Over 5 million Aussies choose to run for exercise. Most choose to for the health benefits, affordability and convenience but then there are some that just love to run. Crazily, 50-70% of runners will get injured every year. Mastering your running technique is the best way to reduce your injury risk. However, if you Google ‘What is the best running technique?’ I bet you’ll be overrun with information (pun intended). Each google hit will grab your attention by telling you that their technique is flawless and that it will elevate your performance and/or allow you to run pain-free. You’ve probably heard of the heavily marketed running styles such as ChiRunning, Pose-Method, Natural Running or Barefoot Running. If not, then I’m sure you’ve had your attention hijacked at a library or bookstore by some bold typeface on a book about running. They are all so technical and sound so different… Believe me, it’s bloody confusing! To help you out, I thought I would sum up the majority of running techniques into 3 key principles. Plus, I’ll also mention 2 key principles that they are all missing.
Despite their similarities, if you line up the common running methods there are some key differences that I thought would be good to explain. These are easy to pick out. For example, ChiRunning focuses on Eastern Chinese philosophy which highlights the spiritual and mental aspects of running. While all the rest focus on physiological aspects of running such as biomechanics. Another interesting variance between these methods is around the momentum driver behind running. Chi and Pose-methods rely on gravity while Natural, Barefoot and practically every book I’ve read about running focuses on the energy transfers through the body’s soft tissue. Now, these are some fairly massive variances but as I mentioned they all have similar elements. These elements mostly relate to reducing your injury risk while running and improving your economy (the effort required to run at a given speed). Mastering your CADENCE, POSTURE and STABILITY practically summarises every video, article, method or book that’s out there to improve running form. And it’s no wonder because these are the 3 most important principles to focus on while running.
So how do I use posture to improve my running? Here’s the lowdown, essentially, you want to run tall with an upright posture and a slight forward lean. Keep your gaze forward and don’t tilt your chin up or down (yes, even when you’re knackered). Your shoulders should gently rotate forwards and swing naturally during each step. You should hold your arms at a 90-degree angle and try to keep your elbows close to your hips as you run. Try to avoid having your hands cross the midline of your body as this will disrupt your momentum as you run. A tip is to keep your elbows close to your side and have your thumbs towards the sky. Your foot should land toward the midline of your body.
What’s the go with stability then? Stability is all about your neuro-muscular system. This needs to have the capacity to withstand the demands of running. It must be strong and well balanced to achieve good running form. There are two key muscle groups that are super important with running. They are your core and your calf. The core muscle group includes your abs, glutes and back muscles. Having a strong and tight core will allow for the best energy transfer during each step. This will also prevent you from a back-set, head-forward or side-to-side posture while running. Having strong glutes specifically will also reduce your risk of developing a hip-dip (Contralateral Pelvic Drop) which is the strongest risk factor for a running-related injury (read more about this here). The calf is made up of two main muscles, the soleus and the gastrocnemius. Most people I treat aren’t aware of the soleus muscle, let alone its importance in running. Studies show that this muscle pushes as much as 6.5-8 times your body weight during each step. You wonder why your ankles are so stiff after a long run. The bottom line is you need to strengthen your neuromuscular system to achieve a stable system. That’s why completing a strength program specifically tailored to running is important (Read about it here).
What about cadence? If you can get your cadence right your running biomechanics should sort themselves out. There are 3 foot-strike patterns. Heel, midfoot or forefoot strike patterns. Heel striking is really common. So common that shoe companies have developed softer and more padded shoes to cushion the blow a bit. (I guess it’s the shoe’s fault that you get injured then right?… wrong.) When you heel-strike you are literally pumping the brakes as you run. This also causes you to bop up and down as you run. It’s a dead giveaway for an under-strider and is typically seen when your cadence is too low (around <160 steps/min). Having a low cadence isn’t ideal for performance as your running economy will take a hit. What’s more alarming is that you will also have more chance of developing a knee, hip and lower back injury.
Aiming for a cadence around the 170-180 steps/min mark will improve your running economy and reduce running-related injuries. This may be because as we increase our cadence to the magical 180 steps/min we naturally move to a mid-foot strike pattern, shorten our step length and reduce our ground contact time. This is all technique gibberish but essentially you’re less likely to achieve a braking force while running. You know what that eliminates. Yep, say goodbye to your bop. It’s important to mention that increasing your cadence too quickly towards 180steps/min may lead to injury. So it’s best to slowly build cadence by 5% at any given time.
That’s basically a summary of every running method simplified by 3 key principles…
So now it’s time to introduce the 2 they all missed.
Stop. Now slowly breathe in through your nose. I bet that breathing is the last thing that you thought I was going to mention here. It’s actually more important than you think. When people are thinking of ways to improve their running performance, they tend to look at something like a smartwatch, shoes or supplements. Tuning into your breath will help boost your performance, improve your recovery and generally will make your runs more enjoyable. One of the most common mistakes that people make is they breathe through their mouth instead of their nose. Breathing through our nose helps to filter and humidify the air we breathe. It also delivers nitric oxide, which is found in our nostrils, to our lungs. This chemical makes our blood vessels widen. All of this allows for gas exchange to occur more rapidly within our lungs. Nose breathing also encourages a belly (diaphragmatic) breathing pattern. Not only is this a more efficient way of breathing but it increases your intraabdominal (abdomen) pressure which can help to stabilise your core/trunk muscles. Notice the link here?
Controlling your breathing rhythm can help to reduce your work of breathing and balance the load evenly across your body. Ideally, you should find a pattern that suits you. I find that a 3:2 ratio is a great starting point for long-distance running. Inhaling for 3 seconds and then exhaling for 2 seconds. The tip here is to alternate your exhale between when your right and left leg hits the ground. This will allow for even loading throughout your body throughout your run. Aim for around 12 breaths per minute and you should be mastering your cadence. If you’re interested in learning more about how breathing can boost your performance, then click here.
Predictable heartbeats are used to diagnose heart disease. Predictable breathing rates are used to diagnose lung disease. Predictable brain waves are used to diagnose seizures. Our body must be able to adapt and move effortlessly between extremes. A low heart rate variability can be used to diagnose athletes who have overtrained. Ever wonder why you have hit a plateau in your running times or how many repetitions you can do in the gym? It’s most likely to do with your predictable programming. Variation is one of the five key principles of training and is an overarching principle of achieving good running technique and reducing your injury risk. It crosses into things such as the frequency, intensity, time and type of training you do. It even encompasses nuances such as shoe rotation and what you eat. Incorporating a threshold run and some intervals into your weekly program will test the body’s different energy systems. Incorporating a good strength and mobility program as well as some cross-training will allow for your body to adapt. Find out more here.
Let’s sum it all up
Basically, the methods on how to perfect your running technique are all repackaging the same stuff…
If you master your Posture, Stability and Cadence you will tick off any running method there.
By also mastering your Breathing and Variability you’ll unlock your full running potential.
Consistently nailing all 5 of these principles will allow you to run faster, for longer and with fewer injuries!