The Proper Form for Distance Running

Posted January 18, 2012 by

Anyone who has read the book Born to Run understands the importance of proper form when running, which can make enormous differences not only in running performance, but in endurance, comfort and injury prevention as well. Although humans are designed to travel by foot long distances on a regular basis, our modern, sedentary lifestyle has caused us to forget proper running technique as we age. The addition of over-compensating footwear has exacerbated the issue and consequently, a large majority of people do not run in a safe, sustainable fashion. Shin splints, knee issues and hip bursitis are just a few of the common side effects of improper running that plague those who do so on a regular basis.

Running long distances, frequently, doesn’t HAVE to mean inevitable injury however. By fixing your running form you will be able to greatly increase the distance of your runs while simultaneously reducing the impact on your joints and soft tissues and thus, the risk of injury.

When changing your running form, it’s important to take it easy and work back up gradually to your normal running volume, because the altered movement can work muscles that are not used to working with your current running form and are going to be at risk of over-training for a few weeks until they adapt. I’m going to start at the head and work my way down the body, explaining proper posture and movement as I go so that you have a top-down understanding of what correct running technique looks like.

One of the most common mistakes new and seasoned runners alike make is that they jut their chin forward or they bow their heads down and look at the floor. The head and neck should remain neutral at all times, and you should look forward, not down. Keep your chin slightly tucked, NOT jutted out.

Next we have the shoulders and arms. A common postural distortion is to hunch the shoulders up towards the ears, keeping the arms tightly held in with elbows bent well past 90-degrees. This is a tight position that obstructs your airways and inhibits your ability to take full breaths or to use your arms to help rotate your hips properly. You want to ensure that your shoulders are low and retracted (shoulder blades pulled back and down), not hunched, and they should remain level with each stride, rather than dropping from side to side. Your arms should be bent at a 90-degree angle, moving close to the body in a forward and back motion, rather than not at all or side to side.

In distance running, your hands should be held in a fist, but not tightly held, nor should your hands be straight as in sprinting. It should be a loose fist to encourage fluid, natural movement of the upper body. As you clench your fists or tightly extend them, you subconsciously tense the rest of your body causing tight, inefficient movement.

Next we have the torso, made up of your spine, ribcage and surrounding tissues. Together with your hips, your torso is the source of your motion and thus it’s critical that your posture is correct, otherwise all the rest of the movement will be altered. Your torso should be upright, with your spine straight and lengthened. Think of trying to run as “tall” as possible, actively lengthening your spine from the top of your skull down to your tail bone.

As mentioned above, your hips are the other half of your movement’s origin and thus your hip positioning is of crucial importance. Ensure that you’re maintaining a neutral position in the hips, rather than tilting forward or backward. Think of your hip line as the rim of a bucket of water; don’t let the water spill out of the front or back of the bucket.

Your ankle is a surprisingly important factor in running form. In order to take advantage of gravity as a source of momentum, you should learn forward slightly at the ankles, NOT at the waist (as stated previously, your waist should remain straight). If you bend at the waist, you’re putting your lower back in a compromising position. Bending at the ankles allows your body to perpetually “fall” towards the earth, but at an angle that puts your falling weight slightly in front of you, thus propelling you forward with each step.

Unlike sprinting, you should concentrate on pulling your feet up under you with your hamstrings rather than pushing off of the ground and reaching your leg in front of you with each step. This will minimize pounding and stress to the hips and upper thighs. It will also use a lot less energy, enabling you to run further than before. Your feet should land right on the mid foot directly underneath you, not on the heel, out in front of your body with a straight knee, which both causes a braking effect and is stressful to the hip complex. Most people subconsciously land with a heel-strike so this is incredibly important to monitor when you first begin running correctly! Be forewarned however; this method of running will likely stress your calves more than you’re used to, so I want to reiterate the importance of scaling your runs back initially and building up slowly.

Finally, you want to keep your strides quick and frequent, which will increase your running efficiency, both in terms of energy usage and in terms of comfort. This means not over-reaching with your stride length, which is encouraged with a pushing-off-the-ground style of running.

I’m sure you guys have seen the weird “barefoot running” shoes that have become popular lately. The main benefit of these shoes over standard running shoes is that they discourage heel-striking (and also, they strengthen the arch of the foot by not over-supporting like normal shoes). Normal shoes have cushioned heels which mask this poor movement pattern… if you run barefoot or with shoes that mimic barefoot running, you will feel pain when landing on your heel—within minutes, this alone can cause you to correctly alter your running style so that you are landing on the mid foot.

Comments on The Proper Form for Distance Running »

  1. I didn’t know that there was an actual “running form.” So that’s probably why I’ve always felt more strained than refreshed every time I ran. I was wondering though, what is the minimum time that a person should devote to running/sprinting each day or each week?

  2. Benjamin Ballinger

    Hi Dr. Olsen, thanks for your comment. The amount of time that should be devoted to running and/or sprinting, if any, is dependent upon your goals as well as your physical capabilities. If your goal is to run a marathon, then your daily running requirements would differ greatly from someone who is running for general cardiovascular health benefits, etc.