By Rachael Colacino
As humans, we are always looking for improvement. And runners in particular — well we are a stubborn bunch. We want to improve in every way. We want to run faster, run farther, and all without pesky injuries that will sideline us and keep us from meeting our goals. But through all these chased goals, race finishing times, complicated training plans, and quests to find the perfect running shoe, rarely do we discuss the actual technique of running. How to run. How to run better so you can run faster and longer. And of course how to run without injury.
And that’s a pretty important place to start.
You’ve heard this cry before, a call to return to a more natural state for athletes and movement, and not just in the running world. But that idea of natural running does not mean running without instruction — it means best utilizing the laws of nature. Here’s how to do just that.
Step 1: Run Tall
Just like with all movement, running starts with good posture, and good posture starts with a solid and organized core. Squeeze your glutes to set your pelvis in a neutral position, and then pull your bellybutton toward your spine to stabilize your center. While running, maintain enough tension to keep your core organized, somewhere around 40 or 50% pressure.
Eyes should be forward, chin parallel to the ground, head neutral. This will not only keep your body in alignment, it will also ensure that you’re not blocking off airflow by tucking your chin as you look down. Pull your shoulder blades down toward your back pockets, spin your hands out, shoulders externally rotated. Again, this will not only keep you aligned but maximize oxygen to your lungs, a process that will be less effective if your shoulders are hunched forward.
Now pick up two dumbbells and run a mile. Just kidding. But still consider how you’d carry those dumbbells. Did you swing your arms wildly? Or did you hold them close to your body? Consider that when you’re running… your arms do indeed have weight, just like dumbbells. Keep them close to your body, use them for balance. Think of your arms as a counterbalance to your legs, helping you to unload the weight of your body with every step. They mimic what your legs are doing and must work together with that movement, not against it.
Step 2: May the Force be With You
Let’s go back for a moment to the concept of running with the laws of nature for maximum efficiency. Movement comes from the destruction of balance. What causes that movement is one of the strongest forces in the universe: gravity.
To access gravity, you must maintain your good posture from Step 1, and fall forward from your hips. That’s it. However, it is extremely important though that your body stays in alignment. Hips must be below your shoulders and above your ankles. If any link in that chain is out of alignment, you won’t be able to use gravity effectively. That fall forward is your gas pedal. The further forward you fall while maintaining good posture, the faster you’ll run.
Step 3: Avoid a) Falling Flat on Your Face! and b) Landing on Your Heel
Let’s talk now about the most active part of running. Up until now you’ve been holding your body in a static position while gravity does its work. Remember this is a controlled fall, and to avoid falling flat on your face you’re going to pull your foot off the ground as soon as it lands.
Think of your movement like a wheel in reference to contact points on the ground. What happens at that contact point determines how fast and how efficiently you’re moving. A wheel that’s fully inflated and therefore moving quickly has a single contact point with the ground. A wheel that’s deflated and moving less efficiently has a larger footprint on the ground. If you’re falling, moving fast, and landing underneath your body, you’ll keep moving quickly. On the other hand, if you land in front of a forward-moving body, you’ll slow it down or stop movement completely. That’s what happens when you heel strike. Focus instead on landing on the ball of your foot, underneath your hips.
With all this talk of landing, it’s tempting to focus on your feet while you’re running. Don’t. Instead, shift your focus to your hamstrings, one of the largest and most powerful muscle groups in your body. Focus on pulling your foot off the ground quickly every time you feel it touch the ground. The goal is to create less contact time, so pull your foot off the ground as quickly as possible.
Wearing shoes with padding and thick heels? Remember that cushioning is interfering with your body’s proprioception. By the time your brain registers that you’ve landed, it’s already too late. Try running in socks indoors or outside on a grassy or protected surface. Start out with 5 sets of 50m at a time, not for speed but for technique. Notice how your feet land, how mobile and supple (or not) your feet feel. You’ll always run faster in shoes because of the protection they provide from dangerous objects, but in addition to improving your mechanics, the best way to become a better runner is to strengthen your feet.
Step 4: Change How You Think About Cadence
Most of the time when runners discuss cadence, we’re talking stride rate or steps per minute. But with all our focus on pulling our feet off the ground, avoid thinking about strides or steps. Focus instead of the singular action of pulling your feet off the ground.
So how then does cadence come into play? The shorter the distance between where your feet land and the quicker your cadence, the faster and more efficiently you run. If your cadence is low, you have a long stride and are therefore more likely to be landing in front of your body. In the worst case, this means landing on a locked-out knee which not only slows you down, but will cause injuries over time as the impact of up to three times your body weight puts extra pressure on your muscles, bones and joints.
To practice running with a fast cadence, purchase a metronome or download a metronome app on your phone — there are many. Minimum recommended cadence is 180 pulls per minute. Start there, pulling each foot UP off the ground with your hamstrings every time you hear a beep. If the beeping is too distracting, set your metronome to half (in this case 90 beats per minute) and focus on one foot at a time so it’s easier to find the rhythm, switching every so often. Pull in place, then maintain good posture, break balance at your hips and fall forward to start your motion. Pull only as high as you need to stay on cadence.
Step 5: Bring Yourself Back
Meditation is the practice of bringing your mind back to focus when it starts to wander. What meditation isn’t is controlling your mind all day long every day. Same thing applies here with running technique. Your attention will wander but it’s all about bringing it back to the fundamentals.
As you run, remember that pain is our greatest teacher. Listen to the feedback from your body. Sharp acute pain is not normal under any circumstances, whether it happens during your run or after you are finished and your adrenaline has quieted. Listen to those pain signals and become curious about how to solve the pain pattern with changing your form rather than depending on pain meds or the latest icy hot concoction or even your physical therapist. You hold the ability to fix and heal your pain by simply listening to your body and making conscious changes to your form.
If this is your first exposure, start with the basics as we’ve outlined here. The difficulty is typically in maintaining posture and fast cadence as you start to fatigue. When you do start to feel tired, reset and bring yourself back to your good body position. Focus on using gravity by falling forward in an aligned position. And pull your feet off the ground as soon as they land. Repeat, over and over, until it becomes your natural way of running.