We’ve all heard that “running is just putting one foot in front of the other.” But is running technique really that simple?
The complicated answer is that running technique is both simple and complex.
It’s simple because every human is indeed born to run. All of us have the physical and physiological tools to be good runners (as opposed to, say, swimming where we lack fins and a streamlined body).
It’s complex because we are very far away from our “natural” state. We wear shoes, sit in chairs, and have access to unlimited calories. So our bodies can be very far from the physical ideal for running.
And we also think more about our running technique, something animals never do. They control their movements mostly through instinct while we can actively make changes to our running form based on our desires.
That means our potential to screw things up by overthinking things is much higher!
We have so many things that we track and try to “optimize” when it comes to our technique:
- Vertical oscillation
- Ground contact time
- Right vs. left leg symmetry
- Foot Strike
- Posture and the forward lean
- Hip drop, pelvic tilt, and Q angle
- Running cadence
And the list goes on!
How are runners supposed to know what aspect of form is important to focus on vs. what isn’t?
To make things simpler, this is a fun “Do This, Not That” article that breaks down the fundamentals (rather than minute intricacies) of proper running technique so you know exactly what to focus on.
But let me say right now: you should not think too much about your form. If you don’t have a history of injuries and you’re training well, then don’t mess with your form. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
While the movement itself might be complex, its execution ought to be simple.
After all, we’re born for this, remember?
Running Technique Fundamentals
There are quite a few elements of good form – but they’re probably not what you might guess.
When it comes to “proper” technique, we’re not going to worry about:
- Foot strike (heel, midfoot, or forefoot)
- Forward lean
- Arm carriage
These aspects of form are byproducts of your unique anatomy, skill, mobility, and strength. They’ll improve with work but not by actively attempting to change them.
Instead, we’ll focus on three fundamentals:
- Overall body posture
- Where your foot lands relative to the rest of your body
- Step rate (the number of steps you take per minute)
If you can get these principles of sound running technique right, they will improve other problems with form (like arm carriage, forward lean, and foot strike).
And it’s important to note that strength and mobility are absolutely necessary to run economically and powerfully.
Without strength, your stride will lack power and will be less fluid or smooth. You’ll also be at a higher risk of injury.
Without mobility, you won’t be able to powerfully move through runnings proper range of motion.
That’s why the cues below are only a starting point. Build on them with a high quality strength program and your form will improve substantially without overthinking how to run.
Get started with our free Form Cues Cheat Sheet to help you practice 3 of the most effective running technique cues.
Don’t Lean Forward
Is a forward lean a good idea for runners?
Most runners have heard that a forward lean is advantageous. By using “free energy” from gravity, it helps us run faster.
While I’m not convinced that gravity is helping us run faster (gravity pulls us down, not forward), the idea that a forward lean is part of proper running technique still holds true.
But the problem surfaces when we try to have a forward lean. Almost always, runners end up leaning from the waist which adds strain to our joints and is a big injury risk.
There should be a straight line running from our feet, up along our legs, over our butt and back, to our head. At no point are we leaning from the waist, but rather from the ankles. The video below shows a demonstration of how this looks.
While this is an aspect of great form, it takes a lot of strength an experience to run in this more engaged, athletic posture. Strength training and occasional sprinting can reinforce a proper lean and give you the tools to sustain it.
But without doing the training that allows you to lean from the ankles, you should not attempt to lean forward.
But Do “Run Tall”
Instead, it’s far more effective to run with an erect posture (after all, there ought to be a straight line from your ankles to your head).
A helpful cue to make this easier is to tell yourself to “run tall.” Every joint in the body, from the ankles to the knees to the hips, should be striving upward to give you the tallest posture possible.
Reach for the sky with your head and you’ll get it right.
Another cue that facilitates great running posture is to imagine that you’re a puppet with strings attached to the top of your head. An imaginary puppeteer is pulling upward on those strings, lengthening your body and helping you run as tall as possible.
These cues reinforce more athletic posture and help prevent form problems like:
- Hip drop
- Anterior pelvic tilt
- Unengaged glute muscles
It does take strength to “run tall” so be sure not to neglect strength training! Not only will it give you the armor needed to prevent more injuries, but weight training improves posture and running economy.
What’s not to love?!
Don’t Focus on Footstrike
Footstrike has gotten a lot of attention over the years. Ever since Christopher McDougall’s bestseller Born to Run swept the world by storm in 2009, we’ve been borderline obsessed with landing on our midfoot and banishing the heel strike altogether.
But is heel striking actually all that bad?
In fact, it’s not! It really depends on what type of heel strike you have. If you over-stride, reach out with your feet, and land in front of your body, you likely have a very aggressive, “heel-smashing” type of heel strike.
That’s the problematic type of foot strike that spikes your injury risk and slows you down during workouts or races.
But there’s a better way – a proprioceptive heel strike.
Some runners, like legend Meb Keflezighi (and yours truly), do land on their heels. But their heel only kisses the ground before the majority of their bodyweight comes down when the foot is in a fully planted, neutral position.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much if you have a mild heel strike. How your foot hits the ground is not nearly as important as where your foot lands in relation to the rest of your body.
Which leads us to our next principle of effective running technique…
But Do Land Underneath Your Hips
I mentioned earlier that “reaching out” with your feet and landing in front of your body often results in an aggressive heel strike. That’s what we want to avoid.
To do that, all that we need to focus on is landing underneath our hips. If our foot lands under our center of gravity, we greatly reduce that heel-smashing variety of foot strike.
The result is a more economical stride, lower risk of injury, and a more fluid stride. You’ll run in a more compact way without over-striding. Even if your heel does hit the ground first, doing so underneath your hips will probably give you a proprioceptive heel strike.
To make this easier, imagine that you’re riding a scooter and each stride is you pushing off the ground. It’s a “down and back” motion rather than an “out and forward” motion.
In other words, your foot drives down toward the ground rather than out in front of you.
But What About Cadence?
Cadence has been a hot topic since coach Jack Daniels (of Daniel’s Running Formula fame) popularized the notion that runners should have a cadence of 180 steps per minute. Now, everyone seems to want to run with a step rate of 180.
But this isn’t a magic number. 179 steps per minute is not worse and 181 is not better.
First, cadence is partly a reflection of speed. The faster you run, the higher your cadence.
Second, whenever we discuss cadence it’s always measured during an easy effort. We simply don’t care how many steps you take per minute at tempo, 5k, or any other pace.
That means your easy running pace greatly impacts what your cadence ought to be. A simple rule is to establish a baseline cadence number based on your easy pace:
- If an easy effort for you is 10:00 minutes per mile or slower, your goal should be to run at least 160 steps per minute.
- But if your easy pace is faster than 10:00 minutes per mile, your goal should be to run with at least 170 steps per minute
A good example is my own cadence. Study the details of an easy 4 miler I ran recently with several 15sec pick-ups near the end and you’ll notice a few things.
First, my cadence is quite consistent in the mid-170’s at an easy effort of about 7:30 – 8:00 mile pace. I feel very comfortable here and if I were to force myself to hit 180, my form would get less efficient (not more).
Near the end, you’ll see spikes in both pace and cadence (they’re related, of course!), hitting a peak of over 200 steps per minute when I’m running under 5:00 mile pace.
The lesson? 180 is a fine benchmark, but it’s not a number anybody “must” reach. In fact, as long as you’re over either 160 or 170 steps per minute based on your easy pace, you can rest easy that your cadence is on target.
I put together a video highlighting these lessons – with some demonstrations – for our YouTube channel:
Note how training will help you develop optimal running technique – not actively thinking about your running form.
High mileage, sprinting, and strength training are the top ways to improve form from a training perspective.
But “cues” go a long way toward building economical form habits.
Running Technique ‘Cues’
I’ve put together a free cheat sheet for you – outlining the three most effective form cues that will improve your running technique.
- Instructions for how to execute each cue
- When (and for how long) to execute each cue
- Tips to make each cue easier (hint: strength matters!)
- Pictures of me in short shorts racing with sunglasses (I spoil you)
Get it here and hang it near your running shoes – you’ll have ideas to work on during every easy run!
Powerful running technique is built through training and conscious decisions to run more efficiently. This is the first step – and I can’t wait to see how you feel in a few months.