HUGE fan of Matt Fitzgerald, author of 20+ books that span topics such as running, nutrition, fitness, cross-training, and triathlons. To date, I’ve read three of his books, the most recent: Brain Training for Runners. One topic I particularly love in this book is how to improve stride running form. He gives some excellent cues to incorporate while running to improve your stride.
Therefore, this post’s info around running stride mechanics is credited to Matt Fitzgerald, and his book, Brain Training for Runners. But, I know not everyone will read the book. Therefore, I’m compelled to share the info with you in hopes you will help you improve your running form.
Related Post: The Ultimate Guide to Your Best Running Form
Let’s get down to it: Stride is everything.
Although, generally, most runners are hesitant to improve or alter their running form until they have an injury. The mentality is: “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.” And, while running may not seem as technical as some other sports (ie: swimming), form and technique DO matter in a sport reliant on a HIGHLY REPETITIVE motion.
Matt Fitzgerald states that the risks associated with meddling with your running form are overstated. And, there’s evidence that to fiddle, or improve one’s running form in sensible ways actually reduces injury risk. Essentially, there are simple means of improving stride form that runners can do that are likely to prevent injuries (versus cause them), while enhancing stride efficiency/power.
In Brain Training for Runners, running is defined as an effort to delay and resist fatigue. And, to fatigue is to (potentially) have your stride fall apart.
When fatigue sets in, muscle action is less fluid/synchronized; thus the entire stride pattern changes. Exactly how does the stride change? The stride loses stiffness, ground contact time increases, and stride rate decreases. None of these are good in terms of your pace or form.
Here’s the kicker: fatigue related stride changes not only impair performance, but contribute to overuse injuries. And, overall stride form is closely connected to injury risk. Nearly every running injury has a stride flaw/abnormality as its root cause.
So what’s a runner to do? Improve your stride form through “proprioceptive cues,” and technique drills that help maintain proper running form even with fatigue. In this post, we focus on the proprioceptive cues!
What’s proprioception? Proprioception is the sense through which we perceive our position and movement of our body relative to the environment around us. A non-running related example is how you’re able to thread your arm through your coat sleeve without looking (or touching your nose with your eyes closed).
With running, proprioceptive cues are thoughts/sensations to focus on while running to help control your movement in a desired way. Essentially, they enable you to improve your stride running form as you think about the cues during your run.
How to Make it Work
- It requires some concentration/discipline. We normally let our thoughts wonder while running. This requires a bit more focus, similar to meditation, when you find your mind wandering, bring it back to your focus point.
- It won’t happen overnight! Motor patterns that underlie your current stride habits are deeply ingrained.
- Focus on one cue at a time throughout the entire length of your run. It’s not necessary to master one cue before moving to another. Rather, better to focus on one for several days, and then proceed to the next. Then, keep them in a rotation, always revisiting to ensure your stride form stays strong.
- Some of the cues may make more sense to you, and have a bigger impact on your stride given what your current stride is. If a friend can video you running, it may help to zone in one which cues are a bigger priority for you.
Lastly, there are five components of an effective/efficient stride. The logic/description I’ll save for another post, but they are: stiffness, ballistic action, compactness, stability, and symmetry. Of course, these 12 cues listed below are to improve your running form by impacting these five components.
> Related Topic: Avoid Injury with Glute Strengthening for Runners <
Cues to Improve Your Running Form
FALLING FORWARD. Tilt your entire body slightly forward as you run from your ankles (not waist!). You may want to exaggerate the lean until you almost feel like you’ll truly fall forward, and then back it up a bit so you feel in control.
Why do it? When running with a slight forward tilt in your body, your feet land closer to your center of gravity (more compact stride).
NAVEL TO SPINE. Focus on pulling your belly button inward toward your spine. This activates the deep abdominal muscles that help stabilize the pelvis and lower spine while running. For those that don’t (which according to one study, is 90% of runners), the pelvis tilts forward excessively.
Why do it? When deep abs are not kept tight, some force generated by glutes/hamstrings is wasted, and therefore never reaches the ground. In other words, you’re wasting the opportunity to better yourself propel forward (ballistic action).
RUNNING ON WATER. Imagine you’re running on water, and your goal is to not fall through the surface. That is, apply maximum force to the “water” in minimum contact time. Think: quick, yet forceful steps.
Why do it? Helps to stiffen your stride, minimize contact time, and start thrust phase earlier.
RUNNING AGAINST A WALL. Pretend there’s a wall directly in front of your nose that moves with you as you run. Also imagine you don’t want to knock your knees or feet into this wall. To avoid that, shorten your stride, and place your feet underneath your hips, versus out ahead of your body. The leaning forward mentioned above will also create a bit more space to drive your thighs forward without banging your knees.
Why do it? Facilitates a more compact stride by correcting over-striding!
PULLING THE ROAD. Think of your running route as a giant non-motorized treadmill. Pull the road behind you with each foot strike.
Why do it? Teaches you to stiffen your stride, minimize ground contact time and begin thrust phase earlier.
SCOOTING. Minimize your “vertical” movement while running. Just think about thrusting your body forward instead of upward while running. Imagine a ceiling about 2” above your head while running that you don’t want to hit.
Why do it? Provides you with greater stability by reducing vertical impact forces.
Improve Your Running Form, Continued
POUNDING THE GROUND. That may surprise you, it did me! Most runners allow their feet to fall passively to the ground. Instead, practice actively driving your foot into the ground (as you give a backward pull, AKA, “pulling the road”). Note, if you’re a heel striker, work on shortening your stride first before using this cue.
Why do it? Minimize ground contact time, thrust earlier, stiffens your stride.
FLOPPY FEET. When practicing this cue, keep striking the ground forcefully with your feet, but use the upper leg muscles to generate the force while keeping your foot relaxed.
Why do it? This enables your feet to absorb and transfer impact forces to minimize stress on specific tissues. It also increases the amount of “free energy” you’re able to store and reuse.
DRIVE THE THIGH. Focus on driving the thigh of your “swing leg” a bit more forcefully than you normally do. This creates a counterbalance with your opposite leg as it comes into contact with the ground.
Why do it? Enhances stride symmetry and stiffness.
BUTT SQUEEZE. Right before your foot makes ground contact, contract your hip/buttock muscles on that side and keep them engaged throughout the ground contact phase of the stride.
Why do it? Enables you to maintain greater hip, pelvis and lower spine stability as you run (and potentially even the knees).
FEELING SYMMETRY. Focus your attention on a specific body part (on both left/right side). Ie: arm swing, push-off, foot strike, etc. Notice the feeling on the left versus right side, and if you notice a discrepancy, attempt to adjust your stride to eliminate that discrepancy (or reduce it). Essentially, alter your stride to emulate the side that feels more “right” or better.
Why do it? Reduces stride asymmetries (which can lead to injury/inefficiency).
AXLE BETWEEN YOUR KNEES. Imagine there’s an axle, post, dowel, or whatever positioned between your knees that pushes your knees about a half inch farther apart than normal.
Why do it? Helps you to engage your hip flexors, and hip external rotators — thus preventing internal thigh rotation (a common cause of injuries).