Running form

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Running form

Post by Vincent on Mon Apr 14, 2008 4:23 pm

Dr. Barbara Rodwin

Former University of Pennsylvania coach and noted track technician, Ken Doherty, once wrote “Do what comes naturally as long as naturally is mechanically sound until it becomes naturally.” Most people have an inherent style of running. The question always arises as to whether or not we should be concerned with somebody’s running form. Can we indeed make a change? Is it necessary to make a change in order to improve someone’s running form?

What are the characteristics of good running form? First of all we must acknowledge that at different speeds, form will change to a certain extent. The sprinter has a greater forward lean, uses his/her arms much more forcefully, has a longer stride length and the foot plant is usually on or over the center body line. The sprinter tends to land on the forefoot or the midfoot whereas the distance runner tends to land more on the heel first.

The ideal running posture is such that a plum line could be dropped from the ear lobe down through the shoulders and through the hips to the ground. A forward body lean allowing the upper body to rotate forward beyond the centre of gravity, results in undue compensation by the lower body which then must shift posteriorly behind the centre of gravity. This puts the runner off balance, wastes energy and also restricts full freedom of extension of legs resulting in an awkward choppy style.

The distance runner who leans forward excessively would be more prone to fatigued lower back muscles, to problems with tight buttocks and possibly overtired cervicothoracic musculature. The runner in the forward lean also has a much stronger push off and this could result in either strained or fatigued calf muscles. A runner who leans forward excessively but who has a weak push off, in other words a typical jogger, will end up with a short choppy stride. It is interesting to note that this often is a posture that runners assume in the final stages of a longer race when they become quite tired.

Regardless of the speed of the runner, foot strike or foot plant should be directly under his/her centre of gravity. Having analyzed a variety of runners, I have found that an important fact in causing injuries is decreased stride length. When a runner decrease their stride length they land on the mid foot instead of the normal foot strike. This places a greater amount of force on the body, upwards of greater than 4 times their body weight. This extra force is transmitted through the lower extremities and cause issues with the feet, shins, knees, thighs, hips and lower back.

If foot plant is too far forward on foot strike, the body then must be decelerated, causing undue strain in the shock absorbing muscles of the leg. Not only does this impair the efficiency of running but it also leads to more injuries. With an increased stride length there is a tendency to have a much greater vertical lift. This again results in inefficiency as energy is wasted in raising the body vertically rather than propelling it forward.

From my experience runners that have injuries primarily due to overstriding tend to have them from the knee upwards. This is because much of the initial shock absorption is transmitted in those areas. This lends itself more to greater toeing out which enhances pronation of the foot and valgus strain on the leg.

In some cases a runner may overstride on one side only. This typically occurs with a short leg. On the short side the runner reaches out unconsciously causing the runner to overstride. This leads to outward rotation of that leg and a heel toe foot plant with the outer part of the heel always touching first with the foot outward rotated. This often leads to a internal stress on the knee at foot plant and then as the foot comes across over-pronation.

Unilateral overstrides also create other problems, such as torsion in the upper body. By overstriding the individual then must rotate the upper body usually with the arm out to the side to help balance themselves. For instance if you have a short right leg and you overstride on that right side, on foot strike the left arm will tend to be raised up and extended farther back. In the recovery phase the left arm would tend to cross over at the front, more than the right arm would. This does lead to excessive muscle fatigue and a possibility of muscle strain , especially in the shoulder girdle muscles. Unilateral over-striding may also occur when there are muscle imbalances in the driving muscles of the leg, and injuries result in inefficient push-off or when reduced range of motion in the hip shortens the stride on one side.

There are three types of foot plant. The heel toe runner which makes up the majority of the distance runners. The midfoot plant and the forefoot plant. The heel toe foot plants gives you greater shock absorption on foot plant especially if the knees are slightly flexed, and it allows for better pronation. With the right shoes and a nice efficient running style the heel toe runners can greatly minimize the stress on their legs.

Another important consideration on foot strike is the width of the running base. Your running base (width that your feet are) should be that they are shoulder width. The most common error with runners is to narrow their running base which can lead to knee and Iliotibial band problems. They then have less shock absorption. They appear to have shorter choppier strides and they also tend to pronate more.
The runners that cross over on foot plant also create problems for themselves. Not only is it an inefficient way to run, with the runner tending to sway from side to side, but it also makes them prone to certain injuries. Crossing over is more typical in people that have bow legs, that have flared hips or that have shortened adductors and internal rotators of the hips. This further aggravates the inward (varus) stress on the whole leg. In addition it can create problems at the hip, with the hip stabilizing muscles, especially the lateral rotators, having to work exaggerated outward position and if there is excessive mobility at the ankle joint, over-pronation will occur. Crossing over is frequently found in people with iliotibial band friction syndrome.

In distance running the arms are used primarily to help maintain body balance. In shorter events, the arm action helps in propulsion. The less propulsion required, the less arm action is needed. In slower running carry the arms at the sides and have elbows flexed. As one picks up speed the arms are carried such that the hands come up, as high as eye level in an all out sprint. In a sprint the hands are driven straight ahead for better propulsive action. The hands are forced higher in the back swing as well. The hands should be held in a relaxed manner with the fingers slightly flexed. The shoulders should also be relaxed allowing the elbows to be carried close to the body. Movement should occur at the elbow in distance runners and not at the shoulder.

There should be very little noticeable forward lean and arm action should be exaggerated. Both stride length and knee lift are reduced slightly in uphill running, due to the slope. The main reason for this is to conserve energy. In order to maintain a steady pace and to shorten the stride length the stride frequency must be increased.

Downhill running requires a change from normal style. The most important point to remember is to avoid deceleration on foot strike. The tendency in downhill running often is to lean back and use a heel toe foot plant and to carry the arms up and out at the sides. This leads to a breaking action which may feel relaxing to the runner but needlessly slows the runner down. Downhill running is also where more overuse injuries occur. The knees and upper leg take the brunt of the stress. Try not to cause a ‘braking’ action while running down the hill. Allow gravity to carry you down the hill.

The head should be held in a relaxed position so that the eyes can focus 20-30 meters ahead of the area of the footstrike. When runners complain of sore or tired cervico-thoracic muscles the problem is usually with the head being flexed too far forward.

If you have any questions about your running form please feel free to e-mail :

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