There’s more to mastering proper running form than meets the eye. That’s why every perfectionist who’s taken up running knows a certain type of inner monologue: ‘Should I be leaning more? Am I breathing deeply enough? How much arm swing is too much?’
Whether you’re an occasional runner or a race addict, it pays to seek answers to those types of questions. Not only can learning proper running form lower your risk for injury, but it might also lead to a PR. “The overarching goal, especially with long-distance running, is to run in an efficient manner,” says Chris Hoffman, a certified running coach and founder of Formula Running Center. “You’re trying to expend as little energy as possible, and any sort of extraneous arm and body movements or breathing can tire out your body.” (Related: How to Determine Your Running Gait—and Why It Matters)
No need to creep on your area joggers to suss out exactly how you should be moving. Learn the major elements of proper running form here.
The Right Running Posture
When it comes to your overall posture, it helps to think about “running tall,” says Vikash Sharma, D.P.T., a physical therapist at Perfect Stride Physical Therapy. “This will help keep you from slouching forward and suffering from a breakdown in running and breathing mechanics,” he says. “You want to think about keeping your ears over your shoulders.” Aim your gaze about 15-20 feet straight ahead. Try to avoid a forward head posture (aka jutting your chin forward). It can put a strain on your neck, back, and shoulder muscles, says Sharma.
That said, maintaining the right running posture involves a slight forward lean. Think of bending at your ankles rather than your hips, leaning forward about 10 degrees. All the more reason to take ankle strength and mobility seriously. (Related: How Weak Ankles and Ankle Mobility Affect the Rest of Your Body)
How to Find Your Stride Length
The average runner won’t need to concern themselves with actually measuring out their stride length—but it is important to find a stride that’s not too long and not too short. A lot of people tend to overstride, says Sharma. If your stride is bouncy, that’s a giveaway. “When you’re overstriding, that leads to a more vertical displacement (aka bouncing) and that’s going to promote more contact time with your foot on the ground, which is going to cause your muscles to have to work harder,” he says. Rather than leaping forward, think about directing force into the ground and behind you once your foot lands.
Having too short of a stride is a much less common mistake, but if you suspect your stride is too short, one way to find out is to film yourself running and count your steps per minute. “Generally speaking, for distance runners, faster and more efficient runners are averaging around 180 or more steps per minute,” says Hoffmann. “Slower runners average around 160 steps per minute.” So if you’re taking far more than that, you might want to lengthen your stride.
It’s not always easy to self-correct your running form, particularly when it comes to stride length. Getting a gait analysis at a running clinic can give you an outside perspective on which aspects of your running form you could improve upon. “I think the biggest thing to get used to over time—even for myself—is working on that stride length,” says Hoffman. “Modifying your stride at first will feel unnatural because it’s not how you’ve been running all your life.” (Related: How to Determine Your Running Gait—and Why It Matters)
Where Foot Strike Comes In
Research isn’t conclusive on exactly how your foot should be hitting the ground for proper running technique. While some schools of thought favor striking the ground with the midfoot or front of the foot rather than the heel, the authors of a 2017 review of existing studies argued that it hasn’t been proven to offer advantages when it comes to running efficiently or avoiding injuries. Even elite athletes aren’t necessarily adjusting their footstrike pattern to favor the front or middle of the foot. A study on marathon runners at the 2017 IAAF World Championships found that most runners favored a rearfoot (heel) strike pattern, including the top four finishing men.
All that is to say, you do you. “There are a lot of people out there talking about foot strike pattern—forefoot, midfoot, heel strike,” says Sharma. “However, when I’m working with someone, I’m more concerned about whether there are any issues with the current pattern. Is the running efficient, are you getting injured, etc. If so, that’s when we might want to consider making a change.”
What About Arm Swing?
Your stride will impact your arm swing since your arm movements should naturally mirror your legs (and vice versa), so it’s a surprisingly important part of proper running form.
You want to maintain a 90ish-degree bend in your elbows. And that potato chip cue your high school track coach used still holds true: To avoid excess tension, loosely cup your hands and pretend you’re holding a chip between your thumb and forefinger that you don’t want to break, suggests Sharma.
And resist the urge to overswing. “When you’re running, imagine there’s a wall maybe a few inches in front of you and you want to keep your arm swing behind that wall,” says Sharma. “Once you start swinging your arms more aggressively forward, that promotes over-striding, which you want to avoid.” (Related: 10 Reasons Your Neck and Shoulders Hurt While Running)
How to Breathe While Running
“Everybody’s a little bit different when it comes to breathing,” says Hoffman. “For some people, it’s an inhalation for two seconds and an exhalation for two seconds, other people are different. The idea is to relax and breathe in an efficient manner.” That might be a deeper breath than you’re used to—if you notice hyperventilation-like breaths, that’s a sign that you’re not getting enough air and should slow down your breath.
“In through the nose, out through the mouth” is a traditional rule of thumb, but again, it’s not a one-size-fits-all deal. For more specifics, here’s how to breathe while running.
Catch all that? It’s a lot to keep track of, but all the aspects of proper running form can play a role in logging more injury-free miles.