Do “fast” runners run differently than “slow” runners?

Recently I filmed part of the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon to look at the form of different runners. And today, I want your help!

Running Form

Running form is often a controversial topic. Nike Oregon Project Head Coach Alberto Salazar has said:

There has to be one best way of running. It’s got to be like a law of physics. And if you deviate too much from that… it can be a big handicap.

But I disagree. Much like Pete Larson explained, in biology the only constant is variation. Runners are going to have very different form characteristics based on their body structure, neuromuscular wiring, experience, strength, and preferences.

From a physics perspective, there’s definitely a perfect way to run. Your legs are like levers propelling you forward and there is indeed “one best way” to move.

But we’re not machines. We’re animals. And variation among animals is normal and expected. While I don’t believe there’s a “perfect” form, there is likely good running form that sticks to basic principles.

Just the other day a runner told me he was going to unsubscribe from my email list because I included a picture of a woman heel striking.

Well in that case, I guess we can’t include pictures of Meb Keflizighi (watch at :40sec mark), Kara Goucher or Shalane Flanagan (see 4th picture down)!

What’s more important to remember is that instead of dogmatic “rules,” there are instead several basic principles that govern good running form.

We’ll get to that later, but first let’s take a look at the variation in our running form from the Rock ‘n’ Roll half.

Running Form Among “Fast” Runners

The footage below is of the top 6 male runners at approximately the 9.8-mile mark on the half marathon course.

First, take a look at normal speed:

Now, let’s watch in slow motion:

We can learn quite a bit from these videos. But a big disclaimer! I did not film with a high-end, slow-motion camera. I simply used my GoPro and slowed down the footage as best I could.

More interesting metrics can be gleaned from better footage but let’s use what we have today.

And let’s also define our terms:

  • Cadence is your step rate – or how many steps you take per minute with both feet.
  • Heel strike is when you first make contact with the ground with the heel
  • Midfoot strike is when you first make contact with the ground with your midfoot (or “landing flat-footed”)
  • Proprioceptive heel strike is when you first make contact with the ground with the heel, but your bodyweight doesn’t fully come down until the foot is flat

Here are a few notes from what I can tell:

  • #1 runner takes 13 steps in 4 seconds, giving a cadence of about 195. This runner has a proprioceptive heel strike.
  • #2 runner takes 11 steps in 3.5 seconds, giving a cadence of about 188. This runner has a midfoot strike.
  • #3 runner takes 17 steps in 5 seconds, giving a cadence of about 204. This runner has a midfoot strike.
  • #4 runner takes 12 steps in 3.5 seconds, giving a cadence of about 205. This runner has a proprioceptive heel strike.
  • #5 runner takes 10 steps in 3.1 seconds, giving a cadence of about 193. This runner has a mild proprioceptive heel strike or midfoot strike.
  • #6 runner takes 12 steps in 3.8 seconds, giving a cadence of about 189. This runner has a proprioceptive heel strike (most significant heel strike as far as I can tell).

There’s quite a bit of variability in this data. But from my perspective, these runners have more similarities than differences.

First, each runner has a fairly high cadence. I’m sure you’ve been advised to run with a cadence of 180 steps per minute, but this is during your easy pace – not a faster pace.

Cadence will naturally increase the faster you run. And since we’re looking at the six fastest runners through 10 miles of the half marathon, I’m not surprised their cadence is much higher than 180.

Next, it’s clear that none of these runners have a “bad” heel strike – the aggressive, heel-smashing variety that sends shockwaves of impact forces up through your legs.

Instead, they all have either a midfoot strike or a proprioceptive heel strike. Just like Meb Keflizighi (and me), this is an acceptable way to run. I don’t get worried about a proprioceptive heel strike.

What else do you notice?

Running Form Among Average Runners

Next, let’s do something interesting and look at the form of average runners. The videos below show runners who finished in about 2:10 – 2:15 for the half (9:55 – 10:20 mile pace).

This is filmed at about the 8.7-mile mark:

Here’s a slow motion version:

There are too many people to review individually, so I’ll leave these videos for you to look over.

But I will say that the most glaring difference between the two groups is the amount of excessive movement among the slower runners:

  • They look around more frequently
  • Many of them are talking, waving or carrying things
  • There’s more frequent weaving or putting hands on their hips

This excess movement is wasting a lot of energy, causing fatigue earlier in the race. What do you think would happen if all that extra movement was eliminated?

Leave your reactions in the comments below; I’d love to hear what you think.

“Fast” vs. “Slow” Runners

Speed isn’t the only thing that differentiates fast runners from slower runners.

Did you notice any glaring differences in running form between the two groups in the videos above?

Look at:

  • Foot strike
  • Cadence
  • Arm carriage
  • The amount of bounce or “vertical oscillation” in the stride
  • Excess movement
  • Posture

Faster runners don’t have as much variation in their form. Running “fast” requires you to be more efficient, so you likely won’t see aggressive heel strikes, slow cadences, poor posture, and excess movement.

One of the (many) reasons these runnesr are fast is because they’re efficient. They have a high running economy that wastes less energy at higher speeds.

And the best part? Efficiency can be learned! Even if you’re making all of the classic mistakes, there’s tremendous room for improvement.

By focusing on the right drills, strength exercises, and dynamic stretches you’ll teach your body how to run through your optimal gait cycle.

If you’d like a detailed program on how to develop an efficient, strong running stride then check out RunnersConnect’s Running Form Course.

It was created by Olympic Trials qualifier Jeff Gaudette, who’s helped thousands of runners with their form over the years (including mine – I own the course, too!). You can also check out my running form interview with Jeff.

After you check out the course, leave a comment below: What are the main form differences between “fast” and “slow” runners in the videos above?

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Comments

  1. Tina Rust says:

    My biggest motivation to try to run faster either during a long run or a long race is the knowledge that while it might hurt more while I’m doing it, it definitely will hurt less later. From experience I’ve learned that I won’t tear myself up as much – fewer sore muscles, fewer blisters, wear and tear, back ache – it’s better for my whole body. This is why I stick with my track workouts even when they’re held at 5am in the morning. In the long run, pun intended, I need to be able to use those “fast” muscles when they count.

  2. Craig Todd says:

    There’s also a huge difference in stride length. The elite runners have a much more explosive drive with each stride than the recreational runners.

    • Suzanne Klonis says:

      I agree – the length of stride is the main thing I notice in the two groups. Even when i try to increase my cadence, I have to be mindful of my ‘vertical oscillation.’ I tend to bounce up and down a lot and cover a lot of vertical distance rather than horizontal distance. Got any tips to work on increasing stride length?

      • Be careful trying to “spot fix” just one thing. How do you really know that’s the one thing you need to work on, when in fact it could be caused or affected by something else? If you’d like to improve your form, do so the right way with a course on the topic (mentioned at the end of the article).

  3. This is an excellent article. Ive been trying for the last couple of years to increase my cadence. I think I’ve finally got it up to somewhere in the 190-196 range. The only thing that still alarms me is the wear on the outside edge at the heal of my shoes, which suggest to me I may still heal strike.
    Thank you for all your good work.
    Iain Mackay

  4. Certainly a topic I am interested in. As a 1:35-40ish halfer at nearly age 50, I fall somewhere in between these 2 groups you showed. I had the good fortune of being trained by an accomplished marathoner when I was in high school who stressed efficiency of movement and keeping the upper body relaxed, especially the face, neck and shoulders. Unfortunately, I have one leg that is about 3/4″ shorter than the other that was never corrected. As a young adult, I was told I would have back issues when I got older because of this problem, and that has come true.

    My right leg tends to swing out and around on each stride, with an awkward looking foot plant. I think this is from the shorter leg issue. I believe this swinging and foot plant is what causes my piriformis and occasional IT band and calf issues with that leg. I would love to send a video of me running to a coach experienced in running form and see what, if anything, could be done about it.

    • Cabe – check out the running form course linked at the end of the article. It includes a professional video analysis and is likely just what you’re looking for.

  5. Howard Elakman says:

    Everyone is a LITTLE BIT DIFFERENT. It is essential that you run with your body in a straight and relaxed position. Arms should be going in the direction that you are running. The upper part of the body is RELAXED. Slightly tighten the gut to keep from rotating the hips.The knee should be bent when striking the ground. This could be from 90 degrees to about 170 degrees. Never hit the ground with your leg stretched out straight, heel hitting first with the toe sticking up.
    When you run straight up the only way to get faster is to increase your turn-over. Heel striking is not a problem as long as you have a bent knee.
    I believe that the FORWARD LEAN is the way to increase your speed by increasing your stride length. This requires very strong legs in order to avoid injury. With the forward Lean you can PUSH-OFF with each step and increase your stride length. If you are running straight up a pus-off becomes a push-up and this is a waste of energy.
    I believe that eventually someone will break the 2 hour marathon time and it will be done with someone using the FORWARD LEAN technique.

  6. I also noticed the difference in stride length between the two groups. This has always confused me because I’ve seen some sources recommend taking shorter strides and quicker steps in order to be faster. I’d love to know your take on this, Jason.

    In the video of the average runners, several of them look like they are running with their legs dragging along behind them. The fast runners propel their legs underneath them or even slightly out in front of their torsos, creating a more powerful, forward-propelling stride. I’m curious what factors go into developing this kind of stride/form. Since I’ve been strength training regularly, I’ve noticed a bit more power in my stride, but I do not have the same type of kick or stride length that the fast runners do.

    Another major difference I noticed was posture. The fast runners were upright whereas nearly all of the average runners were hunched over or slouching to some degree. It may be a mental trick, but I think “running tall” has a huge impact on my ability to run faster. I feel like I can get more air and run with more power.

    • Roman Furberg says:

      @Rebecca – don’t confuse stride length with step length – stride length is from ground contact to ground contact and includes a “flight phase”, i.e. a distance where both feet are off the ground. Two runners could have the same step length ( the length between the left and right foot) and same cadence, but run different speeds. As an example a 5 min/mile runner with a cadence of 100 steps/min would have a stride length of 10.56 feet!!! It is impossible to take a step that large, (the average person has an inseam of 33″ or 2.75 feet, so even if you would spread your legs horizontally, i.e. 180 degrees you could not cover that distance). Therefore the only way a 5 min/mile runner can achieve that kind of a stride length is by pushing off much more powerful than a 12 min/mile runner causing him/her to lift off and fly part of the distance before making contact again with the ground.

  7. I’ve only been running for about 2 years. I’m still trying to refine my running economy/form.

    I’ve always thought that I have two running forms…a slow easy run would be an easy shuffle, like the slower runners in the video. In a race, I really try to think about pushing off more, and extending my stride backwards, while my forward landing foot is shortened to land under me.

    I can’t practise proper race form on a slow day, cuz it won’t be a slow day for very long. I usually just shuffle along with people of all speeds in a running group.

  8. This is an excellent post. What I would like to see is to take the faster runners and have them run at 8-10 min pace and show their form then. 35 yrs ago I ran as fast as they do. Now I’m back at 8-10 min pace. Would their cadence be 180 or higher at 8-10 min pace? I don’t think it would be. That is my observation as someone who has been running for 43 years. They would be extremely inefficient to run at a cadence of 180 or higher at a pace that is 3 min slower than their current pace. The other difference I see is how high their foot comes off the ground which could also be measured by the angle of the shin. The faster runners get the shins parallel to the ground on the swing through phase, The slower ones get maybe 10-15 degrees from the vertical. You can’t run slowly and get your shin parallel to the ground unless you are really bounding along and have more vertical distance covered than horizontal.

    • Definitely right re: pacing Ken. At their “slow” pace (which I’m going to guess is anywhere from 6:15 – 7:00 / mile) their cadence will be slower, but still in the 170-180 range.

      • If you could get your hands on a high quality camera and adjust the slow motion speeds so that it appears that the elites are running as slow as the recreational, that might be even more telling.

  9. Do fast runners run differently than slow runners? Yes, but not for reasons that are obvious to the naked eye. Locomotion experts point to 3 factors that are the basis for faster running speeds: the amount of force that can be delivered on each step (mass-specific force); ground contact time; and the rate of force delivery. Stride length and stride rate are the effects of these factors. Faster runners deliver more force in relation to their mass, spend less time on the ground, and can deliver that force at a greater rate than those who are less mechanically able. Video reveals the results of those factors, but it doesn’t show the causes. The longer your foot is in contact with the ground, the slower you are.

  10. I’m a “slow” runner with “slow” runner form but I can have “fast” runner form when I run fast! I don’t think the problem is bad form vs. good form for me. I think the problem is that I don’t have the fitness to maintain the good form for very long.

    I keep struggling with this intellectually when I do my “LSD” work. It feels like I’m doing my form and fitness a disservice to run at a pace I can maintain for longer runs. More and more, I’m considering a fartlek approach to my long runs where I may actually walk briskly to get the aerobic benefits and complete the long run but to introduce periods of faster running to get the neuromuscular benefits of running with “good” form.

    I also worry about shuffling along being bad for me. I’m not a high mileage runner but I’ve already suffered from IT band issues and I’m beginning to suspect that shuffling isn’t helping with that.

    • Wow, it’s like you read my mind.

      I too feel like I have completely different form when I’m doing my LSDs vs. fartleks/striders/tempo stuff. That’s why I ALWAYS do about 20% speed work on all runs I do now. For instance, I’ll do a five miler where I run the first four miles at zone one or two (less than 140 HR) but then do the last mile as a “fast finish,” generally at zones 3 and 4. I actually have found that if I’m starting to get weird aches and pains while doing my LSD, a short distance of fast running clears them up. It’s almost like the fast running is stretching things out that are getting messed up by the LSD “shuffle.”

      This 80/20 pattern has paid off with my running, as I just did a very hilly half marathon in West Virginia in 1:46:56 at age 53 (running for about two years), ten minutes faster than the year before. However, I couldn’t even come within two minutes per mile of the half pace (8:09) when I ran the Marine Corps Marathon three weeks later in 4:29:06, a 10:15 pace. (Hey, at least I beat Oprah!) Much of that slow pace was due to the huge crowds and resultant weaving in and out (until I gave up on that) AND I think that with more running experience using this 80/20 mix I’ll be able to improve on that. We’ll see.

    • I have this same issue too. I’ve been working on improving my form for a while. I cannot keep good form when running at a slow pace. In fact, even during my warmup I have to stop and walk because it feels so inefficient it tires me out. I think I just have to keep good form for as long as I can and then walk to recover. eventually my endurance with good form will improve.

  11. I have also noticed that there is much less fluidity in the hip motion of the slower runners. There is very little hip flex ion and extension going on in the slower runners so their trunk rotation is increased , their arms are held more rigidly for balance.

  12. The slower runner’s feet barely leave the ground, whereas the elite runner’s feet almost do a butt kick.

  13. I think a lot of this difference in running styles between the two groups comes down to what I’ll call “leg elasticity.” The fast runners propel along from one step to the other like there are springs in their legs, while the slow folks just kind of grind along. I think loss of elasticity is inevitable as one ages, but strength training and plyometric work definitely helps in that regard, as could shedding those extra pounds that are evident in just about all the slower runners. I agree with several other comments about the hips – the slow runners are all about using quads and calves while you see much more hip flexion in the fast ones.

  14. Thank you Jason for this very informative post. As a mid-point runner for this distance (1.40-1.45) it is enlightening to study those in front and behind me…
    As others have said, the most striking difference is that the fast runners are indeed running very fast. They have the aerobic capacity and body strength to hold this with confidence for the distance. (confidence is crucial–it is the ability to sustain form through the discomfort). The high cadence reflects these advantages. But the high cadence is still propelling them forwards and not bobbing up/down.
    All of the six have a spring in their stride: the slow-motion shows that their back trailing legs all get to at least 90 degrees (reflecting a strong push off and greater hip flexibility/leg strength) while for the slower runners their back legs seem to go no higher than 30-40 degrees. Also the faster runners have more pronounced flight when neither foot is on the ground. The legs of some slower runners seem to almost lean inwards while the fast runners have piston like legs move forwards in a clean straight line.
    All of the fast runners have their arms slightly crossing the torso–no-one is exactly like a piston. Many of the slow runners have large arm rotations across their body. This suggests lesser upper body/core strength.
    However, among the fast runners, runner 5 (purple top) had his head titled back suggesting that he was tiring and losing form. No 3 (white top) seemed to be running too tall and could perhaps benefit from a slight lean forwards.
    I was surprised that several slower runners were carrying water bottles. One woman was holding a iPhone. Investing in a belt to hold the iPhone would allow her to focus on her form and reduce the risk of her dropping the iPhone as she tires!

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