While every runner ultimately adopts a form that works best for their unique physical make-up, there are some tried and true axioms of good form that help make sure we are running efficiently. As you run, keep the following fundamentals of good form in mind: stay relaxed, stay vertical, reduce unnecessary motion, keep feet quiet, focus more on turnover and less on stride length, and pay attention to how you breathe. And don’t forget to smile!
If you are clenching your fists or tightening your arms/shoulders as you move them in cadence with and in opposition to your feet, you are working harder than you need to. Allow your body to relax, letting your arms swing freely from the shoulder while maintaining about a 90 degree angle at the elbow. Your hands should be unclenched and specifically, hold each forefinger and thumb lightly together (imagine you are holding a potato chip in each hand and you don’t want to break them) with the other fingers relaxed. If you are training to run long distances the more energy you save with each stride, the more you’ll have available to carry yourself to the finish line. At various times during your run, consciously relax, starting from your neck and jaw and working your way down to your ankles and feet. Even the unnecessary tightening of facial muscles is wasted energy. No grimacing, you chose to toe the starting line!
Leaning forward helps when you’re sprinting toward the finish line tape, but the further forward beyond vertical you lean, the more you are fighting gravity and it will quickly tire your neck and back muscles. Remember, your head weighs about 8 pounds and if it is directly over your hips, your neck and back muscles can relax. So, keep your upper body, including your head, vertically in line with your hips when running distance. In other words, run tall!
Reduce unnecessary motion
Flailing your arms or legs, bobbing (up/down or left/right), or any other motion that is not in the same direction with the action of your legs while running (forward/backward), wastes valuable energy. Keep your elbows relatively close to your sides which helps direct your arm swing more forward and backward. This will lessen the tendency to cross the midline of the body with your hands (and less turning left and right by your hips). Over-striding, which manifests itself as heel-striking, requires greater range of motion of the hip, knee, and ankle joints. The bigger contractions required by the muscles to produce this bigger range of motion is more fatiguing. Try to keep your feet as quiet as reasonably possible. In general, the less noise your feet make at foot strike, the more efficient your form. The most efficient strides are not those in which you are striking the ground first with your heel or ball of the foot, but with your mid-foot and finishing with toeing-off. Feel free to experiment with your foot strike to make it as smooth and quiet as possible for running efficiency and less wear and tear on your body.
Turnover versus stride length
Think long legs are an advantage to running fast? Think again. One of the keys to faster running is an efficient stride. Too many runners focus on stride length, but neglect to consider turnover (the number of steps in a minute). Studies conducted by the U.S. Olympic distance training facilities found that the turnover rate that is best for all athletes regardless of height, weight, skill, fitness, experience, or even body-type is 180 steps per minute (equates to 3 steps per second). To find out your turnover, count the number of steps you take in 10 seconds during a comfortable run – then divide that number by ten (moves the decimal one place to the left). If your turnover is between 2.9 and 3.1 steps per second, you don’t need to alter anything. If not, you can and should alter the length of your arm swing which will automatically alter your turnover rate. It will also give you a corresponding opposite change in your stride length. Note: shortening your arm swing will increase your turnover, but will shorten your stride. FYI, your legs will always stay in opposition to your arms. Your brain figured this out when you were learning to crawl as an infant.
Establish breathing rhythm
The cornerstone of any distance training program is your weekly long run. Your objective for your long run is to find a pace at which you can carry on a conversation. If you are winded and struggle to converse, you are working too hard! To make sure you are getting the most air in each breath, try to breath with the diaphragm (belly- breathing). This may seem a bit strange at first, but it is what is taught to those in theatrics to project their voices and to those who play wind instruments in band so they can hold notes longer. It is best explained as filling your belly as you inhale like filling a balloon and letting the balloon go flat as you exhale. It requires that you push your belly out somewhat as you inhale using your abdominals. Don’t worry, no one is watching! Another huge benefit to belly-breathing is it will keep the diaphragm muscle contracting properly so it does not spasm and result in the dreaded “side-stitch.” Some folks like to try to get their inhales and exhales into a rhythm that matches a certain number of steps. While it is debatable whether this is of benefit or not, it should not hurt as long as you use an odd total number of steps per inhale/exhale cycle so you are not always ending your exhale on the same foot. A regular breathing rhythm can also have a meditative effect. As you gain experience and fitness, the “runners high” will be associated with a good breathing rhythm.
Hey, this is supposed to be fun! If you want to sort out which runners are enjoying their run from those who are not during your next long run, look at their expressions as they run past you. If they are wearing a grimace they just might be taking things way too seriously or suffering from improper running or breathing form. If they smile as you go by, consider them to be role models. If the “left brain” starts to tell you that you are too tired and that what you are doing is just too much work, engage your “right brain” in a little conversation about how beautiful the day is, and how blessed you are to be able to put one leg in front of the other, over and over again. Celebrate becoming a runner, and smile.