So you think you can run?

Of course you know how to run. It’s as natural and instinctive a behavior as walking, breathing or eating. Through years of diligent training you’ve developed into a serious runner with exceptional running form of which you are proud. Yet, not matter how close we are to the “ideal” form, there is always room for improvement. Even the most minor imbalance will become alarmingly apparent when we push our training beyond our norm, whether by increasing mileage, speed or experimenting with new terrain or footwear.

Over the past couple of weeks, a combination of increased mileage and footwear play (alright, when am I not exploring my barefoot and minimalist limits?) culminated in a cautionary threat of incipient tendonitis in my ankles. Although this may simply have been a classic case of too-much-too-soon, I’m convinced it was also a case of too-much-with-poor-form. Two patterns tipped me off to a likely biomechanical problem. First, the pain consistently appeared while running shod, during which I reliably get sloppy with my form, and subsided running barefoot. Second, the sites of tightness and weakness were asymmetrical, manifesting as left lateral and right medial ankle pain – an obvious warning of left-right imbalance.

Frustrated and terrified of a developing injury, I made an uncharacteristic and desperate move: I contacted a local running guru for a gait analysis and training session. I love my running community, but I have a bizarre aversion to running with others. And I hate taking running advice, adamant to tackle any obstacle through my own research and hard work. But in a rare flash of run-humility, I put my stubbornness aside and sought expert advice.

The session began with a video playback of myself running. I cringed as my mental image of my idyllic form was shattered. I bounced along, my legs reaching just in front of my body, feet landing somewhere between heel and midfoot. Oh the horror! I was over-striding and heel-striking! For over an hour I ran, marched, played with my posture, visualized butterflies and analyzed my footprints. I felt like a baby learning to walk and left both humbled and overwhelmed by the wealth of invaluable information.

In the hopes that I’ll retain these insights and that you, dear reader, might also reap their benefits, I’ve outlined below the five most valuable lessons from my training session. The featured video that follows illustrates a runner who beautifully integrates each of these elements into his impeccable form. I encourage you to watch along as you read.

1. High cadence. Although they are in fact unrelated, it’s easy to confuse cadence with speed. Cadence refers to your step frequency, which is independent of your speed. For example, you could run at the same speed with long, slow strides (low cadence) or fast, short strides (high cadence). Elite runners typically run with a cadence well over 180 steps per minute, which has become the standard  recommended minimum. Not only can a high cadence prevent over-striding, but emerging research suggests that it also reduces forces on muscles and joints, and hence minimizes injury risk.

2. No jumping! Try running in place. Now let me guess – are you hopping in place, jumping from one leg to the other? Running is essentially lifting your legs while moving forward (we’ll get to the forward motion part soon), so there’s actually no need to jump in order to run. Simply lift your knees up without jumping, and remember to keep that cadence high. As you march, note how your foot lands, the ball contacting the ground first, followed by the heel.

3. Ankle to shin. Now that you’re marching in place with a soft ball-to-heel landing, it’s time to think about the placement of your knees, ankles and feet. Focus on lifting your knees high, but be careful not to drive your foot out in front of you. Instead, as you lift and lower your right leg, imagine your right ankle sliding along the inside of your left shin, as a roller bearing glides along a rail. Your foot should remain directly under your hips throughout the cycle, not in front. This is key to preventing over striding, which we know makes us vulnerable to a range of injuries.

4. Up, up and away. So you’re marching away, knees high, fast cadence, feet beneath you. What do you hear? The sound of your feet smacking the ground? Aim for silence, your feet not striking, but rather, lifting off, the ground. Imagine your favorite bird, flying insect or aircraft (take your pick) hoisting you up from the top of your head. Your body elongates and elevates above the earth, your feet barely able to graze the ground. Each step makes you lighter and takes you higher.

5. Lean. You’re off and running with a light, quick, stride, legs cycling beneath you at 190 steps per minute … you’ve perfected your running form, except for one minor detail … you’re running at zero miles per hour. How do you move forward? Yes, your stride needs to lengthen, but you shouldn’t lengthen it. Let gravity do the work for you. As you march in place, lean forward ever so slightly. Don’t bend at the waist, but let yourself “fall” forward while maintaining an erect posture. As your center of mass shifts in front of you, gravity will propel you forward and suddenly, without trying, you’re running!

Video credit to Dr. Mark Cucuzzella of the Natural Running Center.

On your next run, I challenge you to focus on these tenets of mindful running. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come to you immediately, and definitely do not let it detract from the joy of your run. Stay relaxed and note any change that ensues as you make minor adjustments. Then report back. Is there one guideline that you find particularly beneficial? Do you have your own running form secrets to share? Please do! We may hate to admit it, but there’s always more to learn.

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2 thoughts on “So you think you can run?

  1. This was really informative! I just bought a pair of merrell minimalist shoes and have been trying to be more mindful of my form!

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