The actor Tom Cruise’s running form has been much discussed but little analyzed. That’s a shame because there’s so much to see.
If you’ve watched a couple of his movies you can probably close your eyes and picture him running. However if you’d like a little help, this video will do the trick:
The one Tom Cruise running form analysis I could find basically argues that he’s a great runner because he:
- holds his core so still
- keeps his arms tucked in, hands slicing the air instead of flailing
- maintains a high cadence
About the high cadence there can be no doubt. His turnover is blistering, and that more than anything else is what makes any other actor running in the same frame with him look at least a little bit out of shape.
If you look at the sprinting scene from Mission Impossible: the Ghost Protocol, however, you’ll see that the tight, still core is not what it appears. Watch Cruise’s belt buckle and you’ll see his pelvis turns quite a lot. It’s actually impossible to run as fast as he does (if at all) without moving your pelvis, and if it seems fishy to you that trying to do something that is actually impossible could be essential to good form, then you are an intelligent person. I’ve got loads more to say about that, and learning to recognize the signs of excessive core stability is a good place to start.
Two Kinds of Arm Swing
At the beginning of that scene his arms are as described–pumping front-to-back, hands open and slicing the air in a very pure version of sprinting technique. I gather he was coached in this form and seems to have increasingly adopted it through his career.
But as this scene continues and he turns corners, grabs things, decelerates and accelerates again, and generally responds to his environment, his arm technique breaks down. His elbows swing wide, his hands (still determinedly held open) arc to the middle of his chest instead of staying to either side.
After a few strides in a straight line his arms go back to sprinter-style, but in no action sequence does that last very long. The fact is, that kind of arm technique is only any good for running in a lane on a track. You cannot respond to your environment while doing it. And that’s why, though it looks heroic, it rings a little bit false in his movies. Nobody does it spontaneously when running for their life. It’s only done in sport, or when someone’s really drilled it into you that it’s the way you should be running.
For contrast, take a look at his running in War of the Worlds, where he keeps his hands naturally curled and allows his arms to swing on a natural diagonal pathway from the center of his chest out to the sides and back. That may have been before he really adopted his sprinter-style technique or it may have been an artistic choice for embodying a character who’s just a regular guy, not a highly trained… erm, whatever Cruise often plays in his action movies (betraying my ignorance, as I’m not really an action movie fan).
The Posture/Foot Connection
Coming back to his overall sprinting form, if we zoom the camera out it becomes clear that he’s running quite upright–as in this clip from Mission Impossible–and his feet are turned out and fall almost in a straight line, as if on a tightrope, as you can see here in Collateral.
While Cruise’s feet tend to turn out a bit in general, his gait only gets narrow like this and feet turn out more when he’s in sprinting mode. (In fact, if you go all the way back to this clip from Taps in 1981, he’s just jogging and his feet don’t appear to turn out at all.) At the same time, the forward lean you can clearly see when he starts running or deals with a complex situation vanishes when he’s in full-out sprinting mode and fully upright.
Notice in this clip from The Firm how Cruise leans forward, his head moves side to side, and his arms pump hard as he begins to run, and then once he’s reached a steady speed his arms start going more front-to-back and his head stops moving. When a runner’s weight stops shifting from side-to-side, the head is no longer shifting from one foot to the other, and instead the feet need to come closer to the midline for support.
(To clarify: it sounds sensible to say that any side-to-side movement is wasted movement in running. But the fact is we have two legs and each of them is on one side of the body, and we need to be supported by them in alternation. So some side-to-side movement is in fact optimal, and when you stop it from happening you have to work harder to run at any given speed. In sprinting, Usain Bolt was a master of this side-to-side movement, so it is definitely functional and fast.)
Meanwhile the front-to-back armswing activates the muscles on the back of the body excessively (they have to work to keep the hands from coming to the center of his chest) and this effort pushes the chest forward, bringing the runner upright or even, in the Mission Impossible clip above, slightly leaning backwards.
The Source of the Face
This also produces Cruise’s iconic running face: teeth showing between pursed but open lips, and eyes bulging. When a runner’s head is too far back it’s not effectively pushed forward by the feet, and even facial muscles get recruited to pull it forward and keep it from falling farther back. Whenever you see a runner grimace, their neck muscles pop out, or their jaw tense, this is what’s going on.
But it’s tough to draw the line in Cruise’s movies between his running form and his roles. Since his running scenes generally involve characters under intense duress, that facial expression (in all its variations) fits the story and the character’s whole-body movement.
What his Feet Show
Now regarding Cruise’s habit of turned-out feet, there are a few places in the compilation video where he slows to a jog and stops. At those moments you can see his turned-out feet in the air behind him (usually they’re too much of a blur to see clearly). When a runner does this, it’s a clear sign of overly-active lower back muscles. There are plenty of other indicators of high back muscle tonus, as I’ve mentioned above, and in this little clip on a sort of futuristic human hamster wheel you can see Cruise jogging slowly and get a sense of how active his lower back is.
This isn’t uncommon in runners of all levels. The one that comes to mind at the moment is Feyisa Lelisa, who won silver in the men’s marathon in the Rio Olympics. But it might be a sign of occasional low back tightness for Cruise, and it would probably be helpful to swap out some bracing-type abdominal work (such as planks) for more flexion. Improving range of motion and coordination of the hip joints, pelvis, and back for flexion and internal rotation helps a runner maintain a forward lean at speed.
If I were to give Cruise one lesson, it would be this one to help improve hip joint mobility in coordination with the pelvis in a way that reduces lower back tension.
How to Survive a Martian Invasion
The fact is, where you can best see Cruise’s excellence as a runner is not in his straight-line sprinting but when he’s ducking, dodging, and being knocked around by explosions. The number of times in the compilation video above that he nearly falls and catches himself is remarkable. Most people would have landed on their faces.
Cruise is not just a runner, he’s a skilled all-around athlete who does most of his own movie stunts. And this gets us to what good running form actually is and where it comes from. Not, as we’re taught to think, from drilling a set of correct movements until they become habit and can be performed with robotic consistency. But instead from having such a wide range of options, so much diverse skill at movement, that we can spontaneously and without conscious thought choose the best option for every single step. Because unless you’re running indoors on a treadmill, every step is going to be a little different. Maybe there’s a stone underfoot, maybe the road is a little cambered as you go around a bend, maybe the wind shifts, or maybe, if you’re Tom Cruise, a nearby car explodes.
Explosions aside, runners who cope with the endless variation they encounter in the environment are versatile, perhaps most when they appear to be moving consistently. Of course if there’s a Martian invasion going on, consistent running form will be impossible but the people who are most versatile in movement have the best chance of getting away.
The real pleasure in watching Tom Cruise run is watching that. His general good form (when he’s doing what comes naturally), his high cadence, and his speed are all outcomes of his ability to do things like run sideways on a building and slide on his hip across the hood of a car without breaking the fluidity of his gait before or afterwards.
If you want to emulate his form, don’t just copy how he runs–copy how varied his running is. Set yourself agility challenges and build your movement skill. It won’t just give you a better chance of surviving a Martian invasion, but also of enjoying your running and your life.