Have you ever noticed how fluid and effortless elite long distance runners look while they run? Even at speeds that boggle the mind, they make it look easy. They appear light on their feet with a spring like gait. Do you think it’s a coincidence, or that these runners naturally possess a proper running form?
Regardless, there are similar characteristics that the majority of elite runners’ form possess, ones we’d be wise to emulate. Yes, there’s a wide variance in how runners run, and not one “correct” running technique. BUT, there are certain common characteristics of proper running form.
Honestly, my prior opinion was that running form was mostly “fixed.” I thought that the act of putting one foot in front of the other didn’t require much technique. I thought there was little to gain by tweaking my form. “Proper running form” was for the elite runners..
I was wrong. I read Brain Training for Runners by Matt Fitzgerald, and he makes a convincing case to pay attention to your running form. Proper running form CAN make you less injury prone, faster, and more powerful if you make the effort to improve it.
Fortunately, all five characteristics below are interrelated. This means working on one aspect of our stride will have an impact on the entire stride.
Click here to read a related blog piece that outlines specific actions to practice while running to emulate these five characteristics. In other words, this article explains the what/why of proper running form. The related article details the how.
For me, knowing the “why” makes me more willing to put the effort forth, and pursue the “how.” Perhaps you feel the same?
FIVE CHARACTERISTICS of PROPER RUNNING FORM
Be forewarned, they may not be what you expect, but they make sense! The five characteristics are stiffness, compactness, ballistic action, stability, and symmetry.
Matt Fitzgerald compiled this list after carefully reviewing studies by leading researchers on gait training, and intently studying elite runners’ form in action.
STIFFNESS – Proper Running Form Factor 1
To me, this one didn’t make the most sense, at first. Elite runners look the opposite of “stiff.” They appear more fluid, smooth and light on their feet than the average runner.
To clarify, the term stiffness applies to muscular stiffness. An analogy is a tighter spring that’s more efficient and has more potential energy versus a loose spring. We may not think our bodies/muscles act as a spring, but they do.
In fact, most runners don’t realize how much energy they’re able to use due to this spring effect. Research shows that our oxygen consumption accounts for only HALF of the energy we need at any given speed. The other half is attributed to the “spring effect!
When one foot makes ground contact, muscles and tendons stretch beyond their natural length. This lengthening is briefly stored energy. It’s then released as the muscles return to their natural length when the foot leaves the ground. THIS energy propels a runner upward and forward.
Also know that elite runners spend less time with their foot on the ground, partly due to their stride stiffness. And interestingly enough, it’s this stiffness that makes elite runners appear smoother and more fluid.
COMPACTNESS – Proper Running Form Factor 2
Of all characteristics of proper running form, this one ranks possibly highest.
Stride compactness relates to where your foot lands and becomes fully weighted in relation to your hips. If your foot is directly underneath your hips, this is a compact stride. If the foot is in front of the hips, that’s overstriding.
Overstriding, or a foot landing in front of the hip leads to two problems: less stability, and a braking effect that impairs forward movement.
Less stability: imagine you had to balance on one leg with your foot directly beneath your hips. It may be a little challenging, but doable. Now imagine you’re in a short lunge stance (front leg in front of your hips), and you must raise your rear foot to balance on your front foot. It will be nearly impossible as your support isn’t aligned with your center of gravity.
Now apply this to running. When a foot lands in front of the hips (overstriding), the runner must put more energy into stabilizing the body. This also means the foot is on the ground longer. Neither of these helps to propel a runner forward, or make the best use of the above mentioned spring effect.
In terms of the braking effect, when your foot lands ahead of your hips, the impact force that travels up your leg moves backward, against the direction of travel. This also delays the thrust forward, and requires more energy, more ground contact time to propel forward. In other words: wasted energy!
BALLISTIC ACTION – Proper Running Form Factor 3
This one also wasn’t the most obvious characteristic of good running form for me, either. Ballistic action means short, fast muscular actions versus sustained and gentle. Most folks think that sustaining a gentle muscle action is a part of good running form. To even out the effort, land softly, relax, and avoid any peaks/valleys in our muscle work is the stuff of greatness.
The best runners have a ballistic running style. Their muscles contract VERY forcefully during a small time period of the overall stride. That time period begins at bracing for impact, and ends when pushing off with the foot.
Tensing the muscles before impact creates the stiffness that allows muscles and tendons to capture more energy. After push off, elite runners relax their muscles more while in the air between foot strikes (and they are air born longer than the average runner).
In short, more energy is applied during a slice of the stride. BUT, ballistic runners are using less energy overall.
STABILITY – Factor 4
Surprisingly, half of the energy we use while running is to prevent our bodies from collapsing each time we foot strike. Each strike puts a significant amount of downward-pulling force on our body’s joints.
Some common ways this appears in an average runner’s form: at foot strike, the runner normally has a greater knee bend with the opposing hip dipping toward the ground. Throw on top of that the tendency for the pelvis to tip forward, and these three excessive joint movements suck up a lot of energy. Not to mention more unnecessary stress/strain on the joints.
All of these characteristics are interrelated, and overstriding (NOT a compact stride) greatly impairs a runner’s stability.
SYMMETRY – Factor 5
A runner does not need to be perfectly symmetrical to have a good form. BUT, the best runners do tend to run more symmetrically than the typical runner. Small discrepancies likely won’t amount to much, but large asymmetries waste energy and increase risk of injury.
One of the most problematic asymmetries is twisting of the spine (or “long axis rotation”). Let’s say this is often related to over striding, where the runner can’t begin thrust phase until late in stance phase. I won’t go into all the moving parts, but suffice to say it leads to rotational movement from shoulders to pelvis. And – this wastes a LOT of energy.
Top runners are able to keep their shoulders and hips more square with the direction they are traveling. That requires less energy, and also makes them less prone to injury.