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Running technique fundamentals

This month we’re talking about the fundamentals of good running technique.  These are things that all runners will benefit from considering, as they help us to move more efficiently, and also to avoid injury.  If you’ve never really thought much about how your body moves when you’re running, you’re probably in the majority!  Most of us don’t get taught how to run, we just start doing it – and generally start to think about technique when the first niggle comes along.  If you were lucky enough to start your running through an organised beginners’ programme, you’ll probably find the ideas below familiar.

1.       Posture

When we run we should have a tall, upright posture.  This doesn’t mean running completely vertically, like a lamppost (we should actually have a slight forwards lean) but it does mean your body should be in a relatively straight line, without any angles at e.g. your hips or your neck.  It’s common when runners get tired to see the upper body slumped, or the head hanging forward, rather than the torso being stacked upright on top of the hips.

There are two cues to help you think about your tall posture.  One option is to imagine there is a balloon on a string tied to the top of your head.  The balloon is filled with helium, which helps to pull your body up.  Anyone who took ballet lessons as a child may remember this! 

Another option is to imagine that there is a bucket of water sitting in the middle of your pelvis.  You don’t want to spill any water, so the bucket, and therefore your pelvis, needs to be upright.  If you’ve never thought about the position of your pelvis, stand up and try tilting it backwards and forwards – imagine the bucket pouring water first from the front, and then the back.  You might be surprised by how big the range of possible positions is.  Anyone who has done any Pilates will be familiar with these pelvic tilts.  Remember the aim is to keep all the water in the bucket!

One other ingredient of good posture is core strength.  It is much easier to stay upright all the way to the end of your long run when you have a strong core.  Spending even 20 minutes per week working on core strength will benefit you – look at exercises such as plank, farmer’s and butler’s carry, dead bug, superman and bird dog.

2.       Arm drive

Our arms play a key part in efficient and comfortable running action – just try running without moving your arms to see how much!  Even so, many runners are surprised to learn how little they actually move their arms, compared to what they think they are doing.  It is very helpful to ask someone to film your running if you think you could improve your arm action – ask them to film around 10 seconds of you running, from the front and from the side, and at a slow and a fast pace.

From all angles, and at all paces, we should see the arms moving backwards and forwards, parallel to the body.  This should be achieved by the movement of the shoulder joint itself, not by turning your shoulders.  You may discover that what you thought was arm movement is actually coming from you moving first one shoulder and then the other forwards.

Some people also notice that their arms cross in front of their body.  This is unhelpful, as it means you are turning energy that could be carrying you forwards into sideways motion.

If you discover that your shoulders are moving, instead of your arms, try practising your backwards arm drive.  Rather than thinking that you need to power each arm forwards, instead imagine that you are trying to elbow in the stomach a person standing behind you!  This big backwards drive will naturally swing your arm forwards too, like a pendulum, and should stop you from making the movement with your shoulder.

If your problem is your arms crossing your body, a good solution is to go for a run with something in each hand, such as a drumstick (the wooden kind, not the chicken kind), a relay baton, or simply a rolled up sheet of paper.  Usually when we run, we can’t really see our arms, but by carrying something you will effectively extend your arms into your normal field of vision.  You can now tell where your arms are going, and it becomes easier to see and control how they are moving.  Don’t worry about the strange looks you get from other runners!

3.       Cadence

Cadence means the number of steps you take per minute.  It is linked to stride length, for obvious reasons – runners with a low cadence will need to take longer strides to reach the same pace as someone who takes more steps per minute.

A potential problem with a long stride length is that it can mean you are overstriding.  This means that the foot lands in front of the body, sending force up through the leg, and is a common cause of shin pain.  Instead, we want the foot to land underneath your centre of mass with each step, which in practical terms means when your foot hits the ground it should be underneath your hips.  As with other running form points, this can be picked up easily from examining video footage, and a relatively easy way to correct an overstride is to increase cadence.

To increase cadence, you will initially need to take shorter, quicker steps.  Imagine that you are running on ice – taking too long a step will make you slip.  It is common for recreational runners to have a cadence in the region of 150-160 steps per minute.  Gradually increasing this to 170-180 steps per minute is considered by many to be optimum.  Some runners do this by using a metronome, or simply by counting seconds in their head.  A cadence of 180 steps per minute means you need to take three steps every second.  It sounds like a lot, but a second is longer than you think!

4.       And one not to worry about….

Many people are concerned about their footstrike, which is the technical term for which part of your foot hits the ground first.  You might be a forefoot, mid-foot or heel striker, and it’s relatively easy to spot which if you examine some video footage of yourself.  There is no clear evidence to suggest that any one of these is better than the other, although there does seem to be a widely held opinion that mid-foot is best.  I think that heel-striking, in particular, may have become conflated with overstriding.  There is no particular injury risk associated with being a heel-striking runner, as long as that foot is landing underneath your body with each stride. 

In truth, as long as your footstrike is not causing you any pain, it may be better not to try to change it.  There is no real evidence to suggest that doing so will benefit you, and I have known runners to pick up injuries by trying to alter their footstriking pattern.

When working on your running technique, it is tempting to try to correct everything at once!  Don’t feel dispirited if you spot ‘errors’ in your technique – we all run in an individual, unique way based on our own body’s biomechanics, and it’s not always the right thing to do to change things.  Choose one point at a time to work on so that you can isolate the effects of the change, and give your full attention to that part of your body.

I offer remote form assessments via Zoom – together we will analyse video footage of you running, and discuss technique cues to help you run more comfortably and efficiently.  Book here.

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