Take Your Running Form From OK to Epic
To make your runs feel easier — and kinder to your muscles — button up your body’s default stride. Here’s how, step by step.
Instagram version: You’re running on an epic trail through the woods, your hair swooshing in the breeze, your body moving gracefully through the air, your legs catching a smooth, gazelle-like stride. Reality: You’re flailing around like Phoebe Buffay in that Friends episode where she embarrasses Rachel with her, uh, unusual form.
No shame. How you run is how you run, says Nike senior director of global running Chris Bennett, aka Coach Bennett. “That hitch or head bobble or slight lean back or lack of knee lift is all yours,” he says. That said, working on your form may help you become a better runner.
Not sure where to start? How about these tips, from Coach Bennett and other running experts:
“That hitch or head bobble or slight lean back or lack of knee lift is all yours.”
Nike Senior Director of Global Running
1. Take More Steps
One of the most important aspects of ideal running form is the foot landing. You want to make sure your foot lands under you, not in front of you, says Nike Run Club Los Angeles coach Blue Benadum. “We call this an overstride,” he says of the latter.
That’s a crime recreational runners often commit, says licensed physical therapist and Nike Performance Council member Derek Samuel. “Look at elite-level athletes. They land with their foot right underneath their center of mass, leg perpendicular to the ground,” he says. This keeps the pros — and any runner — moving quickly and efficiently.
To create that effect and prevent overstriding, Samuel tells his patients to take more steps per minute. If you’re thinking, “Oof, sounds like more work,” know this: “You don’t use any more energy taking more steps,” he says. In fact, you’re actually going to run smoother and use less energy. That’s because when you overstride, your foot hits the ground in front of you, acting like a brake. “The ground sends a force up the lower leg, which actually slows you down,” says Samuel. Slowness aside, “it’s a big issue because it can create injuries.” To sum this up in one word: avoid.
2. Now, Double-Check That You’re Doing It Right
You can practice taking more steps before you try it on a run. Benadum’s easy tip: Run in place. “This teaches you the sensation that you need to run with a foot landing that’s below yourself and not out in front of you,” he says.
Another good cue is to think about your chin leading your chest. “It's a simple reference that often helps runners’ feet land where they should” — under the hips, not excessively on the heels — “and it takes stress off the lower back and hamstrings,” notes Coach Bennett. When Samuel describes this cue to patients, he calls it “a controlled fall forward,” because it can feel like that until it becomes second nature.
If you want evidence of whether you’re overstriding, Samuel suggests taking a video of yourself running on a treadmill, shot from the side. “It’s a great visual,” he says. “When I show this to patients, the light bulb goes off. They really see how their leg isn’t landing perpendicular to the ground.”
3. Adjust for Hills
To keep your stride efficient when you hit an incline, think short and fast. “I tell runners that they should dance up the hills with light and quick steps,” says Coach Bennett. Stay relaxed, lean forward, pump your arms for momentum, and try to stay in control of your breath. Going downhill, embrace the speed. “Focus on relaxing your upper body and keeping your arms loose, your back tall, and your foot strike on the middle to the ball of your foot,” says Nike Run Club San Francisco coach Jason Rexing.
4. Stay Relaxed
As you run, occasionally perform a head-to-toe body check to see whether you’re holding tension anywhere. Are you hiking up your shoulders? Are your hands in tight fists? Are you grimacing? To help release any clenched muscles, take a deep breath in and slowly let it out. You can also shake out your arms and hands and even turn your head from side to side. The more you can stay loose, says Coach Bennett, the more energy you’ll have for your run.
5. Dial In Your Arm Swing
While arm swings vary from athlete to athlete, you can make yours as efficient as possible by driving your elbows straight back and keeping your hands loose and relaxed. Make sure your torso is upright and, says Coach Bennett, that you don’t drive your arms across your body in front of you. Otherwise, “your hips will follow, swinging to the right and then the left, which wastes energy.”
6. Set Yourself Up for Success
To maintain proper running form, strength training and mobility work is essential, says Ian Klein, an exercise physiologist specializing in cross-training and injury prevention at Ohio University. It makes sense: When your body is strong and relaxed, you run well. The weaker and tighter you are and the more easily you fatigue, the likelier you are to lose that good form and open yourself up to injury, as the wrong muscles can start to fire.
That’s especially true for the knees, where some 50 percent of running injuries occur, says Klein. “Think of your knee as the middle of a bridge, with your foot on one side and your hip on the other. It’s the weakest area and can be affected by problems on both sides,” he explains. If you have bad form — say, you roll your feet inward or overstride — the knee bears the brunt of it.
Strengthen the muscles below and above the knee — from your foot muscles all the way up to your glutes — and you can better absorb running’s impact and prevent the fatigue that brings on sloppy form, says strength and conditioning coach Janet Hamilton, the owner of Atlanta-based coaching company Running Strong. After all, she says, if you can lift heavy weights over and over, carrying your body weight for several miles is going to feel a whole lot easier.
And total-body strength will help prepare you for the balancing act that running demands. “Every time you land on a single foot, your whole body has to be balanced in such a way that your posture remains upright and you’re not twisting or bending to either side,” says Hamilton.
To strength-train for that, “stress-load the muscle in a similar pattern to what you would experience when you're running,” says Klein. Focus on single-leg exercises, such as lunges, step-ups and single-leg deadlifts.
As far as mobility goes, aim to get your fix at least a couple of times per week. Foam roll, stretch, or hit your yoga mat before or after any workout, or dedicate an entire session to mobility to stay loosey-goosey.
7. Don’t Overthink It
Yep, that was…a lot, but you don’t have to put it all into action right away. Try to keep even just one of these improvements in mind as you go about your runs (and your time in between them) to boost your form little by little. From there, you can add more from this list. Not only will you become a stronger runner over time, but you won’t embarrass yourself in front of your friends Phoebe-style either.
Words: Ashley Mateo
Illustration: Yué Wu