When it comes to running, there are generally two types of people: those who have been graced with picture-perfect running form, and those who have not. In general, running form is dependent on individual biomechanics, core strength, and build. While there is little an athlete can do to completely overhaul his or her form (i.e. if you are a heel striker it is unlikely you will ever comfortably become a toe striker), there are a number of changes one can make to develop a more efficient stride, which will lead to less wasted energy and faster finishing times. Listed below are common areas for improvement, as well as solutions.
The next time you are at a road race, look at the elite runners and notice how their heads stay perfectly still throughout the entire race, with chins parallel to the ground. Also look for athletes whose heads bob up and down and observe the movements of the rest of their bodies. While the head is rarely considered important when it comes to running (we often pay most attention to arms and feet), the motion of our noggin sets a precedent for the rest of our body. If you are a head-bobber or someone whose focus is on the ground, consider wearing sunglasses for your next race, which will subconsciously help you keep your head level in order to prevent the sunglasses from slipping.
The easiest way to tell when a runner has a weak core is to observe what his or her body does during the final stages of a hard workout or race. Often, runners with weak functional strength will hunch over when they become tired, causing their shoulders to tense and inhibit their ability to take deep breaths. The best remedy for this problem is to spend more time focused on core strengthening, such as 15 minutes three times per week while performing exercises that target lower back, abdominal muscles, hips, and shoulders.
What a runner does with his or her arms during a race is arguably one of the most important aspects of running efficiency and economy. The phrase, “pick your pocket, pick your nose” describes ideal arm swing, with the hand driving behind the hip on the backswing and elbow swinging past the hip in the forward motion, with thumbnails barely grazing the hips as they pass. Any side-to-side movement, such as crossing the torso, is wasted energy that forces a runner to work harder to achieve forward momentum. One way to strengthen arms and create “muscle memory” for the correct movement is to perform seated running with weights. While holding 3 – 5 lb weights in each hand and straddling a bench, perform the proper arm movement for 30-second intervals.
A current fad in running is to manipulate foot strike by running in “minimalist” shoes that naturally force a runner onto his or her toes. While it is true that a forefoot strike is most efficient, simply changing a person’s footwear is not the best way to change a runner’s natural form. If you are unsure what type of foot striker you are, ask a friend to observe which part of your foot hits the pavement first when you land: heel, midfoot (ball of the foot), or toes. Heel striking is common and can increase the chances of injury for a runner, but can also be difficult to remedy. Often, the issue is caused by over-striding, which means that stride length is unnecessarily too long, causing energy loss. The best way to improve stride efficiency is to introduce speed work in the form of hill repeats, intervals, or strides (i.e. 100 m sprints after a run). These workouts will build functional strength and improve stride economy for more efficient running.