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Proper Running Form: Tips To Improve Form

We always hear that proper running form will help us out. It makes us more efficient and less prone to injury. We know that we should think more about our form, but it’s something that most runners entirely avoid. It’s just running, right? Who doesn’t know how to run? Well, there are lots of common shortcomings in running form, and it’s likely you’re guilty of at least one. Focus some time on fixing your running form flaws, and you’ll see your running improve. If you want to get serious about improving your running form, this article is for you.

We’ll cover everything about running form, including how to have better form, why it’s important, some tips for practicing, and how to avoid injury.

To be the best runner you can be, you have to make sure your running form is up to par. Read on to find out how!

Are You Making These Running Form Mistakes?

If you’re not sure if your running form is correct, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I heel strike?
  • Am I hunching when I run?
  • Are my arms swinging like a boxer’s?
  • Am I running shallow or landing with a lot of noise?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you can level-up your running form.

Running Technique: Why Form Matters

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of form, let’s talk about why it matters. If you run more efficiently with good form, you save a lot of energy. That extra energy can add speed or distance, or both, to your runs.

In addition, conventional wisdom dictates that good running form helps you avoid injuries. When you’re landing where you’re supposed to, then you have a decreased likelihood of getting injured.

(This has been debated among running experts, but for now the general belief is that better form reduces the chance of injury)

Proper running form also just looks good. If you’re about to run a race, you’d probably prefer that your family and friends take pictures of you running across the finish line with impeccable form rather than hunched over or swinging your arms like you’re punching yourself in the chest!

What are the Basics of Good Running Form?

For a brief summary, good running form means a good body placement. Keep your head over shoulders, shoulders over hips, hips over the midfoot upon landing, and arms swinging directly ahead.

When you run with good form, you use less energy to run faster. But let’s break it down step-by-step (literally).

Maintain a Fast Turnover

First, you want your feet to land directly underneath your body. Running with short, quick strides, ideally around 170 per minute, will help this. Don’t overstride. Instead, focus on having a fast but consistent turnover.

Look Ahead and Stand Straight

Next, you’ll want an open chest with a straight, relaxed upper body. Your chin should be up—not looking down at your feet. And your head should be relaxed with your gaze straight forward, not off to the side.

It’s important that you’re looking ahead to make sure that you can see whatever is in front of you. This is especially important if you’re running on a road with traffic. You might also need to look out for roots, rocks, and animals if you’re running on trails.

Land Midfoot

You don’t want to land on your heel and thus heel strike. Rather, you want a stride that allows your feet to land midfoot. Focus on the backswing of your leg with your shin parallel to the ground. Heel striking can come from two majors causes. One is flexing your foot upward too much as you prepare to land. The other is overstriding, or reaching out in front of you with your feet because of a stride that is too long.

Think of a Puppet

You want to stand nice and tall when you run. Don’t lower your hips too much. Your shoulders should be relaxed, but you want to avoid shrugging. Think of yourself as a puppet that is being held taut by a string. They don’t shrug.

When I get near the end of a long run and I’m starting to get tired,  I find myself slouching. When I do, I remember “shoulders out” and start to stand tall once again. For me, reminding myself to put my shoulders out is enough to get into proper form again.

That being said, you don’t want to make your shoulders too tense. I tend to put my shoulders out and then remember that I’m not standing at attention in the military, and therefore can relax them just slightly.

Swing Forward

Make sure that your arms are swinging forward and backward, not side-to-side. You want an efficient arm swing that contributes to your momentum and does not cross your body. Try to keep your arms at your side at a 90-degree angle. If you hands are crossing over the center line of your torso as you swing them, then the motion is too side-to-side. Brush your thumbs along your hips with each stride if it helps keep your arms moving front-to-back.

Hold a Chip (or an Egg)

Watching runners’ hands can be a comical good time. Some let their hands flap all over the place. Others clutch their hands into fists. Still others lock their fingers rigidly like they’re about to chop a board in half. It’s easy to ignore your hand, but don’t. Make sure to loosen your hand grip. Imagine yourself holding potato chips (or an egg) and avoid tightening your hands into fists.

Instead, keep your hands relaxed and at your waist. If you find it helpful, you could always hold a real chip or egg!

Run Softly (and Carry a Big Stick)

Keep your knee in line with the middle of your foot. When your foot strikes the ground, it should be right under your knee. Make sure that you don’t bounce.

To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt slightly, run softly and carry a big stick. People shouldn’t hear you coming from a mile away.

Keep a Neutral Pronation

Finally, make sure that your feet have neutral pronation. You don’t want them to roll inward or outward significantly.

Instead, keep them neutral, rolling your feet inward ever so slightly. This is hard to do if you naturally overpronate – common for runners with flat feet.

It will probably help to use a running shoe with a 4mm or less heel-to-toe drop. These shoes make heel-striking less comfortable and in turn, easier to land on your mid- or forefoot.

How Do You Get a Good Running Form?

Okay, you might be saying. I now know (or have been refreshed) on what good running form looks like, but how do I make it happen for me?

First, as the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. If you want to get better at your form, you have to practice often.

Make it a habit of going through all the motions/movements in a sort of checklist at the beginning of your runs when you’re still focused. Ideally, you’ll have someone there—hopefully a running coach—to check you, especially those first couple times.

Then, to motivate yourself to make good running form a habit, consider starting a streak of running at least a mile a day during which you intentionally practice your running form.

Go through your checklist at the beginning, middle, and end just to make sure you’re keeping it up.

Another way you might consider practicing proper running form is by watching people execute it on a YouTube video like this one. You can do this on rainy days, and then start to visualize what proper running would look like for you.

While seeing someone else use proper running form is a great way to get the idea in your head, the only way you can really apply it is by doing it yourself and putting it into muscle memory. Hence the importance of practicing.

What is the Most Important Part?

In reality, all of it is important in making sure that you’re executing proper running form. That being said, a good place to focus is the landing.

You want to make sure that you’re hitting the ground without overpronation or underpronation and that you aren’t hitting too hard.

However, while it’s good to focus on the landing, make sure that you don’t hyperfocus to the exclusion of all the other different movements that are crucial to run efficiently. You may even want to break it down by run, and have one component that you focus on per run.

What are Some Extra Tips for Energy-Efficient Running?

Once you’ve started to improve in your running form, you can start thinking about additional ways to up your running game.

Breathing is one of them. When you inhale, do so relaxed and through your nose. Exhale through your mouth.

You want to avoid breathing too fast, which can lead to side stitches. Make sure that you aren’t always exhaling when you land on the same foot. One way to do this is breathe in odd-numbered counts. A common example is to inhale for three breaths, and exhale for two. At harder paces, inhale for two, and exhale for one.

That being said, there is no clear rule for breathing as long as you are relaxed. Make sure that your breaths are nice and deep so that you get the oxygen you need.

Also, avoid breathing so heavily that anyone can hear you coming. You might be overdoing it if that’s how you have to breathe during a run.

Finally, although this may seem ironic, running is actually a lot more mental than people realize. Learn to let go and don’t overthink your movements. Try to keep things as natural as possible and trust your body’s instincts. It’s better to be relaxed and natural than forced and tense.

How Should I Handle Hill Running?

When you’re running up hills, your running form should change just slightly.

Shortening your stride and running more on your toes will help running up the hill feel easier. Don’t forget to pump your arms some too to get your upper body engaged.

Try to lean into the hill/incline just a little bit, and focus on staying as consistent as possible as you push up the hill. Hill running is actually a great way to practice your running form because it’s a little easier to focus on it. It’s also nearly impossible to heel strike or to overstride when running uphill. It builds strength, and it’s great for your form.

When you are on the downhill, just go with the flow. Lett gravity bring you down to the base of the hill. Obviously, don’t go faster than you’re comfortable running. But you also don’t need to feel the need to put on the brakes either. This can put a lot of pressure on your knees.

Instead, consider putting your arms and hands down at your sides to just relax and enjoy that downhill. Make sure that you keep breathing properly and that you aren’t overstriding. Just ride the wave!

What are Some Tips to Avoid Injury?

While having good running form is helpful in avoiding injuries, there are also several other things you can do to help prevent injuries.

First, you should make sure that you’re mobile and flexible in your hips and ankles. This will reduce injuries in your lower back and knees.

If you’re just getting into running, or if you recently decided to up your mileage, make sure to gradually increase the duration, frequency, and intensity of your runs. Build up your mileage and speed over time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint! Just remember that results take time.

Honestly, the best way to avoid injuries is to avoid overtraining and to give yourself plenty of variety. If you always do the same hard run every day, you won’t see improvements in your fitness and you might be a candidate for an overuse injury.

One of the best ways to support your running form is to make sure that you have a strong core, so make sure that you’re doing cross-training and strength training on your off days, especially focusing on your core.

Finally, above all, make sure that you’re wearing appropriate running shoes. Honestly, you just need to find a shoe that’s comfortable and works for you. Avoid shoes that are too cushioned, and make sure that you replace your running shoes as needed – every 400 miles or so. Low heel drop shoes are best, but not a requirement.

If the bottoms of your running shoes are starting to wear down or if you’re getting close to the recommended 400 miles, start looking for a new pair of running shoes. New shoes when needed will help keep you injury-free.

Final Thoughts

While it can be easy to forget what proper running form looks like, it’s important to get back to the basics if you want to improve as a runner. Making sure that you take the time to go through your running form checklist before it’s old hat is key to improving your form.

By following the tips that we’ve included in this article, from imagining yourself holding an egg to standing tall to using shorter strides for hills, you’ll be able to become a runner with impeccable running form.

The Wired Runner