The Wrong Time to Work on Your Running Form

The top question I get from my students and clients when I teach something about running form is, “Should I be thinking about this when I’m running?”

The answer is NO.

While you’re actually running is the wrong time to work on your running form or technique.

The reasons are numerous, but here are some of the most important ones:

Running is a Cycle

There’s a reason the “gait cycle” is called that. Once it’s underway there’s no beginning and no end, and every element was to some degree determined by what came before it and determines what comes after it. So you can’t easily change just one thing. Minor variations are possible, but to make any significant change you have to stop completely and start over again differently.

Do you know how to start differently so that the whole gait cycle will be different? The only way to learn that is while you’re not running.

The Things that Mess Up Your Form Don’t Come from Running

As a species, we evolved to run, and moving correctly is unmistakably the easiest way to do it. With proper experimentation and exploration in your development, you can feel this.

If you’re running incorrectly and can’t feel how to do it better, that’s because you have a movement habit that’s so familiar to you that you don’t even notice it, and it’s interfering with your running. It’s not just something you do when you run–it’s a habit you have all the time and thus bring with you into running.

So this means that working to develop better and more responsive movement habits is most effective when you’re not running.

You Can’t Safely Experiment

When your foot strikes the ground, you’re actually landing from the air. In midstance, when you’re on one foot, you’re supporting 2.5x your body weight or more. When you take off again, you’ve pushed that 2.5x your body weight back into the air. And you do all this approximately three times per second when you’re out on a run.

There’s not a lot of margin for error here. The way you’re currently running is the best your nervous system knows right now about how to keep you safe–not breaking any bones on impact, overstressing yourself on takeoff, or falling over in between. Not tripping or faceplanting (most of the time, anyway).

If you monkey around with how you’re running too much, odds you’re going to trip, land awkwardly and twist your ankle, or otherwise have a mishap go up. Your brain doesn’t want that–it’s trying to keep you alive. So while you can probably run a couple of different ways (ever tried to mimic someone else or deliberately run comically?), all of those ways use what you currently know about how to coordinate yourself without anything terrible happening.

Trying to do something completely new to you… probably your nervous system just won’t permit it. You won’t be able to feel how to do it because you don’t yet know from experience that it’s safe.

That’s quite a catch-22, isn’t it? You can’t move in a completely new way till you know from experience it’s safe, but you can’t know from experience it’s safe till you can try it out.

This is why most people’s running form stubbornly refuses to change much, and you might still be working on the same things in five years that you worked on yesterday.

Working on your running form when you’re not running lowers that level of risk so it’s possible to try some truly new ways of moving and discover they’re safe. Then you can take them into your running and start building up that valuable experience.

It Saps Your Energy

In endurance activities, mental fatigue = physical fatigue. (For more on that, read Alex Hutchinson’s excellent book Endure.)  Thinking about your running form while you’re running fatigues your brain and will actually result in a physical feeling of fatigue sooner than you’d otherwise have had.

And as you probably know, overthinking your running form is truly exhausting.

A skilled runner with excellent, versatile, responsive form can feel what they’re doing and make a quick, almost instinctive choice about it. No thinking involved, and no form work. The ability to sense what you’re doing and the palate of good options to choose from have to be already developed for that to happen, and you develop them thanks to the work you do outside of running.

You Can’t Feel the Most Important Things

According to the Weber-Fechner Law, the ability to perceive a change in a stimulus depends on the overall size of the stimulus. The larger the stimulus, the larger the change in the stimulus has to be for you to be able to feel it. If a stimulus is small, you can feel very small changes in it.

So in a dark room, lighting one candle adds a dramatic amount of light. But outdoors in the sunshine you won’t notice the additional brightness cast by that same candle.

At a rock concert you’ll never hear someone 20 feet away whispering. But in a silent room you definitely will.

So if you’re running and something changes at your 12th thoracic vertebra, or your third toe on your left foot, you’re unlikely to feel it. But in a situation where the overall stimulation is lower you can feel quite small changes… which means you’ll be able to follow the trail of breadcrumbs to a completely new way of moving.

So hopefully you’re getting the picture here that improving your running form is done outside of running. And also, if you were reading closely, you picked up that the things you do will be pretty gentle, exploratory, and involve feeling the easiest way to move your body. And they’ll be perceptibly safe at every single step.

It is possible to make dramatic yet safe changes in your form, but only by following this formula and giving up the effort to correct your form when you’re actually out there running.

Excited to get started? Here’s the place to begin:

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