More people than ever are trying to fix their running form in the hope of eliminating injuries and getting faster. Experts say there’s not enough research to definitively say that any of these methods prevent—or cause—injuries. One thing is for sure: Try to make a radical change to your form suddenly, without giving your body a chance to adjust, and you’ll end up injured. So how do you determine whether your form needs fixing? As long as you’re running comfortably and injury-free, there’s no reason to believe it does.
Your running mechanics are determined by the strength and flexibility of certain muscles and how your body is built. Here are a few basics to help you maintain proper running form on any terrain from exercise physiologist Adam St. Pierre and Christy Barth, a physical therapist and strength and conditioning specialist.
- Maintain a short, quick stride. Do not try to lengthen your stride; avoid reaching forward with your foot, which can lead to overstriding and will set you up for injury.
- Keep your knee in line. Make sure your foot strikes under your knee, not in front of it, which can lead to injury. It doesn’t matter whether the heel or forefoot hits the ground first, as long as your foot is not in front of your knee. This is especially important when running downhill.
- Push up and off. Focus on pushing up and off the ground behind you.
- Watch your elbows. Keep your elbows bent at 90 degrees or less.
- Relax your hands. Keep hands loose and below your chest. Make sure your hands don’t cross your midline and your hands don’t punch forward, both of which can throw off your gait. Pay careful attention to this when you’re carrying something like a music player or a dog leash. Switch hands halfway through the workout if possible.
- Work your core. When starting a running program, it is also a great time to start working on your core strength, particularly your glutes and abdominal muscles. A strong core makes it easier to stay upright—even when you’re tired—and avoid leaning too far forward from your hip, which can lead to injury.
Here are some special considerations to make when you’re climbing a hill or making a descent:
- Keep your head and chest up
- Look straight ahead
- Visualise the road rising to meet you
- Keep your shoulders back
- Push up and off the hill, springing from your toes
- Don’t bend at the waist and hunch over
- Keep your hands and fists loose
- Keep your torso upright
- Look straight ahead
- Visualize “controlled falling”
- Keep your nose over your toes
- Step softly; don’t let your feet slap the pavement
And remember, no single running “method” will make you faster or keep you from getting hurt. To ensure that, follow these basic training principles:
- Ramp up slowly. Gradually increase your mileage and the amount of time you spend on your feet.
- Recover right. Give yourself plenty of time to recover any time you add distance or speed to your workouts.
- Wear good shoes. Wear a pair that offers the support and fit that your feet need. Go to a specialty running shop and have your feet measured and have someone evaluate you as you run so you can find the right pair for you.
- Introduce any changes gradually. If you do change your form, cut back the time you spend working out and the distance you cover to you give your body a chance to adjust.
If you are injured, see a sports-medicine doctor who can determine what the problem is and prescribe some physical therapy. If the problem is linked to your running form, you might consider seeing a running clinic with a biomechanist, where someone can evaluate your running gait, strength, and flexibility. He or she can suggest footwear that offers the support you need, plus exercises to help offset any muscle imbalances.