Ask the Running Doc: Running Form


Gait analysis and running form are hot topics these days. Why? Because they matter. Gait retraining has been found to decrease injury in runners both healthy and injured [1], so it makes sense that people are beginning to catch on. Improving running form can also help runners become more efficient while running.


There are many schools of thought when it comes to running form. There are people who swear by the Pose running method, Chi running, TransFORMed running, barefoot running and the list goes on. It can be very confusing to know what to do when so many people are claiming their method is the best. The truth is every runner is different, so no one type of form fits all. Each school of thought has its merits, some more than others.


Below I have outlined key principles of running form that are supported in literature and have been proven to help many runners in clinic.


1. Posture and Breathing


Posture is incredibly important in everything we do, and running is no exception. Think of ideal posture as the foundation to your house. If your foundation is not sturdy, there will be cracks in the walls and creaky floorboards, and you will spend a lot in repairs. It is the same with posture. If you do not set yourself up well, you will end up overusing and over stressing various parts of your body, eventually getting injured and spending your race dollars on medical bills instead.

Ideally you want to think of your rib cage stacked over your pelvis when you are running, relaxing your shoulders and un-tucking your butt. I have several former clients that used to tighten their abdominal muscles and their butts with every step they took- that does not sound like a fun run to me! Relax and breathe. Tightening your abdominal muscles while running will actually take away some of your deep core stability and will force you to breathe into your upper chest, neck and shoulders, rather than into your diaphragm. This could ultimately cause neck and shoulder pain, negatively impact your ability to swing your arms, decrease your deep core support and cause lower leg injury.


2. Forward Lean


Think of running as a controlled fall. Many people hear they should “lean forward” when running but misinterpret what that means. Leaning forward while running should come from the ankles, not the hips.  A great way to check if you are doing this correctly is to stand with you head, back, hips and heels against the wall and lean forward. If your butt hits the wall, even though your shoulders came forward, you are probably leaning from the hips.  If your shoulders and hips came off the wall at the same time, you are likely leaning from the ankles.


Leaning forward from the ankles is important because it will allow you to land with your foot closer to your center of mass, improve your ability to extend your hip back rather than stressing out your lower back and will improve your ability to breathe and utilize your deep core muscles. Bending from the hip may decrease impact on the knees, but more often than not it causes hip and back pain and may even cause inhibition in the glute muscles. You work so hard at strengthening your glutes: don’t let your running form undermine all of your hard work at the gym or at home.


3. Arm swing

Many people run with their elbows elevated out to the side or cross their arms across their body while running. Crossing your arms across your body causes increased stress and strain at the back and can cause relative knee valgus (collapsing in of the knee) and stress on the outside of the leg. Maintaining your arms in an elevated position with your elbows up will limit your upper and mid-back motion and cause increased shoulder and neck tightness. Poorly coordinated movement of the spine and hips has been linked with lower back injury and lower limb injury [4]. The arm motion in running counter balances the leg swing on the opposite side of the body [4].


Our arms should be relaxed. Arm swing does affect how your foot hits the ground and what happens at your lower back and core. Your hands should be relaxed, like you are holding onto a potato chip or cup of coffee, and should move forward to the height of your heart and backward to the height of your pockets. Your mantra while running could be “heart to pocket.” Elbows don’t have to be right next to your side but should also be moving forward and backward.


4. Landing position of the foot


Let’s get this out of the way right now. It doesn’t matter if you are a heel striker, mid-foot striker or forefoot striker. You can strike wherever you want to, just make sure that foot is close to your center of mass. The farther away your foot is from your center of mass, the more impact you will have to absorb in the lower leg, hips and back.

This is not something I have people think about a lot while they are running because changing posture or leaning forward will often correct this issue. However, everyone wants to know where his or her foot should be.


How do I improve my running form?


Changes to your running form should be taken slowly and in steps. It is much easier to change a motor pattern one step at a time. I typically videotape my clients and pick one cue or thing to work on per session. Remember: changing one aspect of your gait will affect all of the other aspects of gait, so it doesn’t make sense to try to change more than one thing at a time.  Also, if you change too many things, you may set yourself up for injury or failure. It’s better to succeed at one thing than fail at four things at once.


In a recent article addressing gait retraining in runners, it was noted that “an individual who runs 20 miles per week can log more than 1 million foot strikes per year, or 10 million foot strikes if they have been running for 10 years. Altering a motor pattern that has been reinforced over millions of cycles takes both guidance and practice” [2]. Learning a new motor program or learning to alter the way that you have always run is difficult; however, we know using both extrinsic (external cues such as a mirror or metronome) and intrinsic (internal cues, such as what you feel) feedback allows us to maintain what we have learned [2,3].  


If you are trying to shorten your stride at home, you can use a metronome to follow a beat. There are many free apps on smart phones these days to help. If you want to make sure you are leaning properly, running on a treadmill with a mirror nearby may be helpful, as may checking yourself out in store windows as you run by. You can also have a friend videotape you on your smart phone or tablet to see how you are doing.


If you are not sure where to begin, you can find a local physical therapist that specializes in gait retraining who can help you with your form or attend a local running clinic.

Happy running!

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  1. Agresta C, Brown A. Gait Retraining for Injured and Healthy Runners Using Augmented Feedback: A Systematic Literature Review. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2015;45(8):576-584. doi:10.2519/jospt.2015.5823

  2.  Davis I, Futrell E. Gait Retraining Altering the Fingerprint of Gait. Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am 27 (2016) 339–355  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pmr.2015.09.002

  3. Lee T.D. and Schmidt R. A . Motor Learning and Memory. In H. L. Roediger, III (Ed.), Cognitive Psychology of Memory. Vol. [2] of Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference, 4 vols. (J.Byrne Editor), pp. [645-662] Oxford: Elsevier. 2008

  4. Preece S.J., Mason D, Bramah C. The coordinated movement of the spine and pelvis during running. Human Movement Science 45 (2016) 110–118

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