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Why Optimal Running Form Is Important and How To Achieve It

knee pain performance physical therapy running speed & agility Apr 10, 2023

Running is one of the most common forms of exercise in the world. Many people assume that
the reason for this is that “anyone can run,” or that running is a “natural movement” that
everyone can do. While there is some truth to the fact that anyone can run, that doesn’t mean
that everyone does it safely and efficiently. Running efficiently is a learned skill that needs to be
taught and trained. I’m not here to tell you that there is one way to run that will be beneficial
for all people, but there are some key foundations of running that improve efficiency and
decrease risk of injury. Think about it like cooking: There are a lot of different variations of each
dish, but there are key ingredients to that dish that cannot be replaced.


Let’s first talk about what running is before we dive into the key components. Running is
essentially a controlled falling from one foot to the other. What separates running from walking
is the airborne phase of running. During walking there is no point in time where one foot is not
touching the ground. With running, after the push off phase, there is an airborne phase. This
changes the demands of the activity significantly. When comparing running to walking, we see
that with running there is 2.5x your body weight going through your body with each step.


The major phases of gait are:
     1.) Initial Contact: When the foot first touches the ground.
     2.) Mid stance: When your foot is in full contact with the ground.
     3.) Toe Off: When you are pushing off and propelling yourself forward.
     4.) Swing: When your leg is in the air and your foot is no longer in contact with the


Now that we know what the gait cycle is made up of, let’s talk about what “good” running form
looks like. This is variable from person to person, but as I mentioned above, there are a few
things that are fundamental to running efficiently and decreasing your risk for injury.


One of the most important aspects of running is your posture during running. The way you
carry yourself while running will play a major role in many of the other aspects of your running
mechanics. Many people fall in the "too locked" category when they are running, meaning that
they are too rigid and upright. Being too upright can lead to over striding and bounding, two
other areas that we will look at later. During the running cycle, you want to have a slight
forward lean so that you can get your body mass forward. Leaning forward DOES NOT mean
bending at the waist; it is leaning forward from the ankles to get that full-body forward lean.


Initial Contact:
The next aspect of running to look at is at initial contact of your foot. What part of your foot
hits the ground first is much less important than where the foot hits in relation to your body.
Many times, people are told that a specific foot striking pattern (i.e. heel striking, mid foot
striking, or forefoot striking) is better or worse, but that is not what should be focused on.
When it comes to initial contact, you want to be hitting the ground as close to under your center
of mass as possible. Over-striding and reaching out to far from your center of mass causes
excessive braking forces during running, slowing down your momentum and decreasing


Vertical Displacement:
Related to initial contact and over-striding is the amount of vertical displacement that happens
during running. The goal for running is to be moving forward as efficiently as possible. Excessive
vertical displacement is wasted energy and increases the effect that gravity has on you, which in
turn will increase the amount of strain on your body. In order to maximize your efficiency and
decrease the strain on your body, you want to limit vertical movement, meaning you want to
push with your glutes to move you forward.


Arm Swing:
One thing that is often over looked is a how a runner’s arms are moving throughout their gait
cycle. It is something that may seems small but can make a big change in their running
mechanics. Driving through your arms can help to improve your cadence, improve energy
efficiency, and decrease wasted energy through excessive movement in the spine. The most
important aspects of arm swing are:
     1.) Don’t cross over the middle of your body.
     2.) Small arm movements front to back.


The last thing to think about is your cadence or how many steps per minute you are taking. This
is tracked by almost all running watches and can easily be tracked without much effort. The
“gold standard” for cadence is 180 steps per minute, but this may not be the case for all people.
When it comes to decreasing your risk for injury, you want your cadence to be above 160 steps
per minute. Also, on the other end, more is not always better! Increasing your cadence to over
180 steps per minute could potentially decrease your efficiency and can hurt your performance.


If you live in the Columbus, OH, or Atlanta, GA area and would like us to assess your running, or help with any injuries or goals you may have, give us a call to schedule an appointment or a free 10-minute discovery phone call. We're here to help!


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Yours in Health,

Athletes' Potential

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