It seems to me that virtually every sport focuses on refining and even perfecting their technique or form. However, for many years, distance runners have largely ignored their running form and focused primarily on increasing work capacity. Now, some runners are focusing on gait enhancement, but are experiencing mixed results. Some are running faster and more economically, while others are actually suffering injuries while altering their form. Given these mixed results, should distance runners focus on improving their running form?
My opinion is YES! Running with a more economical gait can lead to faster race performances. For instance, if you improve your stride efficiency by one hundredth of a second (0.01 second) in each step, you can shave eight to nine minutes off your marathon time. More importantly, improving your running form can lower your injury risk, which is very significant given that over 50 percent of runners are sidelined by running related injuries each year. Optimizing your movement patterns will help load your musculoskeletal system more efficiently and avoid common overuse injuries associated with running.
While it is exciting that runners are increasingly focusing on improving their gait, many fail to realize positive benefits due to incorrect training modifications. The key is in employing the correct process and striving for small, gradual improvements. After spending more than 20 years learning from many coaches and physical therapists, here is the process that I currently employ:
- Mobility/Flexibility: the range of motion of a specific joint through different planes. Do you have the required mobility in your hips, ankles and toes to run (slow/fast; uphill/downhill)? If not, you need to focus on resolving these issues first and foremost. Forcing a body with movement restrictions to run more efficiently can lead to injury. Also, progressing your training with improper movement patterns will further ingrain bad habits.
- Stability/Strength: ability to control the forces placed on your musculoskeletal system upon each impact and transferring this energy into efficient running. Do you have the required stability in your hips and feet to handle running (slow, fast, downhill)? If not, you need to focus on building stable hips/glutes and feet before you can expect to see significant improvements in your running form.
- Gait (Form) Retraining: Once your mobility restrictions are resolved, you can begin gait retraining while continuing to address stability issues. There are lots of running drills/cues out there, but here are two that have worked well with my athletes:
- Forward lean: Running with a forward lean will help you better recruit your powerful gluteus maximus muscle. If you are currently running with a backward lean, focus on gradually moving towards a forward lean over weeks/months to better enable your body to adapt.
- Stride rate: Increasing your stride rate to approximately 180 steps per minute or higher will help you land mid-foot and under your center of gravity (=less braking forces). Focus on gradually increasing your steps per minute over weeks/months to better enable your body to adapt.
If you are a young runner (or young training age), you may adapt to more rapid changes in your running form. It is ideal to begin refining your running gait as a young runner. For older runners (or older training age), you need to take a more gradual approach. It will take time to build strength and efficiency running with new movement patterns. Focus on moving better instead of perfectly. We can run fast and injury free with imperfections. Lastly, I recommending seeking out some assistance (i.e. running coach, physical therapist) to help you smartly optimize your running form. If you don’t have access to a qualified person, educate yourself and have a friend take video of your running form to better understand your current movement patterns.