There are some skills that humans need to be taught, preferably at a young age. We throw kids into swimming lessons so that they can learn how to swim. We register them for hockey or figure skating so that they can learn how to maneuver on skates. Something even as simple as catching a ball is actually a learned skill. And chances are, if you weren’t taught these skills as a child, and encouraged to practice them over and over, you probably aren’t very good at them now. This competency to perform physical skills has a name: physical literacy, and it is crucial to proper development. Funny enough, we don’t usually put our five-year-olds in running lessons.
Running is still a critical component of physical literacy, however it is generally not deliberately taught like swimming, skating, and catching skills. That's because humans are, for the most part, inherently good runners. We’re pretty amazing at it all on our own, actually. But with the incidence of recreationalrunning injuries as high at 80%, I have a lot of runners who come to me for advice on theirform, and what changes they can make in order to increase their mileage and decrease their pain.
For the majority of runners, the problem is not necessarily how they run, but rather how much. Pushing your body past its limits, either in distance or intensity, is going to give you an overuse injury --even with perfect form. In addition, your body has an amazing ability to adapt to the loads andstresses that you put it through, as long as you give it adequate time and rest to adapt to changes. It’s so amazing that even if you run like Phoebe Buffay from Friends, (please YouTube this immediately if you don’t understand the reference, it’s hilarious - link here) your body will naturally adapt to your unique running form. Nevertheless, beyond examining training load, and discovering muscle imbalances, running form is the third most important factor in addressing running-related injuries, especially if those injuries are consistently happening in one joint, or on one side of your body.
When I perform a Running Assessment with clients, it usually takes an hour. I discuss with you your past and current training loads, your past injuries, current complaints, and your goals. I will then perform some physical tests and hone in on your problem areas. Only then do I get you on the treadmill to examine your running form in slow motion from the back and the side. I take all of this information and if I notice room for improvement, I may make a few suggestions to tweak some aspects of yourform. Sometimes these suggestions don’t prove useful; and result in an undesirable outcome. They may feel awkward, uncomfortable, or even painful. So we try something different. Ultimately, we end up at a place that looks and feels good.
The point that I am trying to make is, everybody and every body is DIFFERENT. There is no perfect running form even among top level elite marathoners. So to accept cookie-cutter advice from a salesperson or magazine is just wrong, and it got me in to a lot of trouble when I was a young (and very injured) runner. However, while there are huge variances among runners, there are a few commonrunning form observations that physiologists and researchers tend to agree on when they describe “good running form”. I’ll break them down for you now.
1. Good Posture
Simple, yet effective. Stand up tall with your shoulders relaxed. This will open your chest to allow unrestricted airflow into and out of your lungs. Don’t bend forward from your hips. Rather, hinge forward slightly from your ankles and almost fall gently into each step.
2. Foot Strike
Are you a heel striker? That’s great. Are you a forefoot striker? Also great.
Ultimately, no matter what the running magazines say, there is no “bad” way to foot strike, and your body will adapt to your unique stride. Instead of foot strike, the distance your foot is from your body seems to be the most important factor in achieving good running form. You want to prevent over-striding, or kicking your feet out in front of your body when you land. In addition to slowing you down, you’re also putting a lot of stress through your knees, hips, and low back when you over-stride. Instead, think of landing with your feet underneath your body, with a slightly bent knee. Achieving this might actually increase your cadence (the number of times your feet hit the ground per minute) slightly. Increasing cadence, even just a little bit, can reduce your risk of knee injuries. It’s a win-win if you ask me.
*as a side note, just like there is no perfect form, there is no perfect cadence either. What works really well for one runner, may not work well for another.
3. Minimize Vertical Movement
Running is hard work. Don’t waste any energy jumping up and down with each stride. You’ll need most of that energy to move forward. If you are a particularly bouncy runner, you might want to consider trying to use those strong calf muscles to push your body forward instead of skyward.
4. Minimize Lateral Movement
There are very few runners I see that couldn’t stand to do a bit of glute strengthening. There is a particular muscle in our hips called the gluteus medius. Its job is to keep your hips from collapsing out to the side when you are standing on one leg. When you run, your feet are never in contact with the ground at the same time so your hips need to be pretty good at supporting your weight on one leg at a time. Without this stability, many runners will swing their hips with each stride, a common finding among those who suffer fromIT band syndrome, patellofemoral pain syndrome, and lower back pain. This can be remedied with specific exercises, ideally ones that have you perform stabilizing movements on one leg.
Proper posture, relative foot strike, and minimizing vertical and lateral movement; the recipe for good running form.
Now, I know what you’re thinking; “didn’t you just say that every runner’s form is unique and that’s ok?”
Funny enough, these four concepts properly executed can still look very different in each person. That being said, the best advice I can give to any runner new or old is; stop taking cookie-cutter advice from your running community. This blog, included. So if you have been told that you look like Phoebe Buffay, but you have never had a running-related injury, don’t change a single thing. As with pretty much all things running, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if you do have soreness, recurring injuries, or simply want to get faster, you might want to ask yourself: “how’s my form?”
For more information or if you would like to learn more you can contact Laura Gfeller, PT at our Dartmouth location. To book an appointment call 902-404-3668 ext. 1 or book online.