An Idiot’s Guide To Safe, Effective Running Form

One of my keys to reducing, even (fingers crossed, knock on wood, ban all black cats) eliminating injuries, has been ongoing work on my running form.

In March 2017 I had to pull up and back out of a speed workout before it began due to knee pain when I ran, a recurring issue. Having plenty of subsequent time to think about it (since I was obviously not running much while it healed up), I read various sources on running form and took a good long look at the details of my own running form.

Gradually I adjusted the way I ran in workouts until I was able to run regularly, pain or not, without aggravating the condition.

In fact, not only did my recurring knee issues pretty much disappear over the following months, but residual discomfort from a 2008 ankle injury (which remained a come-and-go issue during my recent time running) disappeared and never came back either.

Over the past year I’ve built up my running volume from 20-30 miles per week to around 35-50 miles a week during focused training, without any injury problems or nagging pain. And I train harder and longer in key workouts, more often, than I ever have before.

Anyone who knows me can see I’m no Adonis with magnificent body structure. I have at best an ordinary-looking physique for a guy in reasonable shape. I’m not avoiding injury by being physically gifted. In fact, once again, I dealt with nagging injuries until I fixed my form.

Regardless of what shape a runner is in, even the best and hardest training athletes seem to get injured a lot, even with far more resources available to them for recovery and training.

Meanwhile, I’m an idiot who runs home in his work clothes. What exactly am I doing that works? Do I think I have an idea?

You bet I do.

The Idiot’s Guide To Safe, Effective Running Form

Your running should be powered primarily by your glutes.

A common training fallacy with runners is to focus on the usage of their quads, their hamstrings, their foot-fall, their posture, their arm-swing, etc etc.

While some coaches and writers appear to be aware of this, many focus on everything but the muscle group that matters most: The gluteus maximus. Your big butt muscles.

Gluteus

DAT ASS is actually your true running power house

The glutes are such an important part of our core strength that it’s not only a key element in runner’s stride troubleshooting, but also in fixing general posture.

Entire reddit posts (this is the the best one) have been built around its key role in fixing a common posture problem called Anterior Pelvic Tilt. Step one for fixing APT always begins with becoming aware of and better activating the use of your glutes. Eventually, the goal is to power all whole body movement, not to mention your running, from the glutes… with your surrounding muscles providing ancillary support rather than bearing the brunt of the effort.

We underestimate the power of the glutes in our lower body movement. This is a key reason people keep straining quads, hamstrings, calves, groins, not to mention joints like the knees, ankles and hips that aren’t supposed to be bearing weight intended for our muscles.

Notice that people don’t ever seem to strain or otherwise injure their glutes. It’s a muscle group designed to bear the brunt of the lower body’s work.

I won’t get too far into exercises to better utilize the glutes (though basics like lunges and squats are a great way to work on becoming more aware of using the glutes). Experts and other practitioners have a lot more refined info on how to work on this (the reddit thread above in fact offers a helpful starting guide: Flexibility in the hip flexors is important, but you’re not getting it without activated glutes).

All that said, simply making a deliberate effort to be more conscious of your body’s glute use alone is a huge step forward. That conscious awareness alone got me much of the way there.

Side note: This is actually a reason I avoid conventional runner warm-up exercises like high knees, butt kicks and A-skips. They mostly misplace focus on other muscle groups, and in the process complicate the running motion more than is necessary. I warm up with an easy run and then some brief strides.

When I was first figuring my gluteus situationous out, I did conventional grade-school-style skips to hone focus on my glutes. But I don’t do that much anymore: My warmup run and strides are enough.

Oh, by the way….

Your natural running motion should be simple, efficient and easily repeatable.

Too many people run with a lunging, bounding motion. Never minding all the inherent problems this creates (some of which I’ll get into later)… it’s also a pain in the ass (pun not intended since the glutes clearly aren’t that involved) instead of a natural motion that is very easy to initiate and repeat, which is key to running safely and effectively.

My steps are short. My arms are low with a short simple natural motion. I push off enough to stay moving and comfortably, lightly, easily get the next step down. Repeat for several miles. Running already takes a lot of energy. Don’t waste any more than needed.

Maybe you learned to run in a way that’s not efficient. So shorten it up into something efficient, work on getting used to running that way, and just run that way from then on.

A good way to think about it is “quicker and shorter”. Take shorter and lighter steps, more quickly, rather than longer bounding steps. Start from there, and let the length come from your momentum giving each (short) step more distance, rather than forcing the length through forcing longer strides.

Your legs should “push back” rather than “reach forward”.

Most runners essentially over-stride, even if technically they don’t.

Technically over-striding is when your foot plants in front of your body rather than underneath it.

From my view, over-striding is to run by reaching forward with your front leg and having it pull you forward, instead of propelling your body by landing the front leg directly under your hips and pushing back. Whether or not your foot lands in front of your body is secondary to using your leg to reach instead of letting it land naturally beneath you.

Reaching your leg forward and pulling your body towards it once it lands is of course inefficient: It doesn’t allow you to fully utilize the power of your glutes, and forces your quads, hams, calves, etc. to do a lot more work that they’re designed for to keep you running. It also forces your hips and core to do a lot more work because your balance constantly shifts due to what’s essentially a bounding lunge posing as a running motion.

That’s not just a great way to get tired more quickly. It’s a great way to get injured.

I still sometimes fall into the bounding lunge, but usually when I’m hurrying across a crosswalk to avoid homicidal motorists or some other get-out-now situation. Doing it for more than a few moments isn’t recommended, and at best it’s quickly tiring.

Start slow and build. Don’t bound to a quick start.

This is something I used to do, then got away from doing, and have recently re-figured out to do again.

A lot of runners bound to a start and fall into that bounding overstride right off the bat. It’s no surprise that someone running this way can’t maintain that velocity for more than 2-3 miles, and otherwise gradually slows during the run as that rate of effort becomes harder to maintain.

GeofAlm

Fight Master Geof Alm, left, teaches two students to act like they’re killing each other without actually killing anyone.

I’m reminded of my theatre days while training in Stage Combat with Fight Master Geoffrey Alm. We practiced basic technique and fight choreography with stage swords, which while dull can still hurt you badly.

Geof always had one point of emphasis: Always start by practicing slow, and master the technique before you try to do it fast. If you try to do any technique fast before you’ve mastered doing it slowly, you’re only going to do it wrong more quickly, and probably get you or someone else hurt.

Obviously, running isn’t swinging a broadsword or throwing a stage punch. Geof’s leverage with us was the basic scope of danger in what we were doing. But his point of emphasis was one of those useful theatre lessons that has stuck with me in every facet of my life since.

The compound risk of the bounding run is not just that the form is faulty, but now you’re practicing faulty form… faster. You’re giving your body more opportunities per minute to wear out and take damage, and it’s little wonder runners who do this get injured a lot.

I also realize I just said “take it slow” shortly after telling you to take “quicker steps”. This may seem on the surface like a contradiction.

The point is, rather than try to run as fast as you can right off the bat by forcing yourself to run fast with difficult form… start with lower expectations and focus on taking efficient, shorter steps in an easy repeatable form… before allowing momentum and practice to let you execute that form more quickly over time.

Note: If you’re not used to using your glutes, and not used to taking shorter quicker steps, you may at first find yourself getting tired quickly when you try it, as well as feeling some extra soreness in your calves and glutes.

This usually happens when you attempt to run fast out of the gate rather than practice and master the form slowly. I would know, because this is exactly what would happen to me on some early runs.

Soreness and fatigue from new repetition is natural. Soreness or other pain in your joints is certainly not. But a shorter, quicker form is much less likely to lead to the latter pain.

Trot more than gallop

A good mental image to help you find an improved form is to think of effective running as a trot rather than a gallop.

The bounding step is more like a horse’s gallop, which makes more sense for a horse since it has four thinner legs and a completely different body structure… than it does for a more upright two-legged human. (And, if you watch closely, you’ll notice that even a horse’s feet always land directly underneath them, meaning they too are “pushing back” rather than “reaching forward” with their legs)

The trot seems deliberate and slow at first, as you get used to it. As it gets more comfortable, you’ll be able to step more quickly, more naturally. Your pace will not only pick back up, but it’ll be more easily sustainable than the old gallop.

Run as if you need to keep running exactly the way you are for another hour in your current state.

Another mental tool during a run for maintaining a steady form and reducing the risk of overstriding: Imagine you need to keep running exactly the way you are for the next hour. Can you, without terribly much trouble?

If not, shorten up and slow down. Never mind if you think you might be able to with some fortitude. If there is any doubt to answering the question, I’m not saying the answer is absolutely not, but the answer certainly is to slow down.

If you are in a race running with considerable difficulty, and you know for sure you can maintain that difficult intensity to the finish line and have trained to do so, then sure: Go for it. Barring that, make sure your pace is steady and sustainable. If it isn’t, slow down until it is.

Count from twenty one to twenty five while running. You want to run at an intensity where doing this isn’t difficult.

This is a little trick from a great book on running form called Your Best Stride, published by Runner’s World.

If on a regular run and unsure whether your pace is a sustainable one, verbally count aloud from twenty one to twenty five.

If you struggle at all to breathe and run while doing this, slow down: You’re running too hard. Repeat until at a pace where 21 to 25 becomes easy to do.

A common test people traditionally cite is what’s called a “conversational pace”, that you want to be able to converse comfortably at that pace.

However I see far too many runners together having what they think is a comfortable chat, when in fact they’re clearly talking with considerable difficulty at their pace. They’ve gotten so used to conversing in semi-gasps while running that they don’t realize they’re running too hard to be “easy, conversational”.

The solo 21 to 25 test makes you focus a lot more closely on your breathing and speech while running than you may while casual-gasping with a friend during an “easy” run.

When doing speedwork and other fast runs, don’t think of reaching farther with each step. Think of stepping consistently fast.

Even when people improve their basic technique, it can all go to hell once they go to run a tempo or speed workout, or run a race.

Here, pressured to run faster for obvious reasons, many quickly revert back to their old bounding lunge, still thinking that more effort through bigger steps equals faster running.

The fastest running comes with the highest cadence (steps per minute). A bounding lunge leads to fewer steps per minute, while shorter quicker steps leads to more steps per minute.

Yeah, but the steps are shorter, right? But consider this example: A guy who can bound to a 50 inch stride at 150 steps per minute. He shortens his stride to something like 45 inches, but it allows him to run 180 steps per minute.

50″ x 150 steps = 7500 inches per minute (8:27 mile)

45″ x 180 steps = 8100 inches per minute (7:49 mile)

Look at that: He travels farther per minute, improving his pace by 38 seconds per mile.

And while he’s taking more steps, those steps are shorter and easier. The stride is more sustainable.

Okay, but what if he shortens his stride by more than 5 inches? A stride shorter than 42 inches would make the distance covered less than the original 8:27 mile:

41″ x 180 steps = 7380 inches per minute (8:35 mile)

Yeah, sure. But all of the above doesn’t factor in stamina. The 50″x150, 8:27 mile pace may not be sustainable for long if that 50″ stride is a bit of a lunging bound for our hypothetical runner. There will likely come a point where he’ll tire and slow down one way or another, whether he starts taking fewer steps per minute, or the stride ends up shortening anyway due to exhaustion while the pace either stays the same or slows.

But if he shortens his stride to start, the stride becomes easier to maintain over time. So while 50″x150 may be faster than 41″x180 at first… 50″x150 may slow to 36″x150 or 50″x140… while 41″x180 is more likely to be sustained for a longer period of time since those 41″ strides require less energy.

Even if the shorter, 180 steps per minute pace slowed for our hypothetical runner at some point, it would stand to reason his stamina would have caused him at 50×150 to slow at the same point or sooner anyway. Since 50×150 requires more effort per step to sustain than the faster stride, fatigue would get to and slow down 50×150 just as if not more quickly.

(And all this never minds that, as you gain momentum, each step in a quickly, easily repeatable stride propels you farther without any additional extension. 41×180 could get longer than 41″ without any added effort)

It’s not just about distance. It’s about sustainability of the ability to cover that distance. The tortoise ends up beating the hare despite being slower than the hare because the hare doesn’t sustain his pace like the tortoise does. Desi Linden wins a rainy Boston Marathon despite not being as fast as dozens of other elites, because the elites lose their ability to maintain their stride in rainy conditions whereas Desi had a steadier, more easily repeatable form that kept carrying her.

All of this is to say that your best speedwork may result counter-intuitively from a shorter, quicker stride. If instead of thinking about “more effort, longer steps” you thought “same short easy steps, as repeatably quick as I can sustain”, you may find yourself hitting goal paces and busting PRs, with far less strain than before. I know I have.


 

All of these concepts worked well for me, and can help others start on reviewing and improving your running form. Exploring these ideas may be worthwhile if you:

  • Generally find running to be difficult, challenging, tiring
  • Keep getting injured
  • Are worried about getting injured
  • Can’t seem to run far without getting tired
  • Can’t seem to get any faster
  • Have a really hard time with speed and tempo workouts
  • Just want to relax more on your longer runs

Working on your form can slow you down a bit at first, like working on anything new will. As it gets more comfortable, running (especially over longer distance) will eventually feel easier, and you may find yourself running faster overall to boot.

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2 thoughts on “An Idiot’s Guide To Safe, Effective Running Form

  1. […] easy running should be dialed back to where every step is strong, yet comfortable. If you’re straining to reach your legs forward, you are pushing too hard. And pushing too hard leads to a sustained overdose of cortisol, the […]

  2. […] form is a key reason men run too hard too often. If you’re straining to reach your legs forward, you are pushing too hard. And pushing too hard too often leads to a sustained overdose of […]

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