If you watch a running race, whether it’s a road marathon, half marathon or a trail ultramarathon, you quickly notice that although everyone is running, they are not running in the same way. Some people’s running form is clearly, even to an inexperienced eye, much more efficient and apparently effortless than others. There are many reasons to want to improve running form – whether it is to get faster, more efficient over long distances and durations, or reduce your propensity for picking up running injuries which can be encouraged by poor, inefficient running form.
In my experience, improving my running form has made me a more efficient runner, which is a great benefit, especially when running long distances such as marathons and ultra marathons.
However, the key benefit of the work I put in to improve my running form and continue to do so, is that it has significantly helped to reduce the likelihood and frequency of me getting running overuse injuries, including ITB pain, low back pain, shin splints and my all-time favorite, blisters on the bottom of my feet from a poor running gait.
How to improve running form: Table of Contents
At the end of this post I’ve also shared some other things you can change in your running and broader lifestyle that we have found also contribute to reduced running overuse injuries, which you may find helpful.
1. Glute Engagement – It’s all about the butt. Seriously.
It seems that from consulting experts when I’ve had injuries in the past, all the overuse injuries were either caused, or exacerbated by weak and/or tight glutes. This is apparently one of, if not the most common factor in running overuse injuries – because having weakness and/or tightness in such large, important muscles, means other parts of your body (especially your legs and back) have to work harder and not always in the right way, to compensate.
It makes sense if you think about it. Hours a day sat on one’s rear end, whether at a desk or driving, does nothing to engage or strengthen your glute muscles – so this is a common problem for many people. Have you heard of ‘glute activation’? This means exercises designed to target and engage those unloved and underused butt muscles.
If your neural pathways (how your brain sends signals to your body) are simply bypassing even bothering to use those muscles when you stand, walk or run, then you’re not using your body in the most efficient way – and could be missing out on performance and strength gains, as well as reducing your propensity for running overuse injuries.
How to ‘activate’ and strengthen your glutes for running (or hiking)
I like to build my favorite glute strength exercises into broader running strength and conditioning cross-training, which I do regularly to help improve my running form and hopefully also reduce my propensity for getting running injuries. This includes yoga and cross-training workouts requiring little to no equipment. This playlist on our YouTube channel features some examples. We’re constantly adding more running workout videos so if you like what you see, don’t forget to subscribe while you’re on our channel!
I also wrote more about the exercises I started doing regularly in my popular post on ‘running blisters caused by gait‘, and this post lists out our favorite home workout equipment.
Aside from exercises you can do when NOT running, the crucial thing that has really helped me is to THINK about using my butt to run. Sound silly? Yes! Works? Yes!
How do I engage my glutes while running?
Well, I literally think about engaging and using my butt muscles to push-off the ground with every step. If you like to recite mantras, why not try this and tell yourself ‘left-cheek-right-cheek-left-cheek-right-cheek…etc etc’. I promise this really helps you teach yourself to run in a different way to just running however you did before – whether you were overusing your low back, shoulders, hamstrings or calfs.
left-cheek-right-cheek-left-cheek-right-cheekIt’s better to say this in your head, rather than out loud…
Once you get used to doing this, you should have developed some muscle memory and hopefully improved strength as those muscles get used to being used. Aaaaand hopefully less overuse in the other muscles. I still do this – generally only either when I’m tired and have been running for 2+ hours, or if I’m really pushing for a segment or speed at the end of a run, because not only does it help me use the right muscles, but it makes me noticeably FASTER.
2. Improve running posture
ENGAGE YOU CORE. I find it amusing to think about my body as a sack (the glamor!) and I don’t want to be a saggy sack trundling along the trail. I want to be running tall and strong and elongate my core. So I think about having a straight back and firm abs, and this really helps with my overall posture – my eyes are naturally looking more forward ahead of me (rather than towards the ground) and it helps me breathe more efficiently.
Engaging your core means that the muscles around the center of your body – not just your abs but around your sides and back – are doing their job to stabilize you while you more actively move your arms and legs, reducing unnecessary movement up and down and from side to side as you run. This makes your running form more efficient and you should find that the immediate result is that you start to run that bit faster just from this one change in posture and muscle engagement.
If you feel your back could do with being massaged and reducing in tension, then the Chirp Wheel is another great gadget to have at home to help relax your back. In order to build strength, the muscles shouldn’t be overly tight or in spasm, so having a way to relax your back at home (which is way better than using a foam roller) is useful.
3. Think about your footfall and stride length
Having an efficient cadence and modest stride length rather than over-striding was a key way I reduced my propensity to suffer from shin splints and other running injuries (resulting from the strain of running downhill, in particular). It also really helps to think about HOW your feet land on the ground, as this will help determine whether you should try shortening (or for some people, perhaps lengthening) your stride length, at least on certain terrains. It’s well-documented that for most people, as was the case with me, landing gently with your midfoot is much better for your body than heel-striking or landing on the balls of your feet, so this is what I concentrate on doing.
Also – wearing the right running shoes can really help make a difference to how your run in terms of stride length and footfall. Generally, a more minimal shoe with a lower drop from heel-to-toe will encourage a more efficient, natural running style than a chunkier, more cushioned shoe. However, a more minimal shoe will generally offer less foot protection and, depending on how and where you run, may not be enough. Personally I like something in the middle, with a drop of 4mm-8mm and some cushioning in the sole, especially for runs of more than an hour where my tired feet may appreciate the extra padding and more forgiving shoe.
If you are curious to know more about the different types of trail running shoes and our list of the best available right now, head over to our ultimate guide to trail running shoes.
4. Don’t do the twist – get in the right planes of motion
When I am running I think about how my arms and legs move in terms of ‘planes of motion’. What I mean by that is that I don’t want to be twisting my hips, knees, torso or shoulders and have much (if any) rotation across my body. Those limbs need to move like a steam train! That’s what I visualize when I’m thinking about improving this aspect of my running form.
If you prefer to visualize something more exciting than a steam train, then how about the cartoon ‘Road Runner’ (meeep meeep!)? While he doesn’t have arms, his legs move efficiently in one plane of motion and he also has great hip extension.
5. Push-off, knee drive and paw-back
Now, I’m not saying my running form is excellent by any means, but these are all things I think about and am working on – and have definitely helped to improve my running technique, speed, endurance and injury prevention. These three all relate to how you are moving your legs with each stride, to drive you forward. If you break a stride down, your legs go through three phases, push-off, knee drive and paw-back. This is the difference between a ‘shuffle’ and looking like an elite Olympic athlete.
If you watch footage of an elite runner run on a track, especially in slow-motion, you can see how far forward they drive their knees, how far back their leg is pushed out back behind them, and how long each foot touches the ground, ‘pawing back’ to drive forward motion. It’s really amazing. Then have someone film you running, from the side-on, and see how different your running form is. This gives you an idea of how important strength and flexibility is through your ankles, knees, glutes and hips especially, so that they may enable you to be able to train and run with an increased range of motion to get anywhere near the ‘gold standard’ in running form.
Obviously it’s not practical to run like that everywhere, and the range of motion generally decreases as you increase in distance and running duration, but it’s still important even if you’re not running at full-speed or trying to race anyone.
One area of development that I’m working on right now is the knee-drive, but in the past, I really needed to work on the ‘paw-back’. The advice I have been given for improving my paw-back is to imagine you’re wiping dog poop off your shoe, which is an easy concept to remember. It’s that intentional ground contact and push-back that you’re aiming for, except while hopefully you don’t have something stinky on your shoe, you’re simply just trying to maximize the opportunity to use the ground to propel you forward.
Other ways to reduce running overuse injuries
Having read through all of the above it may seem very theoretical. But bear with me, because IT WORKS. There’s a reason that just from the act of running and focusing on nothing but the act of running (including all of the things I’ve listed above), your mind becomes so full of being in the moment that it is a form of moving meditation. The pursuit of running with good form is, to me, the same as the pursuit of mindfulness through running. It’s hard to think of anything else, which is, of course, much of the attraction.
Better running performance and reducing overuse injuries is not just about improving running form. Recovery, strength training, eating and sleeping well have all contributed to improvements in my running performance, strength and reducing my propensity to suffer from running injuries due to poor form, training, nutrition or recovery (or all of the above).
Here are some other specific posts you may find interesting:
- How to become a stronger trail runner – Ways I improved my running performance
- 10 easy yoga stretches for runners
- CBD for runners and athletes
Having switched to a plant-based diet, the level of training-related inflammation and soreness I experience is definitely less than it used to be, so eating more plants is also something else I strongly recommend you explore if you’re looking for ways to reduce running injuries and improve your running form.