Your Head-to-Toe Guide to Proper Running Form

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Before you head out on your next run, do a quick form check.
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Get a runner talking about improving endurance, adjusting form or fueling up pre- and post-run and you may never hear the end of it. But sometimes you just want simple, straightforward advice on how to run better, stronger, faster. The best place to start is by perfecting your form.

Running and jogging already place a significant amount of strain on your joints, and improper form increases the likelihood that strain will turn into pain in the knees, hips or back. By correcting any mistakes before you start pounding the pavement, you may find you run faster and with less pain.

Keep reading for the best advice from personal trainers, running coaches and experts about what you should be doing before, during and after your run.

First, Get a Gait Analysis

It's helpful, especially for beginners, to have a coach tell you exactly what you're doing wrong (or right) and how to fix it. "Before you take up a running program, I recommend runners get a gait analysis," Harry Pino, PhD, exercise physiologist at The Body Lab in Jersey City, New Jersey.

This can be as simple as asking the staff at your local running shoe store to watch you run or as advanced as hiring a running coach for a single session. There are also research facilities that can perform this kind of analysis, giving you the big picture of your overall running mechanics and specifics on foot strike, stride length and cadence. Then you can sharpen specific skills, focusing on one thing at a time.

Read more: How to Find the Best Running Shoes for You

Constantly Question Your Form

It's OK to talk to yourself before and during your run. In fact, Claire Shorenstein, RD, a Road Runners Club of America certified running coach recommends it. Before and during a run, ask 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?
  • Is your power coming from your glutes or your quads?

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.

Keep Your Body Stacked

When doing 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, MD, 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, focus on keeping your shoulders back and head up, she says. 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."

Watch Your Foot Strike

There's a lot of debate over which part of your foot should be the first to make contact with the ground. But according to a December 2019 review published in the journal Sports Medicine, neither heel strike nor toe strike have an advantage in preventing injury or running faster.

"The angle of your foot is the issue of heel strike — your toes are too high, pointing up to the sky," says Dr. Pino. Flattening your foot uses less energy, puts less stress on your ankle and improves your running economy.

It's also 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," Shorenstein says. "You want to avoid the foot striking in front of the body because the body then has to catch up with that leg." Practice this by standing on one leg and quickly switching to the other leg as if you were running in place in slow motion.

Avoid Over-Striding

You may think that longer strides equal greater distance covered and, therefore, a faster pace, but that isn't the case. "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 will lead to a shorter, more natural stride, which can reduce the risk of shin splints as well as hip and knee injuries.

Don't overthink your stride, though. A May 2017 study from the International Journal of Exercise Science found that both experienced runners and newbies were able to settle into a stride length that worked best for their body biomechanics. So go with what what comes naturally.

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 and glutes were weak). When your foot hits the ground, you want a slight bend in your knee to absorb the shock, Dr. Pino says. And when you're pushing off, you extend the knee without locking it out.

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.

Read more: Bad Knees? Try These 14 Knee-Strengthening Exercises

Keep Your Hips Neutral

Where your hips go, the rest of your body follows. So keep them level and pointing forward. "Focus on your pelvis: Keep it neutral, as if it were a bucket of water that you don't want to spill," Shorenstein says.

"Your posture should be upright but relaxed. This is where a strong core becomes important, especially during longer runs, to maintain good posture," she says. Engaging your core prevents your pelvis from tilting forward, which can cause lower-back pain, or scooping forward, putting your hips at risk for injury.

If you struggle to keep your hips even, the issue could also be due to weak glutes, which can lead to Trendelenburg gait (one hip lower than the other), says Taylor Moore, CSCS, physical therapist and former collegiate cross-country coach. "Continuing to run like this can lead to injury and slower times."

Fire Up Your Glutes

Speaking of your glutes, they really are the powerhouse of your run. But many runners rely on their quads or their calves to propel them forward, says personal trainer Gareth Field. 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.

To help you activate your glutes more effectively, focus on lower-body exercises like lunges, squat and deadlifts during your strength-training sessions. And hone in specifically on your gluteus medius (sides of your butt and hips) with exercises like the clam shell, side-lying leg lifts, glute bridge and single-leg half squat, Moore says.

Read more: 12 Running Mistakes You Could be Making

Relax Your Arms

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."

Let Go of Tension in Your Face

Yes, race face is a real thing. And while your race photos don't need to be Instagram-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," Dr. Pino says. "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 just be aware of how much tension you're holding in your facial expression.

Don't Forget to Breathe

This may seem like a no-brainer, but proper breathing is often the first thing to go when fatigue sets in. But your breathing dramatically affects your running performance. "The way you run will affect the way your muscles will respond, even your breathing," says Dr. Pino.

He recommends this breathing technique: Focus on expanding your abdominal wall on each inhale. Then, 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.

Read more: The Best Cross-Training Workouts for Runners

Check In With Your Body Afterward

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," Shorenstein says. "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 glutes and hips (see above). Or if your shoulders hurt, you'll want to ease off on your arm swing.

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