Your Running Form is Just One Thing (or how to run relaxed)

Most recommendations on running form take the form of a list – how your feet should hit the ground, what to do with your knees and your core, your chest, shoulders, arms hands, and maybe even head. This is usually followed by a recommendation to relax when you run.

Simply remembering the list of elements may be a fair amount of work, trying to pay attention to them all at once may be quite difficult indeed, and trying to actually do all of them at once may be nearly impossible. And then to relax while doing it – ha!

There’s an additional problem with these kinds of lists: the elements often don’t connect, and sometimes actually make each other impossible. That’s what destroys your ability to relax more than anything else. Let’s consider some common recommendations:

  • It’s actually impossible to tighten your core and not overstride with an exaggerated heelstrike or forefoot strike
  • there’s no way to relax your shoulders while trying to swing your arms only front-to-back
  • you won’t be able to lean from the ankles if you don’t let your chin stick out a bit.

The elements of any list of running form recommendations need to agree with each other and work together in order to prevent this particular problem. But that gets me to my deeper point here, which is that although it’s possible to create a list of the elements of healthy form that all work together–and for convenience I often do so—in fact healthy form is just one thing, one way of moving your whole body all at once. We could pick any particular body part and describe what it’s doing, but it’s doing that because of the single whole-body movement that’s going on.

So what is this single whole-body movement? It is a counter-rotational action the emanates from what Jack Heggie called the “drive point” of the lowest thoracic and top lumbar vertebrae. This spirals our weight from leg to leg, allowing us to store and release elastic energy through our legs and trunk. It results in:

  • an optimal footstrike (the right distance in front of the hip joint for the speed you’re running, either midfoot or forefoot depending on speed)
  • midstance occurring right over the stance foot
  • legs that align and direct force well
  • a pelvis that moves a small but crucial amount
  • an upper body that turns
  • arms that swing to the middle of the chest
  • relaxed shoulders
  • a forward lean from the ankles
  • a skull that slides forward on the atlas vertebra
  • easy breathing
  • clear eyesight
  • a feeling of ease and enjoyment

I could make that list longer, describing what your collarbones do, when your glutes fire, what happens with your big toes, and so on for as many parts of your body as I can think of. I could also make the list shorter, and usually do. It doesn’t matter very much how long it is and which things it includes, because if you do one of the things on the list, you’ll find yourself beginning to do others, shifting yourself towards doing the single whole-body movement of healthy running.

It’s great to know a lot of detail about how running works – personally my appetite for that is insatiable. But in the end you only really need to know one thing: running is driven from a motion in the center of your body and everything else comes from there.

Feel a little more relaxed?

6 thoughts on “Your Running Form is Just One Thing (or how to run relaxed)”

  1. I’m so glad to see mention of Jack Heggie in your post. I think you two have the bases well covered in running with the whole body. Jack’s dated book and your invaluable help has gone a long way to helping me improve my awareness of counter rotation that is needed for effortless running. I’m still perfecting all of this but I know I’m on the right track. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Heggie’s book is still in print and people still read it. Whenever I speak with top level athletes — Scott Jurek and coach Terrence Mahon, for instance — I discover they’ve read his book and been helped by it. It is a bit dated, particularly the advice to land on his heel, but it was written in the height of the running shoes age and he couldn’t help being a product of his time. The lessons are still great and his basic concepts still hold true.

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  2. I’m going to really study this on my next run. I did my second half yesterday and came in disappointingly late. I am wondering if it is possible to fatigue oneself out by running slower than their gait wants to go? Any thoughts so so appreciated.

    Reply
    • That’s a great question, Robin. Yes, you can fatigue yourself by running at a slower speed if you do it by slowing down your cadence, meaning the number of steps you take per minute. Whether running slow or fast you want to keep your cadence around 170ish footfalls per minute, so that means when you run slowly you’ll be running in a comfortable light trot rather than big, slow, heavy strides.

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