20 Essential Checks to Help You Run Faster
Last Updated: Sep 22, 2015
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Get a runner started talking about improved running economy, proper running form or their favorite pre- and post-run fuel and you may never hear the end of it. Every athlete is entitled to their rituals and superstitions, but at a certain point you just want simple, straightforward advice on how to run better, stronger, faster. The best place to start is by perfecting your form. Keep reading for the 20 best pieces of advice from personal trainers, running coaches and experts about what you should be doing before, during and after your run.
GET A GAIT ANALYSIS
It’s helpful, especially for beginners, to have an objective third party tell you exactly what you’re doing wrong (or right) and how to fix or improve it. “Before you take up a running program, I recommend runners get a gait analysis,” Harry Pino, Ph.D., exercise physiologist at the Sports Performance Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. This can be as simple as going to your local running-shoe store and asking a clerk to watch you walk or jog or as advanced as hiring a running coach or personal trainer for a single session. There are also running centers and research facilities, such as the one Pino works at for NYU, which will perform this kind of analysis. As he explains, the analysis will give you the big picture of your overall running mechanics, including foot strike, stride length, cadence, vertical displacement and general body mechanics. Once you have that information, you can sharpen specific skills, focusing on one thing at a time.
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SHAKE IT OUT
Everyone has pre-run or pre-race jitters from time to time, but worrying too much will cause you to tense up, which then causes you to expend extra energy. So before you head out on your run, loosen up a bit. “Try the following before and as you start your run,” says Claire Shorenstein, RD, a Road Runners Club of America certified running coach. “Shake out your arms and do a few shoulder rolls to release any tension, and then practice a few arm swings. Hands should be relaxed, elbows fairly close to the torso and drive them directly back.” Not only will this exercise help your body to loosen up for a stress-free run, but it will also bring some of the fun back into running. And running should definitely be fun.
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WARM UP DYNAMICALLY
Just like any other workout, you never want to go into a run cold. Start with a proper warm-up that targets the muscles you’ll focus on most during your run. “There are a few good pre-run tricks you can do to ensure your best form,” says Gareth Field, certified personal trainer. “Get the glutes firing with a short set of deadlifts; get your core-stabilization muscles firing with abdominal hollowing while holding a plank or while doing push-ups; get your latissimus dorsi firing with pull-ups or rows; and to make sure your chin is tucked, start the run with your mouth filled with water,” he says. “It ensures proper neck articulation as an added bonus, since if you jut your chin out while holding water, you choke.”
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QUESTION YOUR FORM
It’s OK to talk to yourself before and during your run. In fact, running coach Claire Shorenstein recommends it. “Before and during a run, check in with yourself: How is your posture? Are you upright or do you tend to lean forward or backward? Are your neck and shoulders relaxed or are you holding tension? How is your arm swing? Are you clenching your fists, and are your arms close to or far away from your body? Are your heel-striking or landing midfoot? These are all great questions that you should be asking yourself.” Start with an overall assessment of your body positioning, then work from feet to head to ensure each part of your body is correctly aligned.
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KEEP YOUR BODY STACKED
Starting with your full-body assessment, it’s important to keep your body in a straight line from toe to head, even when you get tired. “When running, many people, from beginners to advance runners, tend to lean forward when they get fatigued, hunched over with poor posture,” says Suzanne C. Fuchs, doctor of podiatric medicine and sports medicine specialist. “This position prevents you from breathing normally and getting enough oxygen to your cells, making you even more fatigued.” To prevent this, she says to focus on keeping your shoulders back and head up. Think: Up and slightly forward. “Keep your arms at your sides and try not to crisscross them in front of you. Keep your upper body stacked over your lower body and take even strides.”
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ESTABLISH PROPER BREATHING
This may seem like an obvious one, but when many runners start to become fatigued, proper breathing techniques are often the first thing to go. But your breathing dramatically affects your running performance. “The way you run will affect the way your muscles will respond, even your breathing,” says exercise physiologist Harry Pino. “When you’re starting out and having issues with breathing, expand the abdominal wall on the inhale. On the exhale, breathe all the way out and compress. You’ll see the belly going out and in.” This technique will allow your body to get the maximum amount of air, while getting rid of all the waste product on each exhale. And as mentioned above, keeping your chest lifted and shoulders back will also improve your breathing.
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FIRE UP YOUR GLUTES
Your glutes are really the powerhouse of your run, but many runners rely on their quads or their calves to propel them forward. “The glutes should be activated, which seems like a no-brainer since they’re the prime movers at the hip joint,” says personal trainer Gareth Field. “But as much as possible, a runner should be trying to activate the medial glutes rather than the lateral glutes. And if you’re tired or have altered length-tension relationships, it’s entirely possible to produce motion from the auxiliary muscles, which is where a lot of low-back pain and IT band syndrome comes from.” So if you start to feel yourself slowing down or getting tired, ask yourself where your power is coming from. If it’s from anywhere other than your glutes, switch your focus there.
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PROTECT YOUR KNEES
Often when runners are sidelined by knee injuries, it’s because they weren’t landing and pushing off properly (or their hips were weak -- see the next slide). “When you strike, you want a slight flexion in your knee to absorb the shock,” says exercise physiologist Harry Pino. “Then, when you’re pushing off, you have knee extension. You want that leg really long and pushing off hard to propel you into the next step.” But taking care of your knees extends beyond the track or treadmill. Pino recommends strengthening the hip, knee and ankle joints and incorporating mobility exercises into your running program for good ankle flexibility and knee extension.
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KEEP HIPS NEUTRAL
Your hips are one of the most important things to focus on during your run. Where your hips go, the rest of your body follows. Additionally, if you have weak hips and glutes, the rest of your lower body is more prone to injury. When it comes to your running form, you want to keep your hips level and forward. “Focus on your pelvis: Keep it neutral, as if it were a bucket of water that you don’t want to spill,” says running coach Claire Shorenstein. “Your posture should be upright but relaxed. This is where a strong core becomes important, especially during longer runs, to maintain good posture.”
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ENGAGE YOUR CORE
You can’t stabilize your hips if you don’t also have a strong core. Along with keeping your torso upright, which is important for breathing economy, your middle and lower abdominals also help keep your hips level. “Make sure your navel is drawn in toward your spine,” says personal trainer Gareth Field. “If this has been engrained throughout training, it’s been shown to increase electrical activity in the core stabilization system by 30 percent and aid in proper transmission of force along the kinetic chain.” However, it’s as much about sucking your stomach in as it is about bracing your abdominal and back muscles. Strengthening and engaging both sides of the torso prevents your pelvis from tilting forward, causing lower-back stress, or scooping forward, throwing your lower body out of alignment and putting your hips at risk for injury.
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RELAX YOUR ARMS
Running is primarily a lower-body activity. So although your arms can certainly help keep your momentum going forward, pumping your arms fast and furious won’t make you go any faster. In fact, too much arm movement wastes the energy you should be spending on your legs. “Hold the arms bent at about 90 degrees and keep the shoulders relaxed, holding them down with strong back and core muscles,” says running coach Allison Phillips. “Allow the arms to move naturally forward and back. Do not pump the arms up and down or swing them side to side. Relax the hands. Do not make fists.” Letting go of the tension in your arms can allow your whole upper body to relax.
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LET GO OF TENSION IN YOUR FACE
Yes, race face is a real thing. And while your race photos may not be magazine-cover-worthy, letting go of the tension in your facial muscles conserves energy and helps your entire body relax. “Relax your facial expression, especially in the lips, which causes your shoulder and elbows to tighten,” says exercise physiologist Harry Pino. “Look at the Kenyans as an example. Your shoulders and diaphragm will drop and you have more lung capacity.” That doesn’t mean you can’t smile (you’re having fun, remember?), but no expression at all is better than looking tense, stressed or even mean.
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SHORTEN YOUR STRIDE
You may think that longer strides equal greater distance covered and, therefore, a faster pace, but seasoned runners know that isn’t the case. “My biomechanics professor in college released a study last year that looked at a simple tip for runners: Lift up your back foot earlier and get your foot closer to your butt when you pull it up,” says Henry Halse, CSCS, certified personal trainer. “This simple instruction caused runners to shorten their strides. Research shows that a shortened stride can reduce injury risk for shin splints and anterior compartment syndrome as well as hip and knee injuries.” Shortening your stride also means that your feet are going to fall more naturally under your hips rather than overstriding, which can cause IT band injuries.
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INCREASE YOUR CADENCE
Shortening your stride means you can afford to increase your cadence while still using relatively the same amount of energy. “Increasing your cadence will also improve your efficiency, and you can work this out by counting the number of times your right foot hits the floor in one minute, then doubling it,” says Lee Pickering, personal trainer at DW Fitness. “This helps you to become more efficient because the longer your foot is on the floor, the more energy your body needs to provide to push you forward. Increase your cadence to conserve your energy.” To boost your cadence (and speed), mix intervals into your training, alternating between sprints and jogging. At either speed, though, your cadence should be quick and your stride short.
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RUN LIKE A KID
Since running is supposed to be fun, there’s no one better to take clues from on this than kids. “Young children are natural runners. They are great examples of excellent form (for the most part) and proof that we are born to run,” says running coach Allison Phillips. So here are her takeaway tips from kids. “1. Children are quick and light on their feet. It looks as though they’re not even touching the ground sometimes, just gliding over the surface. 2. Children are relaxed yet solid and strong in their upper bodies when they run, even when sprinting and running their hardest. 3. Children look up and out when they run. They have an outward focus literally and figuratively. 4. Most importantly, children run wearing a smile. They run with joy, for fun, to play and with friends.”
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FORGET HEEL STRIKE VS. MIDSTRIKE
There’s a lot of debate over which part of your foot should be the first to make contact with the ground. But exercise physiologist Harry Pino says the best foot-strike positioning depends mostly on your physiology and previous training. “Research shows heel strike in and of itself isn’t that bad,” he says. “The angle of your foot is the issue of heel strike -- your toes are too high, pointing up to the sky.” Flattening your foot uses less energy, puts less stress on your ankle and improves your running economy.
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WATCH YOUR FOOT STRIKE
Regardless of which part of your foot hits the pavement first, it’s important that your foot touches down in correct alignment with the rest of your body. “Your feet should hit the ground directly beneath your torso,” says running coach Claire Shorenstein. “You want to avoid the foot striking in front of the body because the body then has to catch up with that leg, which is not as efficient. You can practice this by getting into running form and standing on one leg with the other leg bent and lifted, then quickly hop/switch to the other leg as if you are running in place in slow motion. Start slow, a few seconds per leg, then gradually speed up. Focus on your feet landing beneath you, neutral posture and pelvis, relaxed neck and shoulders and good arm swings.”
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STRENGTHEN YOUR HIPS AND GLUTES
Running is a great cardio workout, but it also takes a toll on your muscular system, which is why it’s vital for runners to incorporate strength training into their routines. Focus on lower-body work that strengthens your glutes and hips. Among other benefits, strengthening these muscles helps you avoid Trendelenburg gait, which occurs when you are standing on one leg and the opposite hip drops, says Taylor Moore, CSCS, physical therapist and former collegiate cross-country coach. “Continuing to run like this can lead to injury and slower times.” To correct this, Moore recommends running in front of a mirror or videoing your run to see if your opposite hip drops while in the single-leg stance. He also recommends these six exercises to strengthen the gluteus medius muscle: side-lying external hip rotation (clam shell), side-lying hip abduction, bridge, standing hip hike-leg extension, lunges and standing single-leg partial squat.
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CHECK IN WITH YOUR BODY
One of the most overlooked keys to becoming a better runner (or a better athlete in general) is listening to your body. While it’s important to challenge your body and push it to grow stronger, there are times when you need to ease off. Aches and pains beyond normal muscle soreness are your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. “After your run, pay attention to how your body feels,” says running coach Claire Shorenstein. “Does one part of your body feel more sore than another? It may be a sign of weakness in a particular area and/or a need to work on that part of your form.” For example, if your knees are hurting, you may need to work on strengthening your hips. Or if your arms and shoulders hurt, you’ll want to ease off on your arm swing.
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REVIEW THE “GAME FILM”
Any good athlete reviews his performance and is constantly looking for ways to improve it. “It may help to have a running buddy or coach film your running in slow motion, so you can better identify what needs work,” says running coach Claire Shorenstein. Though you may feel that your form is perfect, the video won’t lie, and seeing a visual representation of your form, along with knowing how that felt during the run, will help you improve on future runs. “Continue to perform the above form checks throughout your run -- especially during the later stages of a run, when you are getting fatigued and your form may suffer,” says Shorenstein.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are you a runner? What do you do before, during and after your run to ensure you have proper form and increase your running efficiency? Have you ever done any of the checks listed above? Which ones have helped you the most? Are there any others you would add to the list? Share your thoughts, questions and suggestions in the comments section below!
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