10 Principles of Proper Running Form

Posted on 12 September, 2021 by Jovana Subic

Proper running form intro

We’ve condensed 40+ hours of research and more than 30 studies into this in-depth guide. It covers when and how to improve the running form using some basic principles, how it impacts running performance, and why runners usually fail when working on their running technique.

No one wakes up one day and thinks “I’m going to run better from now on”. This is because: 

  1. Beginners (without any chronic injuries) just go outside and run and they do not obsess over a running form. And that is OK. 
  2. The majority of recreational runners don’t feel the need to alter the way they run until they get injured. Even then, they mostly focus on healing the injury and not on improvements in running form. 
  3. It takes a strong competitive edge for other runners to start thinking about running form. 

There isn’t a right way to run that applies to everyone. Since you’re here, hi5! And know this: working on your running form does not mean you need to train more or harder because, with the right guidance, you can run more efficiently. Research has shown that the running technique explains a substantial proportion of the variance in running economy and performance. 

Benefits of improving running form

Runners and coaches across the world have reported many benefits once they focused on their running technique. These are not promises, but by paying attention to your running form, you can expect to: 

  1. Run more efficiently, which means:
  2. Run longer distances and improve your pace 
  3. Reduce the risk of injury. 

When it comes to injuries, keep in mind that running form can only help so much - building up mileage too quickly and not taking rest (overtraining) is still the main cause of running injuries. 

Before you begin: What to expect 

You decided to work on your running form. Great! Here’s what you should know: 

  1. You will feel discomfort. It’s a new terrain and it will feel unfamiliar. This is OK and completely normal because you started running in the only way you knew and there are adjustments and improvements along the way. 
  2. You will need time for this. All the meaningful changes take time and that’s why rushing this process might just end up in an injury. 
  3. You need to want this! Many runners give up. This metastudy has identified the 3 most common barriers in learning and applying the new running technique and found them to be related to the runner, the method itself and the environment. We’re talking about a lack of patience, a method being too extensive to learn and adverse reactions from coaches. 
  4. This process isn’t about implementing all the principles found below, sometimes it’s about doing exercises that will bring your balance and muscle activation to your running. 

If you want to elevate your running, it’s important to take a look at your running form and make any necessary adjustments and improvements.

To do: 10 things that can improve your running form

To help understand each bullet listed below, next to “How” to work on it, we added the “Why” section. 

Basic principles of running form

1. Lift your head and look in front of you 

How: Keep your head lifted so the chin is parallel to the ground and your neck in a neutral position. You should not tuck your chin in. Look ahead, ideally 10-20 feet (3-6 meters) in front of you. 

Why: Looking at your feet will put your head in a forward posture which can put a strain on your upper body parts (whole neck, upper back, shoulders). 

Look ahead when running

2. Relax your shoulders

How: Keep your shoulders leveled and relax. At the beginning, try acting as if you were trying to squeeze a pencil between your shoulder blades: this will open the shoulders and ease your breathing. Once you experience this ease, slouching will be uncomfortable.

Why: If you slouch, you might experience breathing difficulties.

Dont slouch your shoulders when running

3. Swing arms from hips to the nipples 

How: Arms should swing from hips to the nipples. When doing this, the shoulders should not roll (to cause more rotation). When sprinting, hands go much higher up and further back, but it long-distance running that would only prove to be inefficient. Swinging should happen at the shoulder joint and not at your elbow joint. Bend your arms at 90 degrees at the elbow. 

Why: Arms help with balance, forward motion and decrease body rotation. If the hands cross in front of the body or go side to side, the body rotates. This rotation leads to higher energy consumption and greater stress on the lower extremities. Arms should counterbalance the rotation in the hips and pelvis with each stride. This research has shown that arm swing has a positive effect on the running economy.

Swing arms from hips to nipples

4. Hands: Hold a potato chip 

How: Relax your hands. Cup them gently. If you’re not sure how intense that can be, pretend you’re holding a potato chip between thumbs and forefingers and you don’t want to break it. 

Why: Making fists will create unnecessary tension in your arms, shoulders and neck. 

Hold a potato chip

5. Run tall & lean forward

How: Engage your core: it’s where your power comes from. Think of this as “running tall” or as if someone is pulling you up by the hair on top of your head. The lean should be a slight one, only so you don’t bend at the waist. This means 5-7 degrees lean only. Looking at the photo below, it should be noticed that the whole body is leaning forward, not just part from the waist up. 

Why: Leaning forward allows you to activate your glutes so not everything is on quads. 

Run tall and lean forward

6. High knees and butt kicks  

How: Raise your knee higher and act as if you’re going to do a but kick. 

Why: This way you’ll use your glutes and hamstrings equally. With your glutes pushing you forward and hamstrings pulling your legs back up, your legs will be stronger and completely engaged. 

7. Don’t overstride 

How: Land close to the center of mass. Overstriding means you’re landing further forward or away from the center of mass. 

Why: When you decrease the stride length, stress facture probability is also decreased by 3-6%. When landing closer to the center of mass, the knee is more flexed and braking forces are decreased. This research has shown that less leg extension at toe-off improves running economy.

Working on your overstride or, to be more precise, reducing the stride length, seems to have the greatest impact on running injury reduction (based on the overview of 10 studies). 

Overstride in running

8. Don’t bounce excessively  

How: Maintain a neutral pelvis. Land lightly. Direct your energy in running forward. Think about directing force into the ground and behind you once your foot lands and not jumping forward. Also, lower cadence and overstriding tend to cause bouncing, so pay attention to both of them. 

Why: Your running economy is worse because there’s a need for stabilization and control. Even one extra inch of bounce with every step gets accumulated along the run and makes you less efficient. 

Trunk performance and hip control matter more than hip strength when focusing on preventing injuries in novice runners (source). 

Here we can see a low (left) and a high (right) position during bouncing followed with rotation of the upper body:

Bouncing and rotating while running

9. Make narrow steps

How: Focus on your steps and make them narrower. Elite runners’ feet land on the same lane, this allows all of the forces to push them forward. 

Why: When making wider steps, body weight shifts from one side to another. While this might seem more stable, it actually takes more time and distance. Narrow width is more efficient than a wide one.

Make narrow steps when running

10. Increase your cadence

How: Measure your cadence and try increasing it by 5-15%. A cadence of 180 steps per minute is a widely recommended one, but the research has shown that it varies a lot (from 155 to 203 steps per minute). You can read our in-depth guide on cadence to learn how to work on your cadence.

Why: As cadence decreases, runners overstride, tend to heel strike and have less explosive toe-off and are less efficient. By increasing the cadence you might reduce impact load (as explained here and here), cause less muscle damage, and promote midfoot landing. 

Best footstrike: the never-ending debate

What matters here most is that your foot should land underneath your body and your knee should be slightly flexed when you make contact. In short, don’t overstride. Don’t focus on how your feet hit the ground. Instead, avoid leaping forward and land lightly. 

We have covered foot strike in great detail in our guide on footstrike. When talking about correct running form, there are 2 currents here saying: 

  1. You should not change your stride. Instead, focus on other elements. 
  2. You should try to land on the midfoot. 

To elaborate the first point even further, some specialists go as far as saying that changing your foot strike might take up to a year and even then won’t help with injury reduction. It might even trade-off one type of injury for another. 

Implementing a midstrike will allow you to use the forefoot for an explosive push-off. This is done by pressing up and forward from the ground with toe-off. If the explosive push-off is the focus, midfoot strike makes sense because it allows for quick transitions so the great toe can deliver almost 85% of the propulsion force as explained here

Better under supervision

Research from 2015 points to the effectiveness of receiving visual or auditory feedback to improve running gait to minimize your risk for injury.

While you can look at yourself in the mirror while running, receiving verbal cues and having someone analyze your form is key to your running technique improvement. 

You can hire a running coach, an exercise professional or a running biomechanics specialist - they can all evaluate your current technique and give clear recommendations. An individualized approach can help identify what is or is not working for every runner. 

They will help you to: 

  1. Break bad habits 
  2. Develop and maintain correct running form
  3. Implement small tweaks that will make your runs more efficient
  4. Locate weak or tight muscles and even out muscular imbalances. 

DIY drill 

If you decide to give it a try by yourself, this is one of the recommended drills: 

  1. 3-5min warm-up (jogging) 
  2. Break your run into 5-minute chunks. Focus on each body part: 5 minutes for each one. Head, shoulders, arm swing, forward lean, high knees and butt kicks… everything mentioned above. 
  3. Try running the last 5 minutes implementing what you’ve exercised: combine it all. 

Not every good running form looks good 

There are elite runners whose running star looks far from perfect (not everyone looks like Kenenise Bekele) and yet they manage to break world records or keep their position at the top. 

For inspiration, look at Paula Radcliffe, famous for her head bob. Or even Usain Bolt, whose form seems flawless, but he hits the track with his right leg at 13% greater peak force than his left leg. This is why his left leg remains on the ground 14% longer than his right leg. The big question is: did this help him become the GOAT? 

Hope these inspire you not to look perfect but feel like you’re running with ease (efficiently). 

Bad form giveaways

Here are a few clues you can scan for while running. If you notice any of them, there’s room for improvement. 

Giveaway What it means & how to fix it
Breathing difficulties or tension in your neck & shoulders Caused by slouching (rounding shoulders). It might happen at the beginning, but more often when fatigue kicks in. Relax your shoulders, lift your head and look ahead.
Swinging arms aggressively forward This usually goes along with overstriding. Think hips-to-nipples swinging.
Overstriding Your knee should flex directly above the ankle on initial contact. When over-striding, the ankle is ahead of the knee. Try increasing the cadence.
Scuffing your shoe on the opposite calf Your hips are dropping. With every leg swing, a dipped hipped makes your feet closer than they should be. Strengthen your hip muscles.
Bouncing There’s too much vertical movement. This is usually caused by overstriding and low cadence.

Strength training to help with your running form

There are areas in our bodies that are weak or tight. For running form, it’s imperative runners work on them, especially if they rely on those areas heavily during running. 

This is a list of areas runners should work on. Strengthening them is a way of working on a running form indirectly. 

  • Core exercises will help with balance and stability. 
  • Head and neck exercises will help with good posture and allow you to look ahead and not at your running shoes.
  • Glute exercises will prevent the knees, hips and back from taking on more work than they can/should handle. 
  • Hip exercises, especially for hip abductors. These exercises will stabilize hips and thighs. During the proper-running-form training, female runners increased their hip strength and symmetry as described here

“I know how to run, what’s there to improve?” 

While we’re always encouraged to just get outside and start running, it might come as a shock that not all of us run properly. Or symmetrically. Or as efficiently as we can. 

There are logical reasons behind this: first, no one ever taught us. Then, we might have had an injury or our shoe choice is bad. But, there’s also something we usually don’t consider and that’s our lifestyle. How much time we spend sitting, how many muscles are tight, which muscles are compensating… 

To burst your bubble, here are 2 (almost ridiculous) examples: 

  1. Say you played the accordion as a kid. You spent hours a week in that weird position, your right shoulder lower, putting the weight on your left thigh, and you did it for years. While literally growing up. Today, your shoulder is still a bit lower. Your hips are not symmetrical. And yes, you notice this when running. Or someone notices it when analyzing your running form.
  2. You own a dog. It’s a big dog, almost always on the leash. You always keep the leash in your right hand. Sometimes you even run together. Now you start running by yourself and notice your right arm isn’t swinging at the shoulder as much as your left arm. Years of leash handling with the right hand made your arm forget how to swing properly. And yes, this affects your running form. 

Even if we’re not aware of these tiny irregularities, they inevitably exist. The idea is to find out if they are making you a better runner or not. 

Chi running, Pose running, Grounded running, Feldenkrais method

You might have heard of these methods in running. There is no definitive proof that one method is better than the other or overall. Studies examining them are usually contradicting or fail at the sample size, data analysis and result interpretation. 

However, there are runners across the world who gained a lot from implementing the techniques offered by Chi or Pose running. If you decide to start implementing principles from one of these methods, keep in mind that, as always, it might work and it might not. This is too individual and more research is needed to determine when it will work and who for. 

The purpose of all of these methods is to enable runners to run more efficiently and, if possible, injury-free. That’s why they might be worth exploring. We’ll break down the differences for the curious ones: 

Chi running proposes implementing some of the steps we already covered above: run tall, lean forward, land on your midfoot, use your core and relax.

Chi running

Pose running is a part of a pose method that can be applied to all sports. It’s based on a pose in which you align your shoulders, hips and ankles with the support leg while standing on the ball of your foot. It differentiates a running pose, a fall and a pull. 

  1. For decreasing the risk of running injuries, the Pose method recommends getting in and out of the running pose (when you strike the ground) as quickly as possible. 
  2. For running faster, it recommends leaning forward more (making a greater fall). 
  3. Distance runners should focus on pulling: simply pull the behind leg faster (increase your cadence up to 180).

Pose running

Grounded running (a running technique that implements no flight phase) is thought to be a less impactful, but metabolically more challenging form. It could benefit runners who want to optimize their cardio-metabolic health, while at the same time minimize running-related injury risk (read this study to learn more). 

Feldenkrais method is not a running technique per se, but it teaches you how to use your brain’s capacity to change and heal. It’s about being aware while moving (as explained in this book) and teaching your body to break old habits. There is a whole section dedicated to runners only. If you’re feeling inspired, the method was mentioned in the book The rise of the ultra runners.

Author
Jovana Subic
Jovana Subic

Whether it's a vertical kilometre or an ultra, climbing in the Alps or exploring local mountains, Jovana uses every opportunity to trade walls and concrete for forests and trails. She logs at least 10h/week on trails, with no off-season, and 4x more on research on running and running shoes. With a background in physics and engineering management, she prefers her running spiced with data.