Your Head-to-Toe Guide to Proper Running Form

Before you head out on your next run, do a quick form check.
Image Credit: Javier Zayas Photography/Moment/GettyImages

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 your form.

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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 other experts about what you should be doing before, during and after your run.

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9 Tips for Improving Your Running 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. During your run, constantly check in with your body and keep these form tips in mind:

Tip

Before you start a new running program, consider getting a gait analysis, recommends 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. From there, they can recommend the best type of running shoes for your stride.

1. Stack Your Body

When doing a mid-run form assessment, check that your body is in a straight line from head to toe, even when you get tired.

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"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."

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2. Land Beneath Your Body

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

But it ​is​ 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."

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Practice this by standing on one leg and quickly switching to the other leg as if you were running in place in slow motion.

3. Shorten Your Stride

You may think that longer strides equal greater distance covered and, therefore, a faster pace, but that isn't the case.

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"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.

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4. Land With a Soft Knee

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, Pino says. And when you're pushing off, you extend your 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.

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5. 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," she says. "This is where a strong core becomes important, especially during longer runs, to maintain good posture." 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."

6. Activate Before You Run

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, ask yourself where your power is coming from. If it's from anywhere other than your glutes, switch your focus there.

Before you start your run, move through a few glute activation exercise to wake these muscles up. Clamshells, glute bridges and air squats are just a few that can help your glutes fire properly as you run.

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7. Relax Your Arms

Although your arms can certainly help keep your momentum going forward, pumping your arms fast and furious won't increase your pace. In fact, too much arm movement wastes energy you should be spending on your legs.

"Hold your 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."

8. Relax 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," 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.

9. 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, Pino says.

He recommends this breathing technique: Focus on expanding your abdomen on each inhale. Then, on the exhale, breathe all the way out and compress your stomach. "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 on each exhale.

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Post-Run Check-In

One of the most overlooked keys to becoming a better runner (or a better athlete in general) is listening to your body. While you want to challenge yourself, 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. So, do a self check-in after you finish your post-run cooldown and adjust your next workout as necessary (or skip it completely).

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