Running Form

When we talk about running we talk about a variety of events.  Because there is such a variety we see a wide variance in running styles which are dictated by what one runs.  A style that is seemingly correct for one event is wholly inappropriate for another.  Styles that are good for one might not fit another due to differences in body types.  We will however try to put together a general program for each group.

  • Sprints.  This is the most technically demanding event where a lack of form causes an athlete to lose most races against a similarly matched but technically sound athlete.  In the sprint race (all races through 800 meters) arm carriage must be approximately 90 degrees swinging up through the ear and back past the pockets.  The arms, especially at the elbow, must stay relaxed and should never be tighter than 80 degrees.  The shoulders should also stay in a relaxed position, never tightening up at the neck.  Knee carriage should be high, but only to the point that the ankle of one leg travels past the knee of the other leg.  The torso should be in an erect position never bending at the waist.  At the instant that both legs are on the ground the back leg should never be bent.  It bends only when coming through to the front.  These races are run completely on the ball of the foot.  One should never heel strike in a sprint.
  • Mid Distance Races.  These races are less technically demanding, but still require some form and at the end of the race come down to a sprint.  Arm carriage here can be 90 degrees + and is much lower (shoulder high to hip).  Shoulders should still be relaxed along with relaxed elbows.  Knee lift need not be as dramatic as a sprinter's, with the ankle needing to be as high as mid shin.  At the instant that both legs are on the ground the back leg should never be bent.  It bends only when coming through to the front.  Some heel striking is seen in these races, with a gentle roll to the ball of the foot.
  • Long Distance Races. These events are the least technically demanding of all the running events.  Arm action needs to only swing from mid chest to hip.  Knee action is minimal with the ankle swinging through again at mid shin or lower.  Shoulders and elbows are completely relaxed.  The foot action is completely flat footed.
  • Common Themes Across All Races. In all the above mentioned races some forms are universal.  Arm swing should always be straight front to back.  One should never see a swinging across the body.  The hands (i.e. fingers) must be relaxed as a rigid hand causes tightening at the elbow and at the shoulders.  Torso is always tall, never leaning forward or backward.  Foot placement should always be in a straight line, never side to side.

In short, mechanics are important and can make or break a runner.  Form should be worked on daily both separate and as a part of your workout.  Sloppy form causes sloppy racing.  The better your mechanics are, the more efficient you are, the less energy you expend, the more energy you have for that all important kick at the end of your race.

Runners who competed in track during high school and college were lucky to have a coach early in their running career, critiquing form and offering pointers for more efficient running. Those who didnít run competitively may have never received any tips on form from a coach or a professional runner.

Actually, one of the reasons that so many people pick up running as a sport is because it can be done virtually anywhere without lessons and requires minimal equipment. Plunk down the dough for a pair of sporty-looking running shoes in your favorite color, and poof, youíre a runner, right?

Not necessarily, according to Randy Accetta, running coach at Craftsbury Running Camp in Craftsbury, Vt.

"Good runners should practice good form," says Accetta, who teaches all ages and all types of runners to become more efficient and successful.

So, how do you know what your form looks like? At the summer running camp (yes, a camp for adults) in Craftsbury, instructors videotape the campers running the full length of a tennis court and back at an easy conversational pace. They also tape a sprint the width of the court.

You can do this at home by asking a friend to take a few minutes to videotape you running a path similar to the one mentioned above. That way you can watch yourself running from front and back, as well as in a sprint, running harder than usual, causing your form to be somewhat magnified.

Craftsbury runners who had never seen themselves running were surprised and sometimes horrified at their own running form. Some of the more common mistakes seen in the video are saggy shoulders, arms hanging too loosely by the runnerís sides or moving too far across the chest, the dreaded knock-kneed syndrome, or a runner actually sticking both thumbs straight up (affectionately known as "The Fonz").

Many people assume proper running form begins with the feet, but the opposite is true.

"Proper running form is from head to toe," Accetta says. "Since you run in a straight line with your energy thrust out in front of you, when you run, your hands and arms are in front, guiding you."

Accetta suggests the way to become most energy-efficient is to realize that form affects pace and the amount of energy that is conserved or expended. He advises sticking to the following guidelines for proper running form:

Head: Keep your head tilted down slightly, three to five degrees from your torso. Look forward at the ground in front of you, 10 to 20 feet ahead, and concentrate on trying to run in a straight line. Your jaw and neck should be relaxed.

Torso: Bend slightly forward from the waist to create a bit of a forward lean. (You want gravity on your side.) If you lean back, it creates pulling from the hips and is inefficient. Keep your upper body "open," which will permit easier breathing.

Hips: Hips should be in line with head and shoulders. Your foot should strike directly under your hips, your center of gravity.

Shoulders: Keep them relaxed and square, and do not hunch over because this tends to restrict the breathing passage, allowing less oxygen to get to working muscles.

Arms: Arms should be held low, bent at a 90-degree angle and relaxed. As you run, swing your arms up and down, bringing your hands to your sternum at the top of the swing, and brush them past your waistband on the downswing, bringing them back behind your body. The arm movement should be just that ó arm movement ó and should minimize the rotation of the torso. Arms should move in conjunction with your legs. Remember that fast arms equal fast feet, so they should be used to propel you forward.

Hands: Your thumbs should gently touch the top half of your index fingers with your hand cupped, as though you are holding a small egg that you donít want to break. If you clench your hands together too tightly, or stick your thumbs straight up, it could cause tightness in your arms, which may drift into your shoulders, neck, and lower back, causing an unproductive and uncomfortable stride. Donít 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.

Remember, itís not easy to break old habits, and you run the way you do because your body has found it efficient, and itís now probably become a habit. To make your new effort a habit, practice concentrating on your new running style for a few minutes at a time.

"Try to make a conscious effort to change only one thing about your form for brief periods of regular easy runs," Accetta says.

Changing your form can make a major difference in the way you feel and the efficiency of your run.