There is no “right” way to run, right?
Let’s clear this up right from the start. There is a “right” way to run, just like there’s a right way to swing a tennis racquet or throw a curveball. Here’s what you do:
Start with foot strike
This is the first thing many new and even some experienced runners overlook and it’s absolutely the most important. When you run, your heel should not be hitting the ground before the rest of your foot. Period. Forefoot-striking over heel-striking is not a gimmick or matter of personal preference; it’s the only surefire way to develop an efficient stride and it gives you the best chance of staying injury free as you begin to increase weekly mileage and train for longer, faster races. If you want to become a good distance runner, you must start with proper foot strike. For a very technical and well-written explanation of precisely how and why learning to forefoot-strike is a good idea, read Steve Magness’ book The Science of Running. Or, check out an excerpt from it on the Science of Running Blog here.
Now, there is a lot of confusion about heel vs. forefoot-striking. This is understandable due to the huge jumble of information floating around on the topic, combined with the unwillingness to bite the bullet and say that heel-striking is bad, for fear of offending people. Plus there seems to be a lot of evidence suggesting forefoot-striking is, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, actually counterproductive:
“Most people heel-strike. How do you explain that?”
“I heel-strike and I qualified for Boston.”
“Meb heel-strikes and he WON Boston.”
These things may be true, but the point isn’t that heel-strikers are all doomed to unending injury woes and speed purgatory. Modern shoe technology (i.e. ~25 millimeters of EVA foam heel cushioning) can allow runners to heel-strike with relative comfort because it lessens the otherwise prohibitive impact forces. This doesn’t mean heel-striking is correct; it just means it’s possible to get away with doing it.
Let’s pause to think about this with sheer, brutal logic for a second. If you land directly on your calcaneus (heel bone) while running, you are, in effect, slamming your skeleton into the ground, over and over again. That sounds awful and it kinda is. Unfortunately for heel-strikers, that isn’t my opinion, it’s science – science done by Harvard. Forefoot-striking, by contrast, makes use of your muscles’ and tendons’ natural, spring-like construction to absorb and actually utilize the impact forces of hitting the ground to propel you forward. To prove my point, take off your shoes and socks and run down your driveway. Try to notice which parts of your feet hit the ground. If you heel-strike even once, it hurts, and your body quickly forces you to land on the ball of your foot (also known as the forefoot). You’ll take short, quick steps to avoid hitting the ground hard. Boom, you are a forefoot-striking gazelle. Now do the same thing with shoes on and you’ve got the right idea.
Sidenote: transitioning to forefoot-striking is actually very difficult. If you’re new to running, chances are your calf muscles aren’t quite up to the task of filling in full-time for the foam in the heels of your shoes. I was a college athlete and mine weren’t when I transitioned. It took a long time of backing off the mileage and speed before I was comfortable again. I’m really glad I did though. Now I don’t think I could heel-strike if I tried, and I’m a much better runner for it. I’ll make another post specifically about the transition to forefoot striking soon.
Sidenote deux: I also want to make one other thing clear. Forefoot-striking is not barefoot running. By promoting forefoot-striking, I am by no means advocating ditching your trusty Nikes in favor of Vibram FiveFingers (remember those?) or running around town barefoot and stepping on glass or syringes or porcupines – far from it. You can transition to forefoot-striking and better running form using the shoes you already have. There’s a reason you don’t see professional marathoners eschewing shoes (pardon the pun). In an interview with dailymile.com in 2011 (during the height of the barefoot running craze), American marathoning great Ryan Hall said, “The best guys in the world are wearing shoes and we’re running fast, so… Until some barefoot dude comes by me at twenty six miles… Then maybe I’ll look into it.” I’ll admit I love trying out different shoes and, to be sure, finding the right shoes is still very important. But when you really boil it down, it’s not about the shoes; it’s about the runner in them.
Build correct posture
Forefoot-striking is the linchpin of learning the right way to run. Once you have that down, the rest of proper running form almost falls into place. Almost. You’ve still got work to do. When you are able to comfortably forefoot-strike during short runs without calf pain, the next phase is to ensure that the rest of your body is doing what it’s supposed to do.
Like many things in life, it all starts with your head. Before your next run, consciously make the effort to look up and focus on the road about 30 to 40 feet in front of you or even a bit farther. Just like beginning to forefoot strike, it might feel weird at first, but it should be good weird. Many runners unconsciously stare at their shoes (or the ground a couple feet in front of them) most of the time, and the sudden panoramic view that comes with keeping your head up is actually refreshing. There are other benefits too, and these are the ones we’re after. With your head up, you’ll notice that your shoulders naturally fall back and open up, pushing your chest out slightly. You resist slouching or hunching forward at the waist, and your back is straighter, perpendicular to the road. With this correct posture, you should feel tall, strong and confident, even if you’re running slowly. You’ll look the part too; it’s empowering.
But what do I do with my hands? This is the easiest part of learning proper posture, but it’s still important. There are three things to keep in mind:
- Keep your arms at a 90-degree angle, moving them back and forth in a smooth, relaxed motion. Don’t let your hands go above your upper chest or below your waist and avoid exaggerated or unnecessary arm movement, as it will increase energy consumption. Arm and hip rotation while running is also linked at a neurological level, so a smooth, efficient arm swing will translate to an equivalent stride.
- Keep your shoulders level. This is a little harder to describe, but the idea is that you should try to avoid the urge to shrug, which tenses your trapezius muscles. If your shoulders move with each arm swing, that’s a quick way to get sore and throw off your form. Think of each arm as a pendulum with the pivot point being your shoulder joint. This sounds more technical than it is; there’s a good chance you already do this properly, but it’s worth paying attention to.
- Relax. To do this I like to envision that I’m holding a bird in each hand. Not like a seagull, but like a delicate chickadee or something. Okay maybe a gerbil. A kiwi? (bird or fruit) You get the idea. The point is that your hands, and through them, most of your upper body, should not be tense or flexed. You’d pop your chickadee. No one wants a popped chickadee. When your hands are relaxed, go through a mental checklist of the other parts of your upper body. Are they tense? If so, consciously relax them. Distance running is hard work, to be sure, but it’s a heck of a lot harder if you’ve got clenched fists and a tense upper body.
How do I start?
All of the stuff described above is exponentially harder if you’re also focusing on other running goals, like hitting a 7:50 min/mile pace for 5 miles or beating your friend in the next 10K. Learning the right way to run doesn’t happen overnight and it’s pretty damn hard, even without other goals vying for your attention. If you want to build a lasting foundation for your running self that will help you truly enjoy the sport and hit your goals, leave your GPS watch and headphones at home and keep your calendar clear of races for 6 to 8 months. That was my plan after I finished my first half marathon and I am incredibly glad I followed through; it put a lot in perspective. I’m still not nearly as fast as the elites (obviously), but I get it now. I’ve got the fundamentals down and it’s impossible to go back. Literally. My body won’t let me heel-strike for more than a few steps at a time.
During my transition to proper running form, I went from a heel-striker to a kind of hybrid foot-striker to a tentative forefoot-striker, then a confident forefoot-striker in the span of about 3 months. Even then, it took me a few more months to really start seeing the long-term benefits of what I was doing. During this time, I focused solely on low but consistent mileage, running by feel, building up slowly and mixing in recovery days whenever necessary. I ditched headphones for good, ran mostly by myself and didn’t run any races. Having made that decision and come through the other side, I can confidently say that the best strategy for learning the right way to run is to throw pace, race and distance goals entirely out the window for a while in order to fully dedicate yourself to the fundamentals. Would you feel confident playing a full tennis match without knowing how to serve or hit a backhand? No. You might be able to hit the ball over the net a few times, but it wouldn’t be that fun and you’d quickly run out of patience, or the desire to try it again. The same principles apply to running.
Start by watching slow motion videos of Kenyan marathoners on YouTube (they tend to be the best because many of them grow up running barefoot). Here’s one. You’ll be able to pick out many of the points highlighted above. Then start copying them on short, easy runs. Try just 2 miles at first. When your calves are done protesting, try 2 miles again a couple days later, then 3, then back to 2, then maybe 4 or 5. A lot of the transition (especially the beginning) will have to be by feel – only you will know what your body can handle – but the important part is to increase mileage very gently and gradually. You’ll have some calf pain and it does feel strange to begin forefoot-striking for the first time. That is normal – Stick with it at all costs. When you’ve got few of what you think are good forefoot-striking runs under your belt, have someone take a video of you running so you can compare yourself to the elites. Then, when you’ve got the forefoot thing down, focus on the posture part. If you work on this consistently, you’ll be forefoot-striking, arm-swinging and chickadee-carrying before you know it. The benefits of adopting the right way to run are well worth it.