Coach Mark writes: A key component to successful distance running is efficiency or economy of movement. It is common to focus on training the heart, lungs and legs when preparing for an event but training form is less common.
Recently I was able watch some of the athletes I train complete the run portion of a Half Ironman Triathlon event and between the wind gusts, showers and hail, I had a chance to assess their run form. The athletes have all had plenty of swim technique training, in most cases bike technique training but only a handful had had any run technique training. Those that had, really stood out and in some cases their run times were very close to their run times in a straight Half Marathon which they completed a few months earlier. An increased level of fitness would account for some of this but also knowing how to run efficiently made a huge difference. The outcome of this observation was a Sunday afternoon technique and drill session for some of the athletes down at the local park.
Good running form involves a mix of your body movements so that you move with optimal mechanical efficiency. Good form can decrease discomfort when you run, help prevent injury, increase speed as well as lower the energy output at a given speed. Below are the main points I look at when assessing an athletes form and the advice I give them.
Your head should remain in a neutral position on your shoulders. Keep your head tilted down slightly but avoid looking down at too much of an angle. Look forward at the ground in front of you, about 3-5 metres ahead, and concentrate on trying to run in a straight line. Your neck, jaw and face muscles should be relaxed. Try to feel your cheeks bouncing with each stride. When turning to the side, try to do this movement mostly from the neck to avoid twisting your body and making you unstable.
Your shoulders should also be very relaxed and loose to allow for a greater freedom of motion. Think of "running proud" with your shoulders back and square, but don't try to actually pull them back as this would create muscle tension and is a waste of energy. "Hunching" or rounding your shoulders tends to restrict the breathing passage, allowing less oxygen to get to the working muscles.
Any excessive side-to-side motion, or swinging across your body is a waste of energy. Try to think of everything moving in a straight line and in one direction: forwards. Your arm movement should not cause your torso to rotate.
Keep your elbows in and held low. As you run, swing your arms in a relaxed manner, elbow angle will range from slightly less than 90° at its forward most point, to 90° as it passes the side of the body, to slightly more than 90° as it swings behind the body. The elbows effectively make a "smiley face" beside your rib cage when running. The faster you go, the larger the smile.
When running it can be beneficial to drop your arms and shake them from time to time to release any build up of muscle tension.
Your thumbs should gently touch the top half of your index fingers with your hands gently cupped. If you clench your hands together too tightly it could cause tightness in your arms.
Try and keep your wrists from moving throughout the arm swing. This prevents your hand from flicking when your arm swings backwards or from performing a pot stirring action when it swings forwards.
Don't let your hands cross over the middle of your chest. Imagine a line drawn down your body separating you in half vertically. Your hands should not cross that line.
Bend slightly forward from the waist to create a bit of a forward lean. If you lean back, it creates pulling from the hips and is inefficient. Minimal rotation of the upper body is the goal, so a strong core is necessary.
This is the home of your centre of gravity. Try to run with your hips forward. They should be in line with your head and shoulders. Pretend as if you have a rope tied around your waist and someone is pulling you forward with it. Running with your hips too far back, as if you are sitting in a bucket, will decrease your stride length.
The knees do not have to come up very high for long distance runners. Much like the arm swing, the further you are running, and the slower you are running, the less knee lift you will need (Unless you are faced with a steep hill!).
A high knee lift increases vertical oscillation, or the amount we lift our centre of gravity up and down each step. This expends more energy than if we keep our centre of gravity moving forwards without any upward or downward movement.
Your body's centre of gravity is in your midsection. Any force that is applied to the ground in front of this centre of gravity acts as a braking force to your forward movement. Imagine a runner with an exaggerated running stride. Every time they plant their heel in front of their body, they apply a braking force, slowing them down. In addition, before they are able to apply force to the ground and move their body forward for the next stride, they must wait until their body has moved directly over their foot. If you look at the form of most good runners, you will see that their feet strike the ground directly beneath their body.
Good long distance runners usually contact with the mid-foot. Slower runners contact between the mid-foot and the heel, faster runners a bit further forward. Contact on the mid-foot allows for better shock absorption, less stress on the calf muscle and Achilles tendon, and better rolling forward onto the next stride.
Try to run straight; land with your foot pointing forward. Running straight reduces the rotation or twisting of the ankles and knees, which helps to prevent a shortening of stride due to the turning of the foot. Keep the feet and legs moving directly forward, with minimal twisting motion. For feedback on your ability to run straight, or whether you have a straight foot-plant, run on a beach or on concrete with the wet soles. Your footprints should be straight and nearly in line with each other.
So to sum up, when running, stay relaxed, and try and make all movements cause you to move in one direction. Get feedback on your current form from training partners, a knowledgeable coach, a video or even a mirror and use this feedback to learn to run more efficiently. It could be a case of making significant performance gains for very little energy.
originally published October 2005