How to achieve proper running form

How to achieve proper running form

For any runner to achieve the best race results, running efficiently—relaxed and with good form—is required. More than anything else, practicing good running form will carry you to the finish line safely and enjoyably.

The adage, “Listen to your body” is an important rule for maintaining good form.

When we maintain good body position—head over shoulders, shoulders over hips, hips over the mid-foot upon landing and arms swinging directly ahead—we run with good form and use less energy to run faster. If your arms, shoulders or back hurt or feel tense during training, you need a form adjustment.

New runners can learn proper running form by avoiding “zipper lines” and “chicken wings” while “holding chips.” These three easy visual cues are telltale signs that running form is breaking down. Fortunately, when we listen to our bodies and recognize these inefficiencies, each faulty habit is easily corrected.

Form Fix 1: Zipper Lines

Running is a linear sport. Many runners spend a great deal of energy twisting their upper bodies, fighting the efforts of the lower body. Think of the zipper line on a jacket running down the center of your torso. If your hands cross that zipper line, the shoulders and the top half of the body usually follow the hands. The torque created from the waist up is energy that could be used to run faster.

Periodically, glance down at the position of your hands at the front part of your arm swing. If you see your thumb and forefinger, your hands are likely crossing the zipper line. A slight adjustment is all that’s needed. Hold your hands a little wider from your body, slightly wider than your hips. As your arm swings back, think about reaching into your back pocket. This extends your reach further in a straight line with less crossing over the zipper line.

Form Fix 2: Chicken Wings

When fatigued, our arm carriage changes and our body position often resembles the wings of a chicken—pulled up and close to the body. Our shoulders rise closer to our ears, as if we are shrugging and maintaining that shrug. Like a chicken, we can’t fly very well with our arms held tightly to the sides of our bodies. The result is a shorter arm swing and, consequently, a shorter stride. By taking more strides, we use more energy to cover the race distance.

Soreness in the lower neck and shoulders is the body’s first signal of running with chicken wings. When you feel this tension, check your form. Relax your shoulders by dropping your arms to your side and shaking out your hands for 50 to 100 meters. This simple action will relieve the stress in your neck and shoulders. You can then slowly bring your arms back to a normal position and refocus on a relaxed arm swing.

How to achieve proper running form

There are many different books, workshops and programs that deal with running form. ChiRunning, Good Form Running, and the Pose Technique are some of the philosophies you may have heard of. While each of these may vary slightly and some are more complex than others, good running form always boils down to the same four basic principles.

How to achieve proper running form

tHow to achieve proper running form

t Start incorporating these into your running and you will not only be less injury prone, but you could also become a faster runner, too. Focus on one item at a time and gradually add the others. Be patient — changing your running form takes time, conscious energy and commitment, but the effort will pay off!


t Imagine a string running through your body, from the top of your head all the way down to your feet. Now imagine that someone is pulling on the string from above your head, causing you to stand straight and tall. This is how you should carry yourself when you are running.

Midfoot striking

t Landing on your heels is essentially like using the brakes on a car: It causes significant jarring throughout your entire body and causes you to slow down. Conversely, landing on your forefoot puts considerable strain on your calf and Achilles tendon. Landing on your midfoot, however, prevents both of these problems. Landing on your midfoot basically means you are striking the ground with your entire foot at the same time. Your heel, arch, and forefoot all hit the ground together.


t Cadence refers to how many times per minute your foot hits the ground. An ideal cadence is between 170 and 180 steps per minute. To find your current cadence, count the number of times your right foot hits the ground in 20 seconds and multiply by 6. If you need to increase your cadence to get to 170 or 180, do so very slowly. You can use a metronome that you can clip to your clothes (sold at running stores) — simply start out at five steps per minute over your current cadence and increase by five every week until you reach your optimal cadence. For instance, if you currently run at 140 steps per minute, use a metronome to run at 145 steps per minute for one week, then increase to 150 for another week and so on until you reach 170 to 180 (somewhere in this range that is comfortable for you). You can also find songs that have BPM (beats per minute) equal to the cadence you are looking for and run to the beat of the music.

t Most people associate cadence with speed. Your cadence should actually stay the same whether you are running an 11-minute mile or a 7-minute mile. What changes is your stride length. To increase your speed, extend your stride and you will cover more ground with the same number of steps.


t When most people lean while running, they lean from the waist. This is incorrect and could lead to significant strain on your back. You want to keep a straight posture the entire time you are running and lean from your ankles. This “falling forward” propels you forward and helps you run faster. For a jog, you should lean forward about 1 inch. For a sprint, you should lean forward about 4 inches. For speeds in between, 2 to 3 inches is ideal. The farther you lean, the faster you will go. But remember, it is a very slight lean — nothing drastic.

t Other helpful tips

t Run from your core: As you run, engage your core. Ultimately, you want to lift and propel your legs using your lower abdominal muscles rather than your quadriceps. By doing this, you lessen the load on your leg muscles and reduce fatigue. This also helps build a strong core.

t Land beneath your hips: Your feet should strike the ground underneath your hips. Rather than extending your leg forward and getting your stride length from the front of your body, you want to land your foot on the ground underneath your center of gravity and then extend your leg behind you. Your stride length comes from the kick behind you rather than from extending your legs in front of you.

t Use proper arm position: Your arms should be bent at a 90-degree angle and should swing directly forward and backward. Try not to swing your arms across your torso as you run. Keep your arms and hands relaxed. Pretend that you are carrying an egg in each hand to avoid clenching your fists.

t Look straight ahead: Keep your head up and focus your gaze directly in front of you. Focus on something in the distance or on the horizon and try to keep this gaze as you run.

tThis article is part of series leading up to the PF Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon and Half Marathon on Jan. 19. The SheKnows team will be prepping for the race and sharing updates along the way!

There is one factor that determines good form, but it doesn’t come from drills, orthotics, or videos.

We all dream of gliding across finish lines with the same look of effortless speed as Shalane or Kipchoge. But for every platonic ideal of a racer, there’s another feet-flailing, arm-chopping abomination who’s probably passing them for the win.

Yet the world of running is packed with “crucial” tips about holding your head still, keeping your arms at 90 degrees, driving your knees up, and avoiding pronation at any and all costs. even has a running form guide for the form-curious. But where’s the proof any of it matters?

What does have proof: ugly strides kicking ass. Look at Paula Radcliffe’s marathon world record run from London 2003. Her head was bobbing like she was at a rave. Haile Gebrselassie, another serious contender for running’s GOAT, had a crooked left arm swing that left him looking like he was sweating flies out of the way throughout his entire record-breaking career. Or, take Priscah Jeptoo, a favorite target of running form critics. Jeptoo’s knees collapse in so far they look like her legs will snap. Yet she holds an Olympic silver in the marathon (2012) and won the New York and London marathons in 2013. Heck, even Usain Bolt, the fastest human the world has ever seen has an asymmetric stride.

What she’s saying is, to prevent injury and keep yourself on the road, there’s no golden technique every runner should follow. Instead runners should run however feels natural and comfortable. That’s the most efficient stride and best technique to minimize injury.

“I worked with a four-time Olympic marathon qualifier—that’s 16 years of Olympic-level running,” Brough says. “Yet, I’ve never seen such exaggerated pronation as I saw in this accomplished runner. All of those years of health and high-level running without sidelining injury debunks for me the myth of perfect form.”

That’s not to say there’s no connection between form and injury, but it’s related to exhaustion. Our body is used to the load and forces of running with our stride, says Brough. “But our natural form still breaks down as we fatigue.”

“If you deviate away from that natural motion path when you run—even when you are trying to use someone’s idea of ‘perfect Olympian form’—that leads to straining and uneven loading on your joints, which makes you prone to repetitive stress injuries,” says Dr. Matt Trudeau, a biomechanics and ergonomics researcher and the Senior Research Scientist at Brooks Running.

The Science Behind Your Stride

also backs up the idea of there being no universally perfect technique. Seven novice runners at Utah Valley University were coached on “proper running mechanics” for a week, with a particular focus on “improving arm movement and cadence” to improve running efficiency. And while the runners did adapt their form, and reduced energy-sapping upper body movement, tests showed that they used more energy to do so and thus became less efficient.

And a 2016 meta-study, “Is There an Economical Running Technique?” reviewed whether an ideal stride could be built out of previous studies on individual aspects of running form but found mixed results and concluded that “recommending an economical running technique should be approached with caution.”

It did find areas where runners could improve efficiency, but they were subjective cues—no exact measurements could applied across runners—like a self-selected stride length (whatever is comfortable), a low vertical oscillation (don’t leap too high), and low muscle activation (of course using less muscle is more efficient!). Technique criteria that were conflicting or unknown: ground contact time, impact force, trunk lean, and foot strike pattern.

That meta-study also noted a particular piece of running gear with conflicting research: the shoe orthotic. That’s not to say shoe insert production should halted and arch supports tossed in landfills, but that they should only be used if they make you—again—more comfortable.

There’s yet another study that backs this up too. In 2001, Dr. Benno Nigg, founder of the University of Calgary Human Performance Laboratory, and his colleagues gave more than 100 military personnel the choice between six different inserts to wear in their boots during training—with the only guideline being, “take the one you like best,” Nigg says. “We didn’t say you have a high arch so you need a medial arch support. We just let them choose what felt good.”

People have been running for ages. You might think we’d have it all figured out by now, but that’s actually part of the problem. Because it’s so easy to walk out the door and simply get started, running is about as misunderstood as it is popular. As a result, many new runners practice poor posture, which often leads to injury.

A 2010 Runners World poll found that 66 percent of all runners had an injury in 2009 [source: Burfoot]. Other studies indicate that number may be on the high side, but most agree that in any given year, roughly half of all runners have some form of running-related injury [source: Fields].

With this in mind, perhaps a good place to start is to get back to basics and simply define what running posture is. Basically, your running posture is the way you position various parts of your upper body as you run. Along with your running stride (the length and frequency of your steps), posture contributes to your overall running form.

The posture that’s going to help you the most changes based on the type of running you’re doing. Sprints, track, cross-country, trail running and marathons each have their own style. Beyond that, just going up or down a hill requires some modification to your posture.

Although no amount of training or good posture can guarantee a lifetime free of pain or injury, following some simple guidelines can go a long way toward making your runs more enjoyable, increasing your endurance, improving your speed and just possibly helping you avoid injury along the way. This article separates some of the proven fact from the mere hype of running posture, while offering some suggestions to help you run faster and minimize injuries. Read on to learn how to achieve proper posture, and you might find that you can enjoy running a lot more than you ever thought.

Best Running Posture

As we alluded to in the previous page, the posture for which you want to strive depends on the type of running you’ll be doing as well as the elevation of your running surface. Let’s take a look at what best running posture looks like for each area of your body you use while running.

For most types of running, you want to be looking straight ahead with your head raised vertically. But if you’re using a rough or uneven surface, as with cross-country or trail running, look down periodically to see where your next step is going.

Keep your shoulders relaxed and straight, aligned with your body. The tendency with many is to slouch a bit or lean back, but resist that temptation. Your arms should move smoothly at your side, not crossing in front of you, with your elbows bent at 90 degrees [source: Hahn, Jones]. Even many professional runners come across the finish line with their arms going any number of directions, but this is more likely from fatigue than from their secret training manual. Not keeping your arms at your side probably won’t cause an injury, but it wastes energy, and you’ll tire faster. Another energy-saver is to keep your arms and hands relaxed; this means no fists. For cross-country and trail running, you’ll need to use your arms for lateral balance as well as forward motion balance.

Although your back should remain straight, running is a controlled fall, meaning your center of gravity is going forward. Therefore, your torso should reflect this by leaning forward just slightly [source: Morris]. If you have trouble remembering to lean forward, one purely psychological trick is to try imagining a balloon tied to your chest, pulling you forward. Also, breathing in through your diaphragm (belly breathing) can help you maintain this posture, since breathing with your chest not only forces other parts of your torso higher, it wastes energy. Some experts frown on the traditional advice to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. They argue that you’ll get much more of the oxygen your body needs — and more quickly — by breathing with both your mouth and nose [source: Eyestone].

Your hips should be in a neutral position, and it’s best to avoid letting them lean forward or backward. Some studies have suggested that not maintaining a neutral hip position can lead to fatigue during a race as your muscles try to compensate, or even cause knee-related injuries during running [source: Comereski]. Ideally, your hips, torso, arms, shoulders and head should all be aligned when you run.

Now you know what your posture should look like when running, but will that form slow you down? In the next section, we’ll learn how running posture relates to speed.

Running Posture and Speed

Running posture is all well and good, you say, but if it doesn’t make you faster, then why bother? The good news is that posture isn’t a zero sum game, and it can help you move not only more efficiently and safely, but also more quickly. So, if running faster is your goal (say, if you’re a sprinter), then let’s take a look at the parts of the upper body that have the most effect on speed and how they should be positioned.

Your head should still be facing the horizon, but if you’re sprinting, it helps be looking down about three steps in front of you. Sprinters should lean their torso forward quite a lot in the opening phase of the sprint, moving to a more upright posture (but still leaning forward slightly) by the time they reach maximum speed [source: Davies].

While there’s little doubt that arms provide stability, there is some belief that they can help boost your speed as well. The motion of swinging your arms can actually assist your legs as they swing forward. [source: Hahn; Jones]. At the same time, still be sure to keep your shoulders and hands loose so you can save energy for your legs. For sprinting, arm movement should bring your hands swinging from your cheeks to your hips. And you can forget the whole relaxing thing with sprinting; you can relax at the finish line. Instead, use powerful arm swings to help propel your body forward.

Of course, a lot of research remains to be done to confirm or refute the traditional (and not-so-traditional) wisdom on running posture. You’ll see lots of elite runners doing all kinds of unconventional things, and it’s true that some coaches think that running form is purely personal. Ultimately, proper running posture helps you breathe and move more efficiently, allowing you to run either as long or as fast as you like. Achieving it can take a lot of practice and experience, but that’s part of the fun of running.

Learn even more about the best running posture, stride and form by visiting the links on the next page.

If you encounter hills on your run, you won’t need to change anything for gradual slopes (1 to 3 percent), but you should make some modest adjustments for steeper slopes.

Uphill: Shorten your stride, and lean forward slightly more than usual. Concentrate on maintaining the same energy expenditure as you do on the flats. Swinging your arms lower to the ground can help your legs naturally take shorter strides [source: Luff].

Downhill: Again, take short strides, lean forward like you would normally, and avoid the bigger strides that make you slap your foot down on the pavement.

Speed can be taught. All athletes have the potential to develop their speed. Working on your sprinting technique is a big part of the puzzle.

A proper sprinting technique not only allows you to run faster but also reduces the injury risk from poor sprinting mechanics.

The genetic makeup of an athlete may bless them with natural speed, but if efforts are not made to improve technique, they will never reach their full potential.

This article will focus on horizontal sprinting across 100m. But it will also provide a good basis of information that can be applied across all forms of sprinting.

Accelerative Sprinting

Whilst accelerating, force production is needed to generate speed when the foot makes contact with the ground. The greater the force you apply into the ground, the greater the return of impulse production, which increases speed.

Longer foot-to-ground contact times will allow for greater force generation and impulse production.

However, to cover ground more quickly it is important to limit the amount of time that your foot spends in contact with the ground during each stride.

Therefore the key is to apply the optimal amount of force possible into the ground during the limited amount of time that contact is made.

During acceleration, we must consider the point of foot-to-ground contact in relation to our centre of mass. To keep ground contact time as minimal as possible, the point contact should be behind your centre of mass.

This is why it’s important to drive low out the blocks (as shown in the video above), rather than immediately transferring into a vertical position.

Note: Take care not to overextend your stride. You will not be able to produce as much force during ground contact and the hamstring muscles will be more susceptible to injury.

Maximum Velocity Sprinting

As with acceleration, shorter ground contact times are linked with greater speed during maximum velocity.

Note: Maximum velocity can only be maintained for a short period of time. Eventually, you will begin to decelerate. Therefore it is vital to maintain sprinting form.

Applying optimal vertical forces during ground contact generates a force impulse great enough to overcome gravity more rapidly. This, along with maintaining good form allows the top sprinters to increase their stride frequency without decreasing stride length.

We stated that whilst accelerating, it is beneficial to have the foot behind your centre of mass. During maximum velocity sprinting this is only beneficial to a certain point. After which it will become detrimental to your stride cycle and increase deceleration by causing the upper body to lean forward.

Tip: Record yourself sprinting. Then you can look back at the video to make sure that your foot is placed under the hip when it makes contact with the ground.

The Stride Cycle

Touchdown ⇨ Toe off ⇨ Flight ⇨ Touchdown

⇦ (one complete stride cycle) ⇦

The stride cycle begins at the touchdown phase. At the point of touchdown, you lose momentum and slow down due to the braking effect.

This is where the foot makes its initial contact with the ground. It’s here that the ground contact time that we have been discussing begins. It ends after the toe off phase, where force is produced whilst pushing off the running surface.

This leads to the flight phase where neither foot is in contact with the ground and ends with the second touchdown as the rear leg becomes the lead leg.

Factors That Affect Sprinting Technique


Exaggerated tensing of the body whilst sprinting might feel like you are working harder and therefore running faster but this is a big red flag. Over-tensing often happens when an athlete is trying too hard to generate force and exert power.

Over-tensing causes the body to waste energy and become stiff. If the body is unable to move fluently, your form will be poor and you’ll begin to decelerate more rapidly.

You want to stay as relaxed as possible and maintain a smooth running technique.


Good posture is essential for sprinting!

Many athletes have a tendency to lean forward by over-flexing at the hips. A slight tilt is recommended, but leaning too far forward will slow you down and negatively affect your sprinting mechanics.

Performing sprint technique drills with strict form is a great way to improve your posture whilst sprinting. Poor form during technique drills will transfer into your sprinting technique. Therefore, it’s highly important that they are performed correctly.

Simple Way To Improve Your Posture And Strength

A great exercise that I get my athletes to perform is back extensions. Performing this exercise regularly increases trunk strength and generally improves physical fitness.

Back extensions target your erector spinae which contains parallel sets of muscles that run down the spine from the base of the neck to the sacrum.

These muscles control extension and flexion of the vertebral column and can increase optimal posture of the spine whilst sprinting

Back extensions engage the hamstrings and also strengthen other muscles. This helps improve overall core strength and keeps the torso erect when sprinting.

Arm Movement

Your arms play a vital role when sprinting. The arms help to propel the legs, which will lead to faster sprinting.

Sprinting legend Carl Lewis once said he uses the cue “elbow to the sky, thumb to the eye” to ensure his athletes are moving their arms correctly. I like this a lot. It’s catchy and easy for my athletes to remember.

As mentioned, for fluidity, it’s important to stay relaxed. Relaxation in the arms comes from dropped shoulders and no tension in the hands or fists. This will help you achieve a synchronised rhythm with your legs.

Stride Length

Be careful when opening up your stride when trying to increase the length of ground covered.

Over-striding means that you will generate less power during ground contact. This will increase the rate at which you decelerate.

It also puts a lot of strain on the hamstring muscles, increasing your risk of injury.

Try to complete every sprint cycle in a circular motion. You are aiming to keep your knees parallel with the ground, and your feet dorsiflexed towards your shins.

Sprint Starts

Perfecting your sprint starts (especially when using blocks) is arguably the most important aspect of the acceleration phase. It will affect your overall efficiency throughout the race.

It’s helpful to practice your starts separately so that you are comfortable using blocks, moving efficiently and reacting to the gun.

Would you like to know what is a proper running form? Using the right technique will help you avoid injury and run more efficiently. See the graphic below to get a snapshot of 15 ways to improve your running form

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Summary: 15 Ways to Achieve A Proper Running Form

1. Proper Posture

Run tall by holding your spine straight. Keep your chest upright to increase lung capacity and keep proper posture.

2. Poised Head

Look forward as you run to keep your neck from tilting forward or back.

3. Deep Breathing

Breathe deep and engage your lungs. Move your body with your breath to create a steady pace.

4. Gentle Arm Swing

Relax and pull your shoulders back. For long distances, let your arms naturally swing back and forth with your body. For short distances with faster speeds, pump your arms to propel yourself forward.

5. Hip Placement

Keep your hips, core, and head aligned as you lean slightly forward. Engage your core tightly to maintain stability and proper posture.

6. Foot Strike

Strike midfoot against the ground just ahead of your hips and let momentum carry you forward.

7. Steady Stride

Stride length should be long enough for your midfoot to strike the ground underneath your knee and slightly ahead of your hips.

8. Body Coordination

Coordinate your arm swing with your leg movement by swinging the opposite arms and legs in sync.

9. Elbow Bend

Bend your elbows at 90 degrees. Gently pump your arms at your side with relaxed muscles.

10. Lean

Lean slightly forward as you run to maintain alignment and momentum.

11. Relaxed Hands

Relax and cup your hands like you are gently holding an egg. Keep your wrists straight and loose as you run.

12. Flexibility

Keep your body flexible and calm with your movement to avoid potential injury.

13. Cadence

Keep a steady cadence between 170-180 bpm for optimal foot strike and postural form.

14. Mental Focus

Keep your mind focused on the way your body moves to keep proper alignment and optimum cadence.

15. Body Sensing

Sense the way your body moves to make needed adjustments. Stay light and use your momentum to move you forward.

Bethany Widdicombe

Bethany Widdicombe is a runner at heart, a researcher by nature, and a writer by passion. Having traveled across the world, she continues to be an advocate for awareness and knowledge that empowers people to a better life. You can now find her running out on the trail, or nestled away writing her next article.

With proper cycling form, you can ride your bike more efficiently, ride your bike faster, and ride your bike with less pain. Here are five tips on proper cycling form.

Do you ever think about how you’re sitting on your bike when you’re riding? How are you gripping the handlebars or pressing against the pedals? Do you let your butt just go where it wants in the saddle, let your arms just “hold on”, and only think about making your feet go around? If so, you can probably benefit from working on proper cycling form. After all, does a race car driver just push the gas pedal, lean back, and casually steer around the track? While this might make for a relaxing afternoon drive, it won’t get good results on the race track. Cycling is no different.

With proper cycling form, you can ride your bike more efficiently, ride your bike faster, and ride your bike with less elbow, hand, neck, knee, lower back or butt pain. From toes to head (literally), here are five tips on proper cycling form.

Pedal In Squares

Yes, I know your feet are actually moving in circles, but when you think in squares, you’ll improve your pedaling efficiency. Push your foot forward along the top of the square, and then down against the front side of the square. Next, scrape the bottom of the square and then pull up the backside of the square.

Don’t Go Gumbi

If you watch many cyclists from the front, their knees go in or out at the top of the pedal stroke. This is somewhat normal, but excessive movement that looks like Gumbi riding a bike often indicates very tight inner thigh muscles, a tight IT band (the band of tissue that runs down the outside of the leg), and a weak butt. Focus on range of motion in the legs and core and hip strengthening, and you’ll be able to have a more efficient pedal stroke with less side-to-side knee movement.

Listen to Your Mother

Listen to what your mother said and don’t slouch – especially not on the bike. While it’s fine to be leaning forward with a curved back, you should not be letting your pelvis “slouch” in the saddle, which restricts activation of your cycling muscles. Especially if you’re riding in the aero position, you should learn to rotate the hips forward, or “push the butt back” while riding. This pelvic “tuck” is similar to what you’d feel if you were doing a front plank exercise in the gym.

No White Knuckles

Unless you’re in a dead sprint, don’t hold your handlebars in a death grip. Instead, hold the handlebars (or aerobars) with a light relaxed grip, which will save energy, slightly lower blood pressure, and keep you from feeling too tight and stressed on the bike. It’s a small adjustment, but can make a big difference in your comfort during long rides and events, which will ultimately improve your performance.

Pay Attention

This is probably the most important part of proper cycling form. Just as you wouldn’t simply let your mind wander when swimming or running (unless you don’t mind your speed and efficiency slipping), you shouldn’t lose focus while cycling either. Be sure to enjoy yourself, but don’t use it as an excuse to aimlessly push the pedals. Your race splits will thank you!

How to achieve proper running form

Not every elite runner has perfect form. But, the contrast in form between elite runners and non-elite runners couldn’t be more dramatic. The biggest contrast is in running foot strike. In this post we’ll look at the simple drills you can use to improve your foot strike and ultimately, your running form.

What do the elites do?

There are several differences between the form of elite and non-elite runners. As most running fans know, the dominance of the African nations, particularly Kenyan long-distance runners is a fascinating topic. Elite Kenyans tend to land with flexed knees rather than straight legs. Their landing foot is normally closer to a position under the body’s centre of mass, instead of ahead of the hips and torso. Most importantly the running foot strike of Kenyan distance runners differs greatly. These runners tend to land on the mid-foot area, instead of sharply on the heel. We wrote about the Kenyan dominance in long-distance running back in April 2017 in a post called, Why do Kenyans dominate long distance running?

In his book Running Science, author Owen Anderson states that experienced runners often tend to favour heel striking. However, motion analysis on Olympic Games competitors has suggested that medalists are more likely to use mid-foot strike.

It’s important to remember the peak loading rates are much higher when runners land on their heels, compared with mid-foot landings. The peak loading rate is a key predictor of running injuries.

Also, compared with heel striking, performance may be enhanced with mid-foot striking. Research has shown that ground contact time is shorter by about 17 milliseconds at a running velocity of around 5 to 5.5 metres per second. As a consequence, stride rate is also higher for mid-foot striking at any specific speed. Decreases in ground contact time and increases in stride rate have been linked with enhanced running economy and faster 5K performances.

Heel strike vs. mid-foot strike

There are three different running foot strike patterns; heel strike, mid-foot strike and fore-foot strike. In this post we’re going to focus on the two most common strike patterns, heel striking and mid-foot striking.

It only takes a few seconds to transform a heel strike to a mid-foot strike during drills. However, the actual transformation can take months. The reason for this long transformation period isn’t that it takes much time to learn how to hit the ground mid-footed. The problem is it’s wonderful in the long term, but not great in the short term. In the long term, it can improve performance, enhance economy and reduce the risk of injury. But in the short term it can produce physical problems if done too abruptly.

When runners move along in a heel-striking mode, every bit of ground contact causes impact forces to pass through the heel and up the leg. The knees and hips are left to carry out a higher level of work to withstand, control and react to these rapidly applied forces. Additionally, the shin muscles become highly stressed. They control the ‘slap-down’ of the foot on the ground, which occurs immediately after a heel-strike and places strain on the muscles and tendons. The Achilles tendon and calf muscles are only put under moderate pressure.

However, the force patterns change dramatically with mid-foot strikes. Every impact immediately distributes forces throughout the foot and ankle. As the runner is landing on the mid-foot, there’s no ‘slap-down’ action of the ankle and foot. Instead, the ankle begins to undergo dorsiflexion immediately after impact. The top of the foot moves closer to the shin instead of away from it. This places extra strain on the Achilles tendon and calf muscle complex.

Trying to alter your running foot strike too soon

If you’re used to heel striking, this process will be new. The introduction of new forces when running can result in problems with the muscles and connective tissues. This is especially obvious when the forces are repeated 5,400 times per leg on an hour-long run.

This does explain why traditional heel-strikers who wear a pair of minimal shoes (or become sudden converts to barefoot running) and go out for a 60-minute run, often wake up the following morning with tight calves. The problem here is that a change from traditional higher-heeled running shoes to minimal shoes with little heel elevation usually changes running form. It pushes the runner naturally toward mid-foot striking.

The risk of this change from heel to mid-foot striking has been well documented. It was partially explained in the book, Born to Run when countless runners took to running barefoot. This resulted in an epidemic of Achilles tendonitis, calf pain, calf complex tightness and even stress and inflammation of the metatarsal bones. Runners concluded that barefoot running wasn’t the best idea. The actual difficulty was not with barefoot running, but that the transition from heel-striking to mid-foot running was too quick. Changes in form and alterations to your training should be slow and careful to reduce the risk of injuries.

One criticism of mid-foot running is that it simply changes where the impact forces are felt in the leg. It shifts the area of potential injury from common heel-strike injuries, like heel, shin and knee to possible mid-foot injuries, like Achilles tendon and calf.

Drills for changing your running foot strike

These drills have been taken from Owen Anderson’s Running Form. They will help you make the transition from heel to mid-foot running. The first drills should be carried out barefooted in order to provide superior proprioception and a better feeling for mid-foot running. They’ll help you sustain this new running foot strike during your training and races, even when you’re wearing shoes. When performing these drills your knees should be soft and flexed.

The first four phases should all be completed with a cadence of 180 steps per minute (or 190 if you’re an elite athlete). These drills should be done before the main portion of your overall workout. You should complete the drills about five times a week. Or, until you’re certain you can carry them out with mid-foot landings.

Recently my friend and fellow blogger Scott Young did a great post entitled, “New to exercise? Make workouts daily“. It was an excellent post, and perfectly timed as it mirrors my own recent efforts at making exercise a daily habit.

The problem with trying to make exercise a habit, and it’s something that we’ve all faced, is that you usually try to exercise 3 or 4 times a week … and that makes creating a new exercise habit difficult. The reason is that the more consistent an action is, the more likely it is to be a habit.

Therefore, as Scott points out, and it’s something I fully agree with, exercising every day is more likely to result in a habit — something that becomes almost automatic, and much easier, instead of a constant struggle.

I’ve been implementing this idea in my daily life recently, alternating every day between different exercises: running, swimming, biking and strength workouts, as a way of reaching my goal of completing an Olympic-distance triathlon this year. I’m going to continue this habit change into the month of May. I made daily running a habit last year, when I was training for my first marathon, but this year I stopped when I got sick, so I’m re-starting the habit formation.

If you’re going to make this a habit, do a 30-day Challenge, and by the end of the challenge your habit should be pretty well ingrained. Here are some practical suggestions I’ve learned along the way to help make exercise a daily habit: