Simple enough, right? Not exactly. Not only is that a lot of cues to think about while on the run, but as it turns out, making just one change to your running form takes much more than just deciding to do it in the moment.
“Learning something new with our body is neuromuscular,” says running coach Eric Orton. “That means our brain needs to learn it first, and then send those signals to our body to be able to make that change, and that takes time.”
In a social media–driven culture that prioritizes life hacks, fast results, and optimization, the idea that improving your running form takes months, not days, may be a hard pill to swallow, especially since implementing a form tweak in your running is much less straightforward than in, say, a squat.
“It’s different than standing in front of the mirror and doing squats and being like, I’m going to perfect these eight reps of squats,” says Kate Baird, MA, ACSM-CEP, CSCS, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. “Because running is repetitive, it’s environmental, it’s interactive, you’re usually doing other things when you’re running. And it’s an intrinsic human motion we learn when we’re really young. So for all those reasons, it’s really hard to change your running form, especially in real time.”
Hard, but not impossible. But if changing your running form isn’t as easy as just….doing it, how do you improve it? And what is good running form, anyway?
Why it’s so hard to change your running form
If you go out on a run and decide you want to focus on forefoot striking, you’ll probably be able to do it for a while. But because you’re having to actively think about doing it—rather than having it just be programmed into your form—it’s pretty likely that you’re going to forget about it after a few minutes.
Even if you are able to maintain a form cue over the course of a run, your body might not be able to handle multiple miles with a new technique. “If you go from a heel strike to a mid-foot strike in the moment, chances are your body’s not developed in a way to tolerate this change in the repetitive loading,” says Baird. “You’ll end up stressing a different area that you’re not used to stressing. We are a linked chain of movement, so you can’t just change one link and expect the other links to stay the same.”
Orton says trying to change your running form is like attempting to write with your non-dominant hand—you know how to do it in theory, but it’s going to be very difficult at first. Baird uses the example of running up a hill, which naturally forces you to change your running form: If you’ve never run hills before, and then do an entire run uphill, you’re going to be in some pain.
Another factor: Running form is hard to measure. Aside from cadence, which you can track with most running watches, other form tweaks will require an outside expert to monitor. (Though, of course, runs that feel easier and/or faster are a good sign that your form is improving.)
Does your running form even need to change?
Whether runners should be actively working on their form to become more efficient is a slightly complicated question. When it comes to foot strike in particular—perhaps the most hotly debated of all the running form questions—Baird says she would never suggest a runner change their foot strike except for injury-related issues, and that there’s no good research suggesting that any one type of foot strike leads to fewer injuries than another. (In fact this one found that runners’ natural stride is typically most optimal, and that there’s no need to try and change it.)
On the other hand, we do know what typically makes for efficient running (high cadence, landing underneath your hips, strong push-off), and working towards this can benefit any runner, says Orton. “I hear a lot of times, I’m not competitive, therefore I don’t need to learn to change my form,” he says. “But those are the most important people that do need to change it because they’re maybe on the slower side, and they’re spending more time on the ground, so they’re going to benefit from the health standpoint.”
And, says Orton, a more efficient form can help with what he calls muscle equilibrium. “When we use our body how it’s meant to be used, we take away the dominance of one muscle and dormancy of another muscle,” he says. “We take away that tug and pull and the tightness we’ve been conditioned to think is normal for runners.”
For Baird, the answer is helping runners develop not the best running form, but their best running form, based on their goals and their body. “Good running form is unique to the person,” she says. “Each person is a unique kinetic chain with unique tightness, weakness, strength, stability issues, loading issues, so all of these things have to be considered.”
When it does make sense for Baird to work with a runner on a specific form goal, she says it usually comes down to making sure they aren’t overstriding (which, in turn, usually leads to less heel striking, but that’s not the focus), and increasing their turnover, which go hand-in-hand and can increase overall performance while also reducing injury risk.
The bottom line: It is worth working toward better running (with the right guidance!) as long as you have a reason for doing so—like a performance goal, or to reduce an injury risk. But even with your best form, you may not look like the runners you see on Instagram, and that’s okay.
How to actually do it
Tempted to give your running technique a tweak? Follow these guidelines from Baird and Orton.
“Having a solid cross-training program is the best ‘hack,’” says Baird. Strength work should be a part of any runner’s routine, whether you’re specifically working on your form or not. “Strength training is going to improve muscle stiffness, which is going to help you better absorb and spring from the ground,” says Baird. “It’s also going to improve your force development, so it’s going to feel easier to run and you’re going to have better economy. And the idea is when you do this type of cross-training, it just seeps into your running—it’s just there, your frame is stronger, and that’s going to show up in your running.” If you have specific form goals, a coach or personal trainer can help you zero in on the exercises that will support you when you’re on the run.
Be strategic with your timing
While it may be tempting to try to optimize your form leading up to a big race, Orton warns against this, since increasing mileage while also placing new demands on the body can be too much. “Don’t put your muscles through that transformation while you’re doing high volume,” he says. The ideal time to work on your form is actually in the off season between training cycles, when you can be more focused on strength training and run a lower volume. But, says Baird, the beginning of a long marathon training cycle (while mileage is still moderate) is an okay time to work on one or two new form cues.
Remember that less is more
“If we’re starting to think about too much, we’re just confusing the brain,” says Orton. Pick one form cue to work on at a time, and tackle it in small doses, like during your warm-up mile. Orton suggests that, just like you dedicate certain days to hills, speedwork, or tempo miles, one day a week could be your “form day.”
Baird has runners do form intervals: “Let’s say it’s a three-mile run. I’ll say, you’re gonna spend one minute at the beginning of each mile thinking about this toe-off cue we practiced, and then you’re going to let it go,” she says. “And if you keep doing it, great, but we’re going to dose it into your run, and then after weeks and weeks, maybe months, it should start to become part of your form.”
When working on turnover, she’ll have a runner make a playlist that includes three songs with their goal cadence. “When they come on, try to run that cadence,” she says. “When they go away, try to maintain it, but don’t think about it.”
Work on speed
“Typically, the faster we run, the better cadence we have, and the stiffer our legs,” says Orton. He recommends incorporating short sprints (or strides) into your runs focused on maintaining your best form.
Orton wishes more runners saw the sport more like a martial art, where you slowly and gradually earn more belts. “We’re so obsessed with hacking, with quickly hijacking something,” says Baird. “That will never work, because your body is made of cells that change over time.” As the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race—by becoming faster, eventually.
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