Jim2's Running Page

Running Form and Mechanics

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March, 1999

Generally, I don't believe in tampering too much with one's natural running form because I think drastic changes, which are unnatural for the individual runner, can lead to injuries. However, I do believe that we can do some "fine tuning" to make ourselves more efficient (read, "faster") runners.

I think that those characteristics which are particularly important and can be manipulated with minimum risk of injury are posture, extraneous motion, foot strike, stride length and staying relaxed.

Posture....you hit on the key factor here....running upright. Many runners tend to have a "forward lean" or bending at the waist (as opposed to total body forward tilt used when running uphill), which limits the lungs ability to fully expand and maximize oxygen intake. You can test the effect of a forward lean on the lungs' expansion by deliberately alternating running upright and bending forward slightly at the waist during a run. It's easy to sense the difference in lung expansion ability. I have a tendency to slip into a forward lean, especially when I'm tired....like in the late stages of a race, speed work or long run. To control it, I focus on where I am looking. If I'm staring at the road a short distance in front of me, I know I am leaning forward. I try to keep my eyes looking straight ahead, which forces me to keep my shoulders back and hips forward. I don't know about visualizing a rope around my neck pulling my head upward. It might induce panic. ;-)

Extraneous motion....basically, motion that doesn't contribute to forward movement, is a waste of energy and should be minimized. Mostly, this is vertical "bounce" and excessive arm swing. Bounce not only taxes energy stores, but also tires the leg muscles unnecessarily. Bounce should be limited to bounding....a specific form of strength training. I try to minimize bounce by focusing, again, on my eyes. I visualize the path my eyes travel through space as I run. I want the path to be as close to a straight line as possible. A sawtooth pattern indicates bounce. Arm swing is essential to running, but should be mostly in a fore and aft pattern, which contributes to forward movement. Swinging the arms laterally so that the arms reach or pass mid-chest wastes energy. One trick to control lateral arm movement (and is also used to aid running uphill) is to visualize a rope extending in front of you which you are reaching for with each forward arm swing to grasp and pull yourself forward.

Foot strike....the key here is to avoid over striding. I think that a mid-foot strike directly under or slightly ahead of a runner's center of gravity is ideal. Most of us are heel strikers, which indicates that the foot strikes the ground somewhat ahead of our center of gravity and has a braking effect. Generally, the harder the heel strike, the greater the braking action. Methods to detect and correct over striding that I use are to listen to my foot strike (the harder and louder the foot strike, the greater the over stride) and to "soften" my foot strike by imagining that I'm running on a breakable or harmful surface.

Stride length.....in one way, this relates to foot strike. Some runners try to increase stride length by reaching forward with their feet. Wrong!! It just compounds heel strike and its associated braking effect. It is much better to reach forward with the knees and hips, which forces a stronger push-off from the trailing foot, thus lengthening the stride while keeping the lead foot positioned below your torso for an optimum foot strike.

Relaxation....it seems incongruous to tell a runner to relax when s/he is about to die late in a hard run, but it is probably the most important thing we can do to optimize form and running efficiency. Body tension not only uses energy, it exacerbates all the other "bad habits." Plus, if we are consumed by how badly we feel, it's difficult to focus on the other things we should be paying attention to. The compounded effect can tie you up in knots. I use two techniques, one mental and one physical, to try to stay relaxed when a run gets hard. The mental trick is to simply remind myself that the run is at least 80% over by the time it feels really difficult and that every stride is one more behind me and one less to do. I also try to focus on how much I have left in my tank, rather than how much I have expended and how badly I feel. The physical technique is to concentrate on relaxing my hands and jaw. If they are relaxed, the rest of my body....and mind....follows suit.

So often we tend to forget to pay attention to our running form. We slip unknowingly into bad habits, which then have to be corrected. Your post benefited me. During my run today, I not only composed this reply, but put the things I've discussed into practice and corrected some of my own bad habits. As a result, I ran my usual easy 8 mile run 2 minutes faster and more comfortably than last Thursday. In fact, it was the fastest I've run that route in several years. My pace was only 5 seconds per mile slower than my Azalea Trail 10k race pace last week.

So, I thank you for your reminder.