A Slow-motion Walk Through Running Form

There are many biomechanical expressions of running form. An athlete's individual flexibility, joint mobility and strength define his or her form, so there is no one correct answer, but an understanding of the basic components of form is important. In particular, the upper body is too often ignored as runners focus on footstrike, midstance, stride length and toe-off. Here we look in detail at running form from toe-off through the swing-through phase, including the upper body movements and how they coordinate with the lower body ones.

If you are looking to re-evaluate the effectiveness of your form, or of any one component of it, you might get a feel for optimal form by going through the following movements in slow motion while standing in front of a mirror:

  • Balance on one leg and strike the ground about six inches in front of the body with the other foot, either at the heel or midsole. Flex the leading knee 10 to 20 degrees and the hip 20 to 25 degrees, leaning forward slightly at the trunk;
  • As the body weight completely transfers to the leading foot, keep the knee bent, letting it cushion the joints at the foot-flat phase;
  • The body continues to move forward and the knee and hip extend as the heel lifts;
  • As the foot leaves the ground during toe-off, the thigh swings backward maximally. The direction of the leg changes as the thigh drives forward, with the knee bending in the swing-through phase.

Try this with each leg, a few rehearsals should give you a feel for the optimal relative positioning of each body part during an actual run. Next, we look at what the rest of the body should be doing during these movements. The following list describes upper body movements as they synchronize with the above basic foot, knee and hip movements:

  • Maintain an upright body position while relaxing the shoulders and face. Less tension in these areas helps promote more relaxed, free flowing movement throughout the body as a whole;
  • Hold your sternum high. This allows the chest to expand and increases lung ventilation;
  • Swing your arms from the shoulder joint forward and backward, maintaining as close to a 90-degree elbow angle as you can. The shoulder is a pendulum, allowing the arms to passively swing—think of this as activated by gravity and not from actively flailing or pumping the arms, which wastes energy;
  • Sync your arms with the legs, mimicking the same rhythm. The arms are used for balance, momentum and to assist with forward propulsion;
  • Engage the trunk muscles with a slight lean forward to help support the upper-body over a moving lower body. Think of a long spine and visualize each space between each lumbar vertebra;
  • Rotate your pelvis slightly forward. If you put your hands on your hips, under your fingers is the portion of the iliac crest (anterior superior iliac spine). These hip points move slightly forward as the leg swings and prepares for footstrike. This hip drive provides propulsion;
  • Let your knee drive the leg forward with, as noted above, the footstrike about six inches in front of the body. The feet stay under the hips and the hips under the trunk, helping to maintain the body's center of balance;
  • Transfer your body weight evenly from one foot to another, making sure that only one foot is on the ground at a time. If both feet touch the ground together at any point, you may not be propelling yourself forward efficiently during toe-off;
  • during the toe-off and beginning of the swing-through phase, the leg must go past the body's front-to-back midline and behind the opposite leg. This, too, creates propulsion.

And finally, be aware that when your supporting muscles fatigue, form deteriorates. Consciously trying to maintain form during the late stages of a run or race is an important means to prevent injury. Conditioning all supporting muscles is vital to staving off fatigue itself, but it is not sufficient. Marathons and other longer races inevitably lead to fatigue and form deterioration, so visualizing and then willing yourself to adopt a smooth and proper running motion in later miles is a wise strategy to help keep form as optimal as possible.

Adapted from Run Strong, Chapter 7, “Aligning and Balancing the Body,” by Chris Chorak, PT, ATC, pp. 136-138, Kevin Beck, ed., 2005

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