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Clean Up Your Running Technique, Part 2 of 2

In part one of this two part series we analyzed the running motion.  We looked into running as a learned skill and the importance of running with proper technique.  We then analyzed where runners expend energy and how to minimize wasted energy and maximize the energy required to keep our bodies in the running motion.  Hopefully the first part caused you to rethink aspects about your own running technique.  After reading part 2 you will have a solid understanding of how to run correctly and how use that understanding to correct your own technique.

Part 2 of this article will look at a very important factor of running; where the foot lands in relation to the body.  In addition to foot-strike placement we will go over correct body position and balance as well the correct number of run strides in a given minute.  Finally, and most importantly, we will go over practical ways for you to make the necessary changes for you to improve your own running technique which will lead you to a much faster, injury free, and enjoyable running lifestyle.


Foot-strike Placement

The most devastating error most runners make in their technique is reaching forward with the foot before foot-strike.  When the foot hits the ground in front of the body, the runner’s leg is not in position to provide propulsion.  You have no leverage to pull yourself forward and must wait until your body coasts into position over the foot.  Only when your body is directly over your foot can you push off.  An incorrect foot-strike placement contributes to “breaking”.  The muscles that support bodyweight at foot-strike, the quadriceps, must contract much more forcefully to “catch” the runners’ bodyweight.  This unnecessarily increases the energy cost of support.  Fatigue in the quads, especially after long runs at an easy pace, is a sure sign of a forward foot-strike.

Correcting the placement of your foot-strike to a forefoot landing will change your body position, balance, and the basic rhythm of your running.  Placing the foot under your center of gravity minimizes vertical displacement, enables effective use of elastic tissues, prevents breaking at impact, optimizes body balance, increases turnover, and decreases the force required at push-off for fast running.


Body Position and Balance

Body position and balance are related to the position of foot-strike.  If your foot lands directly under your hips, as it should, your body will naturally lean slightly forward.  On the other hand, most runners remain perfectly upright when they run or even lean slightly backward.  This is the surest indication of over-striding.  It’s simple physics: if the foot is in front of the center of mass at foot-strike, something must move backward to maintain balance, and the torso usually takes that roles.  With optimal foot-strike placement, the runner’s shoulders are very slightly in front of the hips, and the hips are very slightly in front of the average position of the legs.  Runners just learning this technique often feeling they are falling forward.  This is the feeling of using gravity to your advantage.

Head position can affect body position significantly.  If the head leans forward, the torso, must lean backward somewhat to counterbalance the weight.  Maintain a very upright head position enables the efficient forward-leaning position.  Make sure to look at the ground only by rotating your eyes downward; avoid looking down with your head.

Arm position is another factor that can affect body position.  To determine correct arm position, stand with your arms relaxed at your sides.  Now bend your elbow to 90 degrees, but make sure to move your elbow back exactly as far as your hand moves forward.  This is the correct average arm position for running.  Your arms should move backward from this position as far as they move forward.  Make sure your arms are at your sides and not in front of your body, lift your chin, and focus your eyes on a spot on the horizon.


Cadence and Propulsion

Most runners, in a misguided attempt to run faster by artificially increasing stride length, take between 140 and 150 steps per minute. At any running speed, efficient runners use shorter strides with much higher turnover (more steps per minute).  Longer strides mean more contact time with the ground.  Longer strides require your muscles to contract more forcefully which over time will cause your legs to fatigue.  Running with longer strides also necessitates greater vertical displacement.  This forces runners to move more up and down much like throwing a baseball a long distance compared to a shorter distance; you have to arc the baseball much more to make the longer distance rather than throwing the baseball in a straight line for a shorter distance.

Optimal turnover is about 180-182 steps per minute regardless of running speed.  This is considerably higher turnover than most runners naturally use, especially on long, slow runs.  This can be worked on by buying a metronome and setting it to maintain a beat which requires your legs to make quicker, shorter strides.  You can also check your running cadence by looking at your watch and counting the number of times your right leg hits the ground in one minute.  Take that number and multiply it by two and that is your steps per minute.

Creating propulsion is really what running is all about.  We have talked about how to reduce wasted energy in your stride and where not to spend your energy.  A quicker cadence allows your feet to spend less wasted time on the ground and in the air and allows your legs to come back to the ground to keep your body moving at a constant speed.  From the time just before foot-strike, through the period of contact with the ground, to the follow-through your knee should be slightly bent and the angle should not change too much.  Through the entire propulsion phase, the knee angle should be slightly bent and constant.  Efficient runners recovery their leg slightly in front of the hips and then forcefully pull it backward into the ground.  This prevents braking, conserves their momentum, and eliminates the need to reaccelerate every stride.  Once the foot begins to pull backward before striking the ground you should feel no “breaking” action when it does hit the ground.  You should feel like the push-off is accomplished involuntarily and automatically as a result of you leaning forward and pulling the foot back into the ground.  As you grow more accustomed to this style of running, you should feel that your glutes are working as hard as your thigh muscles.  Feeling some soreness in your glutes is a sure sign that you are using them more.  With training, this soreness will soon disappear and you will be running faster and more efficiently.


So How Do I Make the Changes?

We now understand that running properly is important because it keeps our joints healthier and keeps us injury free.  It also allows us to run faster using less energy.

Keep these 3 things in mind to evolve your running technique:

  1. Shorten your running stride by allowing your foot to land on the forefoot rather than the heel.   Imagine you are running barefoot on hot coals.   Or, imagine you are running on ice.
  2. Focus on a slight forward lean, keeping the head up, shoulders relaxed, and arms at your side.
  3. Buy a metronome and adjust it until the beeping matches your natural stride frequency.  Gradually increase the speed of the metronome by two to four steps per minute each week, matching your foot-strike with the metronome’s rhythm, until you can sustain 180 foot-strikes per minute.

Remember that you are changing the way you have run your entirely life.  Be careful not to make these changes too suddenly.  Allow your body time to adapt to the changes you are making.  Begin by incorporating the proper form into short 100 meter runs where you concentrate on nothing but technique and form (it’s good to do these strides before and after your normal runs).  Once you have mastered these 100 meter strides begin to slowly incorporate good technique into your normal runs.  For example, run for 30 minutes your normal way, but every 10 minutes insert 1 minute of proper running technique.  Very slowly increase the amount of time you run with good technique and decrease the amount of time from your old technique.  Be patient, these changes will take time to learn and it will take even more time to unlearn your old bad habits.  However, if you stick with it I am positive you will find running much more enjoyable, less painful on the body, and might even inspire you to get competitive and enter some races!


By: Matt Yost, ACSM HFS, BS Exercise Science



Rusty White

I would love to include running as part of my fitness routine but all my life I have suffered from what coaches and others called shin splints, basically intense stiffness and aches in my calf muscles. The pain typically begins about 15 minutes into a run, and depending on how far I run it may last a day or several days.

These develop almost exclusively when I have been running on a hard surface but not when I am on a treadmill.

I have gone to a podiatrist for evaluation of my feet and was told my arch has dropped below what would be considered normal. Not needing running as vital to my existence I was advised to find another form of exercise. But I would like to run.

Do you think technique is at the root of my problem or am I truly relegated to a life of shin splints due to low arches?


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