With all the research linking running form to both running economy and running related injuries, most runners would love to fix their form faux pas. The trouble is, running form is something we develop over years, and because our bodies have adapted to the imbalances and other deficiencies, an experienced runner's default form will almost always be their most efficient. So if a runner simply tries to incorporate all of the standard "good form" guidelines at once, they will almost certainly experience a drop in efficiency (and therefore performance), and may even bring on a slew of new injuries.
Luckily, fixing poor running form without compromising performance is possible, as long as you're willing to be patient and take a small-steps approach. Here's a step-by-step guide to achieve your best running form without compromising efficiency.
1. Identify the Areas That Need Improvement
Before you can fix something, you need to know what's broken. The best way to determine this is to hire a running coach or form specialist (check out your local sports doctor or physical therapist) to give you an honest assessment.
However, if you'd rather do it alone, try this: Run on a treadmill at an easy pace until you begin to feel fatigue set in. Then have a friend videotape you from the front, rear and both sides for 20 to 30 seconds from each position. Be sure that they get close-ups of your feet, as well as wider shots of your knees, legs, hips, torso and head.
When you play back the videos, slow them way down, then look for any form issues. Note what part of your foot strikes the treadmill first and also where your foot is in relation to your body. Are both feet the same? From the front and rear, do you notice any weird motions in the lower let or foot? Is it the same on both sides? As you travel up your body, does everything look symmetrical? How's your arm swing? Relaxed and traveling in a natural arc or tight and swinging widely across your body? Does your head bob up and down or side to side more than it should? Are your hips and shoulders level with one another?
2. Shorten Your Stride/Speed Up Your Cadence
Regardless of what you find in step one, most recreational runners will benefit greatly from implementing this tip. Shortening your stride is easy—simply take more steps over the same distance while maintaining the same pace. This simple trick can go a long way toward fixing related form issues linked with injury. To begin with, a shorter, quicker stride moves your feet beneath your body rather than out in front. This is also more efficient because it puts your energy into pushing off to move forward rather than braking and then pulling from out in front. Studies have shown that where your foot lands in relation to your body is more important, in terms of ground contact forces and resultant injuries, than which part of your foot hits the ground first. But a quicker cadence can also improve your foot strike (from heel to the mid- or forefoot), though that's not always true for everyone.
While speeding up your cadence is easy to do for a few dozen strides, it can be hard to maintain because cadence is such a deeply entrenched habit. To overcome it, you'll have to be mindful and constantly focus on speeding up your foot strike as you run. Using a metronome app when you run or downloading a playlist of songs with 160 to 180 beats per minute will make this much easier.
3. Look Good From the Waist Up
Here's where video footage can really come in handy. Examine your running form from the waist up, looking specifically for any posture, arm swing and head bob issues. An efficient, relaxed arm swing and a "quiet" torso that minimizes side-to-side, twisting or up and down motions of the head and shoulders can translate into more efficient running because more of your energy goes into moving your body forward. Running with a very slight forward lean at the hip joint may also improve running economy and lessen impact on the legs, but keeping an open chest will help you avoid the unnecessary neck and back strain that hunching causes.
Be particularly aware of these upper extremity and postural form failures over the last half of your runs when fatigue has set in. Practicing "pretty running" all the way through your training runs will pay big dividends over the long term.
4. Achieve Symmetry by Eliminating Muscular Imbalances
Differences in running mechanics between the left and right sides of your body don't just look awkward, they often compromise running efficiency, which affects performance and can lead to nagging, repetitive injuries.
Strengthening muscles that have been weakened by accidents, injuries or imbalanced use throughout daily living can correct these issues. Again, scrutinize that video footage from head to toe looking for any noticeable differences between the left and right sides of your body.
You may be able to fix simple imbalances—picking your left knee up as high as your right on the swing phase of your stride, for example—on your own just by paying more attention when you run. For many issues, though, you should work with a strength coach or physical therapist that specializes in helping runners. A coach can help assess the root cause of the issue, which often starts higher or lower on the kinetic chain than where you notice the imbalance. Then he or she can give you a training regimen designed to fix that problem at its source.
Nearly all runners have some issues with their form, and the fixes can require rigorous and often boring work. But making even minor improvements could be your key to running injury-free and more efficiently than ever.
READ THIS NEXT: Why Your Arms Are an Important Part of Your Running Form