The Right Time for Running Upright

It’s not an accident we can run so many different ways, including leaning forward and running upright. Some ways of running are generally better than others, and well-coordinated athletes will find they gravitate towards a fairly consistent set of gait characteristics I call The Balanced Runner Keys.

But because truly excellent form is organized by responding to the conditions you’re running in, things that are usually wrong are also sometimes right.

This is definitely the case with running upright, with your torso basically vertical. I’ve spoken and written a great deal about why leaning forward (not to be confused with slouching) is important for running. For a deep dive into this topic, here’s my Forward Lean YouTube playlist.

The most fundamental reason for leaning forward is air resistance, or drag. And this is why research on the subject hasn’t seemed conclusive–because much of it is done on treadmills, where there is no air resistance.

In Air Resistance in Sport (Pugh, L. G. C. E. “Air resistance in sport.” Advances in exercise physiology 9 (1976): 149-164.), Lewis Pugh studied a range of activities and found that the fundamental strategy for reducing drag is to reduce the surface area of the front of the body. In other words to lean forward. This includes in running. And the faster you go, the more you lean.

Conveniently and probably not coincidentally, the way the human hip joints work is such that you can significantly extend your stride behind you by leaning forward and thus tilting your pelvis forward. When you’re running fast it’s extremely difficult to keep your pelvis from tilting forward, meaning there’s basically no option to run upright and your options are to lean forward or to arch your back so your upper body is vertical.

So when could it be correct to run upright? Pugh’s research suggests the answer.

It’s when you have a tailwind.

To maximize the benefit of a tailwind you should maximize the surface area of your back so you can be blown forward as much as possible. Basically, you make your body a sail.

The ability to extend your legs behind you isn’t even terribly important if the tailwind is strong, as you’ll be carried forward in the flight phase of running.

As always, I loved the array of answers I got to last week’s quiz on this topic! I wasn’t terribly surprised that hardly anyone guessed this answer, since we tend not to notice air resistance unless we’ve got a really strong headwind, and a tailwind is the least noticeable effect of all because the air is moving along with you.

A number of people proposed the right time to run upright is when running downhill. But while you might want to lean less on a really technical downhill, upright will always be hard on your knees when you descend, and will often result in a strong braking action. And even though it feels safer, if you’re putting your foot down with your weight upright behind it you increase the odds your foot will slip forwards out from under you and you’ll end up sitting on your rear end. For more on this, check out my YouTube videos on running downhill.

I also got a number of folks suggesting the right time for running upright is when running slowly, and that is indeed when you should lean less, but even though it’s barely perceptible you still need to lean slightly forward. For more on running slowly with good technique, read this.

Matie, who got basically the right answer, also mentioned treadmill running and deceleration, and a couple of others mentioned deceleration as well. Though it’s not what I was originally thinking of, you will come upright and maybe even lean backwards if you have to come to a sudden stop. Otherwise you’ll lean less as you slow down to stop but probably not come all the way upright.

On a treadmill, however, even though leaning forward isn’t necessary to reduce drag, there’s no benefit to running upright either, and you still should do it so your hip joints will work well.

Congratulations, Matie, and thanks to everyone who chimed in on last week’s quiz!

4 thoughts on “The Right Time for Running Upright”

  1. Hmmmm yeah I immediately thought downhill but knew that would not be the answer. I can’t wait for the next tailwind. That does make good sense!

  2. Ahhh…Tailwind. Fun question to ponder, thanks, Jae! I don’t think I have felt many tailwinds lately!! But, I am looking forward to the next one! To all my running friends here: Have a great week! Nan

  3. I was taught many yrs ago In HS to lean forward and drop arms going into a downhill to shift weight forward, use your weight to propel, mainly in cross country running. Uphills we pumped arms higher as levers to help lift legs, leaning into hills. Wonder if these 1970s principles are considered in present day?


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