When you read about how to fix your running technique, a few recommendations pop up over and over again. This makes it seem like there is overwhelming agreement on these points, but in reality it just indicates that people are repeating the things they’ve been told without examining them critically.
Most of my clients come to me having tried one or more of them to sort out their problems, and either lost precious time doing it or even made the problem worse. So let’s look at the most common ones, why they don’t work, and what to do instead.
This seems like good posture advice and probably pretty uncontroversial. After all, we all sit too much and hunch over computers (like I happen to be doing right now) and carry that posture with us into other activities such as running.
However, smooth, easy running depends on your upper body being able to move — specifically, to turn. As any gait expert will tell you, the rotation of your upper body is critical to counterbalance the forces created in your lower body. This rotation requires one shoulder to move back while the other moves forward.
Pull both shoulders back and you interfere with this movement, fighting yourself. The result? Extra effort when you run, leading to slower running, earlier fatigue, and feeling like you really take a pounding.
What you should do instead: tune into the natural rotation of your upper body and allow it to happen. This rotation actually helps you straighten your spine and get rid of that laptop hunch as well as helping you flow more smoothly over your feet. If you’re struggling with it, doing some work on your core action will make a big difference.
This is a classic old running form tip that you’ve almost certainly been told, and the reasoning behind it sounds sensible: when you run you’re trying to go straight forward, so any side-to-side or turning movements such as having your arms swing across your body waste effort.
Based on what I’ve already said about pulling your shoulders back this probably already sounds fishy. It all comes down to this: we have two legs, neither one is in the middle, and neither comes all the way to the middle when we run. So we have to move a bit side-to-side in addition to counterbalancing the rotational forces of the lower body.
What this means is that in fact nearly every part of your body moves in a direction other than straight forward when you run, and this is especially important for your arms. The rotation of your upper body makes your arms swing on a diagonal with your hands coming roughly to your midline. Trying to force your arms to go front-to-back creates a great deal of extra effort and tension in your back and puts your weight in the wrong place, and if you’ve been feeling like your shoulders get really tight and fatigued when you run, this is probably the reason why.
Many of my clients run faster and easier right away when I give them permission to let their arms swing to their center line, especially if they also bend their elbows a lot so the hands come up at least to heart height. However some struggle to feel how to naturally let their arms do this, in which case the solution is the same as above: work on your core action and your arms will begin to find their groove.
This is a more recent bit of advice, aimed at helping you keep from overstriding, or landing with your foot too far out in front of you. The thinking is that people tend to overstride because their hip flexors are too tight and/or they don’t use their glutes enough.
While there is something to that, it has the same shortcoming as pulling your shoulders back: the two sides of your body need to be doing opposite things at any given time.
You contract both glutes simultaneously when you jump, taking off both feet at once and then landing on both at the same time. When you run you’re doing this with one leg at a time, and at the point you need your glutes to work on one side they need to be really relaxed and allow your hip to flex on the other side. So contracting them both at once keeps your legs and pelvis from moving properly and, again, will make you work a lot harder when you’re running — bad for speed and endurance.
Instead, work on your core action and see if you can keep your legs supple at the moment they meet the ground. You’ll reduce the pounding and any excessive overstriding you might be doing, as well as making running feel much easier and smoother.
This goes back to the flexed sitting posture modern humans have and is aimed at getting you to straighten out your spine. But it doesn’t really work like that.
When people try to run upright they do two things: activate their back muscles to straighten up and also pull their upper bodies backwards so the spine is perpendicular to the ground, like a telephone pole.
The tension in the back muscles stiffens you so you don’t move very easily. And it becomes harder for the two sides of your body to do opposite things as mentioned above because they’re both trying to do the same thing: pull you upright.
Furthermore, the fact that you end up with your spine perpendicular to the ground also makes running much harder, since you need to lean forward to align your spine to direct force from your feet to your head. This is a key difference between running and walking: running is done with a forward lean.
The movements of running, if they include your pelvis, waist, back, ribcage, shoulders — your entire body in fact — will straighten you out while keeping you mobile. Instead of focusing on holding your body in any kind of correct position when you run, focus on allowing your body to move. You can work on your ability to lean forward with a long, flexible, un-hunched back with this exercise.
This is one of the most popular pieces of running technique advice out there. If you go to a physical therapist or read a running magazine, no matter what your injury or problem, you will be told the answer is core stability.
However, as I’ve pointed out several times already, the two sides of your body need to do opposite things when you run, and holding anything still interferes with that. Furthermore, no matter what your injury or problem, the answer is actually proper core mobility, or core action as I prefer to call it. There’s much more to this one, and I’ve written about it extensively on this blog. If you want to know more, start with this blog post and this lesson.
The right information makes a big difference. Simply having an accurate idea of what should be happening when you run can go a long way towards making running feel smoother, healthier, and faster, as well as minimising niggles and helping you bounce back better from injury.
Sometimes people need more than just the right information, though. So while I hope this advice will really make a difference to you, it’s also very reasonable that you’ll need more physical learning experiences.
The biggest running technique misconception of all is that running is not a technique sport. Runners benefit from working on their technique and coordination as much as ballet dancers and football players. Embracing that reality and making learning part of your running life is what will really make 2016 a great new year of running for you.
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.