Perfecting your running technique
Top tips for improving your running tech
Running may be something that we can all do naturally, but it is possible to improve your running by looking at your technique. Everyone has their own natural way of running, but a few minor tweaks can help improve your performance.
Perfecting your running technique
Your running style, or the way you run, is called your ‘running gait’ and although there are a number of things you can try to help improve your running performance, you shouldn’t become too obsessed about trying to alter the way you run.
Because the body ‘compensates’ for its biomechanical imperfections and inadequacies, your subsequent revised movement patterns may have become your natural way of moving for many years. Even many top athletes are far from textbook versions of perfection, but they still manage to perform as they do.
If you do have obvious gait abnormalities, or recurring injury problems, and yet you want to perfect your running technique, then of course it makes sense to seek out professional ‘gait analysis’ in which an expert analyses your running gait and suggests ways of eliminating 'errors'. This can include suggestions such as wearing orthotics (inserts in your shoes) or strengthening and stretching key muscles and tendons.
Many minor faults can be amended just by paying attention to your form as you are running. Our top tips below should help you achieve better running technique:
- Relax — you'll run better when relaxed. Pay attention to common sites of tension, including the hands, the jaw and the shoulders. Research shows that when we clench the jaw, neural signals are sent along the spinal cord, causing us to tense up.
- Let the foot land under the knee, not in front of it. Imagine your limbs moving in a circular motion, so that your foot lands under your knee rather than in front of it, where it will act as a ‘brake’.
- Don’t grip with the front of your ankles, particularly on hills. Many of us have a tendency to run with rigid ankles, which doesn’t help with shock dissipation or a smooth stride. Consciously think about letting your lower legs ‘dangle’ when your feet are in the air. Swimming, or kicking your legs in water, can help loosen inflexible ankles.
- Stand tall. Visualise growing taller with each step to help you avoid slumping on to the pelvis, a position in which your core stability is compromised. This does require some core stability, so for some core exercises, check out ‘The flatter tummy workout — Part 2’.
- Don’t try too hard. You can perfect your running tecnhique by not trying too hard. Running isn’t a battle against the ground or the air. Imagine it as a controlled ‘topple’ forwards. You only need to attempt running with your hands in your pockets to realise how much your arms count in running. Imagine your arms as pistons, propelling you forward, with elbows bent to around 90 degrees. Don’t allow the arms to swing across the body, and keep the wrists and hands relaxed but not floppy. Your head weighs approximately 3 to 4.5kg (7 to 10lb), so look ahead, not down. Focus on the ground about 9 to 13.5m (10 to 15 yards) ahead.
- Run light — think of running over the ground rather than into it. Don’t bounce from foot to foot. Imagine you are trying not to leave footprints.
- Don’t deliberately ‘flick’ off the toes as your foot leaves the ground or clench them inside your shoes. Just allow the foot to roll smoothly off the ground.
- Monitor your form as you run. Practise running through a ‘body scan’ from top to toe. Think about any tension points in your body from the head downwards. A 10-second body scan approximately every 10 minutes can help keep your technique correct, and will make you aware of any niggles that, if ignored may eventually become full blown injuries.
- Taking to the hills. When running on a nice flat, even terrain it is easier to perfect your running motion — but things get a little trickier when you throw in a few hills.
- The most common mistake runners make when climbing hills is to look down, taking the hefty weight of the head forward and throwing the spine out of alignment. Leaning forward also reduces the involvement of the hamstrings, giving you less propulsion.
- Instead, look ahead, shorten your stride a little and use your arms to help propel you upwards. Don’t try to maintain the same pace you had on flat ground, the golden rule is ‘even effort, not even pace’. Running downhill might sound a lot easier than running uphill, but the knees and quads can take a real pounding, not just because of the increased impact but because the thigh muscles are contracting eccentrically (to decelerate you), which causes more microscopic damage in the muscle.
- To descend less painfully, relax, particularly in the thighs and at the front of the ankles, and don’t ‘brake’ or lean backwards. Take your arms wider for balance, but ensure you don’t inadvertently take legs wider, too.
- Look ahead not down — it’s tempting to do so if you are running on rough trail but try to pick your route a few metres ahead and then keep your eyes focused on the next bit of trail instead of on your feet. If the path is wide enough, try zig-zagging down the slope, rather than running straight down — this enables you to maintain more control.
- Breathing patterns. There are lots of ‘theories’ on the best way to breathe during running. The best way to breathe when you’re running is the way that comes most naturally. Some people are proponents of the ‘breathe in for two strides, out for two strides’ patterns, or of advising runners to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. A study from Liverpool John Moores University suggested that once exercise is just moderately hard, the most efficient way of breathing in and out is actually through the mouth, not the nose.
- Run faster. One of the best ways of improving your running technique is to run faster. When you speed up, your arm and leg movements are bigger, improving your range of motion. But don’t try to get faster simply by taking bigger strides. Research shows that getting a runner to increase or decrease their instinctive stride length forces them to work harder and use more oxygen.
- Focus on keeping your feet ‘fast and light’. You will find that speeding up your arm movement will help quicken the legs. It’s also a great idea to practice some ‘strides’ or ‘pickups’. Strides are a slightly slower version of a sprint, and will help improve your running form. The greater ‘drive’ required by the supporting leg as it pushes off also puts more emphasis on the hamstrings, while the forefoot landing strengthens the calves eccentrically (while lengthening). From a standing start, start to run and gradually speed up to a pace just below your sprint speed. Go for 5 x 20m.
There are no hard and fast rules that can help you perfect your running technique because everyone has their own running style. Marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe, for one, has a very unique style with her nodding head motion, but that doesn't seem to have held her back. However, here's a few tips, which should help improve your performance.
- Head — Look straight ahead. Focus on a point 9 to 13.5m (10 to 15 yards) in front and try to run in a straight line.
- Body — Keep your body upright with your back straight. Try not to ‘lean’ even when running up hill.
- Arms — Let your arms swing naturally and in rhythm with your legs and loosely cup your hands.
- Feet — Your heel strikes the running surface, your forefoot touches, your heel then starts to lift and the forefoot flexes.
Without realizing it most runners breathe in a 2/2 rhythmic ratio; they take two steps as they inhale and two more steps as they exhale. This can change if the pace is faster or slower. Most runners tend to breathe through their nose and mouth but there are no set rules. If you find you have a different breathing pattern then don’t alter it, it won’t improve your running. Breathing is very natural and you should do what comes naturally to you!