3 Simple Tips for Better Running Form

I am starting to train for a half-marathon, and the more I read about proper running technique, the more confused I get. Can you enlighten me as to proper running form? Thank you. —Jennifer

Hi, Jennifer. Great news about training for your first half-marathon, and you’re definitely not alone in being confused and overwhelmed. In fact, if you Google “running form,” you’ll find thousands of videos, blogs, and more on how to run properly. The key is to focus on the fundamentals first and build into the specifics. When you keep it simple, it all begins to make more sense.

When I took up golf earlier in my life, I took a lesson from a pro. Okay, it wasn’t exactly a pro, it was my father, who at that time in my life, I thought was the best golfer in the world.

He didn’t start with learning the power of my backswing, getting distance on my drive, or even hip rotation. He started me off with learning how to hold the club in my hands and make contact with the ball. Period.

Once I was able to hit the ball, he taught me the basic shots for putting, chipping, and driving. After graduating from there, I played my first nine holes, which eventually turned into 18, and then I got my first set of hand-me-down golf clubs with Mickey Mouse club covers.

I never would have been able to get through nine holes without knowing the fundamentals first. These primary skills allowed me to learn how to fine-tune my shots for distance and accuracy (which I’m still learning today).

My point is…running form develops in time, like your golf game, or a fine glass of wine. If you focus on the basics first, you’ll improve without being completely overwhelmed. When we try to focus on everything before it is time, confusion wins out and a lack of progress follows.

  • Perform a Head-to-Toe Inventory one or two times per run. Like learning how to hold the club and making contact with the ball, tuning into what your body is doing by performing an inventory, head to toe, will allow you to learn how your body is moving forward and bring awareness to your running style. Perform this inventory a few times during your run and let this simmer for several weeks.
  • Your head should be over your shoulders, eyes looking forward.
  • Neck and shoulders should be relaxed—tightness here is a huge energy suck.
  • Arms bent (don’t worry about the exact degree just yet) and swinging like a pendulum from your shoulder. Still confused?  Stand with your feet hip width apart and arms long and start swinging them. You’ll notice they follow a natural arc from your hip to your center line. Now bend your arms and keep swinging with relaxed shoulders—this is it!
  • Relax your hands—you’re not getting ready for a fight! If it helps, think of something delicate in your palm (bird, chip…)
  • Hips should be under the shoulders. Think of natural alignment from head to toes. Watch other runners for this one and you’ll see what I mean. If they are bent or slouched forward, they are out of alignment.
  • Your feet should land with short, quick strides under your hips.
  • Next—Focus on your feet. Once you learn how to run in alignment and with less tension with the head-to-toe inventory, the next step is to dial in your cadence, or the number of strides per minute. During the heart of your run, count the number of strides (or steps) your right foot takes in one minute. According to Coach Jack Daniels, the general rule of thumb for efficient running is 90 strides per minute for one foot, or 180 for both, but there is variance based on leg length. The key is in knowing what your cadence is, and if you’re in the 70s to low-80s, you’re likely trying to cover too much ground with each step—a common newbie mistake. If this is the case, practice running with shorter, quicker steps. One fun way is to run to a fast-paced song (e.g. “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley at 177 beats per minute [bpm], “Dancing with Myself” by Billy Idol at 177 bpm) or a zen-like 175-180 bpm mix from PodRunner.com. You can also learn via gadgets like PEAR SportsGarmin, and others that offer cadence sensors that mount to your shoe. Like proper alignment, dialing in your cadence will have a profound effect on your energy management and efficiency down the road, but it will take time to learn.
  • Warm Up and Build Your Running Game Slowly. This may not seem like a form tip, but it certainly is, especially if you sit during the day and head out for your run post-work with your hips and hamstrings so tight you could play a tune on them. Invest at least three to five minutes in walking briskly and with purpose. Sprinkle in backwards walking to open your hips (be careful) and foam rolling if you are particularly tight in areas (hips, ITB, calves). A warmup is the gateway to better form, as it prepares your body to run optimally—like a practice swing before the go-to shot. [Read more on how to warm up for various races here.] Avoid going for 18 holes if you still need to learn how to run or you’re fresh into the running scene. Like all sports, investing the time in building the mechanics, fitness, and stamina will allow you to run stronger more quickly than jumping ahead. In many cases, form issues stem from a lack of foundation of kilometers and mechanics and can be easily resolved by a solid training plan and following steps one and two above.

Happy Trails.

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