Proper running form is crucial in order to reduce your risk for injuries and perform your best.
“When you get into running, you should start slow and easy and be conscious of your running form,” says Thomas Watson, a running coach and founder of Marathon Handbook. “It’s something that your body gets accustomed to — muscle memory kicks in — so it’s always worthwhile starting off on the right foot rather than having to try to correct it later on.”
Whether you’re an experienced runner or just starting out, these nine tips will help you tweak your form to perfection:
1. Look ahead
While it may be tempting to observe passing scenery on your run, it’s best to keep your eyes on the prize.
“Try to keep looking towards the horizon and keep your chin parallel to the ground,” says Watson. “This helps keep your head in a neutral position, minimizing the strain on your neck.”
2. Keep your shoulders down and back
Hunching your shoulders can trigger neck stiffness, rotator cuff injuries, and muscle soreness. That’s why it’s important to roll your shoulders back and down, and try to keep them loose.
“Some runners have to consciously pause and lower their shoulders to remove any tension in the area,” Watson says.
3. Swing your arms from the shoulder
The way you swing your arms while you run also matters. Alexis Colvin, MD, an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital, says you should swing your arms from front to back rather than side to side. This will make your stride more efficient.
The American Council on Exercise recommends running with your elbows bent at a 90 degree angle, noting that if your arms cross your torso when you’re running, that’s a waste of energy that will cause you to get tired faster.
4. Relax your hands
“Keep your hands gently curled up, but not in a tight fist,” Watson says. Holding them out flat or in a fist can create tension in your arms and shoulders. It also is less efficient, as you will spend extra energy contracting your arm muscles.
5. Tighten your core
“Our core is called the core for a reason — it is the central stabilizer of the body,” Colvin says. “Keeping it strong helps to not only prevent injury but also can help improve your running.”
Core strength is linked to improved balance and stability, both of which play into running efficiency and proper form. Your core also acts as a “shock absorber”, promoting ease of movement and unloading extra force on your joints.
A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine compared 72 runners with injuries to 36 uninjured runners. The researchers found that injured runners had a greater contralateral pelvic drop (CPD), which is the way the pelvis moves from side to side while running. Engaging your core can help stabilize the pelvis and reduce this movement.
As you’re running, imagine that you are pulling your belly button back towards your spine. This will engage your core, and ensure you’re staying upright.
6. Make sure your torso is strong and upright
Ensure that your back is straight and your torso is upright — this will help with breathing, as good posture can help the diaphragm expand and contract fully. The diaphragm is the muscle responsible for inflating and deflating your lungs. Giving it adequate space to suck in oxygen means you’re less likely to be out of breath.
Watson also says that running with your shoulders sticking out behind you — like Donald Duck — can signal a “muscular imbalance that impairs your running game.” He recommends: “Hinge your hips forward slightly to try and counteract this.” Leaning forward slightly also helps with forward momentum.
7. Don’t bounce
Some runners have a bit too much pep in their step, making it look like they bounce along the road. “What goes up must come down, and it will come down with greater impact,” says Tamara Elzey, DPT, a physical therapist and running technique specialist.
Bouncing too high when you run means your body lands with more force, necessitating your joints to absorb more shock which can cause knee injuries. To combat this, try to propel yourself forward rather than upwards when you run.
8. Align your lower body
While a long stride may mean you run further, don’t overextend your knees. When your foot makes contact with the ground, your knee should be slightly bent and in line with the middle of your foot, says Watson. This helps joints absorb shock.
The ideal height to bring your knees up to varies. Sprinters often raise their knees high for maximum power, but this can waste energy when you are running long distances.
9. Land lightly
To avoid injury, try not to slap your feet on the ground. Instead, keep footfalls light and quiet.
A 2015 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine analyzed the running gaits of 249 female runners who ran at least 20 miles per week. Researchers used a force plate to record the force exerted when the runners’ foot struck the ground.
The researchers then compared the results of women who reported being severely injured to those who did not report injuries — common injuries included muscle strains, tendinitis, and stress fractures. Overall, runners who reported being injured exerted more force upon landing than those who did not, suggesting a link between injuries and force of impact.
Why running form matters
Problems with your running form can contribute to injuries down the line, as certain muscles or joints take the majority of the impact. Colvin says that overuse injuries like tendinitis — the inflammation of a tendon — are common amongst runners.
“I would recommend cross-training — mixing in lower impact activities into your schedule — as well as strength training to help prevent injuries,” she says.
Other common injuries that might be linked to improper running form include:
The bottom line
“Running form isn’t something runners can develop once then forget about,” Watson says. “It’s something you should revisit and examine continuously throughout your running career.”
Watson suggests recording yourself running, then looking over the footage to see what your form looks like. This is particularly helpful for identifying any asymmetries in how you run.
“Check both legs and feet are behaving in roughly the same way,” he says. “It’s often the case that runners have one lazy foot which rotates in a funny way, or one knee caves inwards more than the other. Being aware of these issues is the first step to addressing them.”
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