How’s my running form?

Just like 12 musical notes can create an infinite number of songs, the infinite variables in your running stride (height, hip height, joint mobility, muscle length) combine to give you a stride unlike any other.

You’re unique.  You’re special.  No one runs quite like you.  Honestly.

Thankfully though there are some commonalities to good running form; so no matter how much your stride resembles a cat playing a piano right now, we can tighten things up and get that piano in tune.  Let’s take it from The top.

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First let’s establish a definition of good running form.  These are my 5 basic bullet points.

  1. Around 90 strides a minute (on one leg).
  2. Foot lands softly underneath you and propels you forward.
  3. You run quietly.
  4. Stride is basically circular (legs recreate the wheel).
  5. You run tall.

Cover those bases and you’re in good shape.  Here’s why:

1- 90 strides a minute

I taught a running class at a local gym.  I’d begin each class like this:

‘Alright everybody, we’re going to do a :10 stride count.  When I say go I want you to count how many times your right foot strikes.’

Aaaaand Go.

We’d count.

I didn’t tell anyone how many strides they should be shooting for.  I wanted them to run naturally, not perform for the sake of the drill.

What did I learn?

Most people would count out about 15 strides.

15 strides in :10 (x 6)= 90 strides a minute.

90 strides a minute (one leg)= solid running form.

Wait a second!  You said earlier that people have different leg lengths…

Different hip heights…

Some people over-pronate.  Some under-pronate…

How is 90 strides a minute going to cover all of these different body types?

Because Jack Daniel’s said so.

Not thaaaat Jack Daniels.

Legendary running coach Jack Daniels.

Who is that Jack Daniels?

Only the author of my favorite book on training runners.  The Daniel’s Running Formula is a great book that every serious/moderately serious runner should read.  I used the program in the back of this book back in college to get into the best shape of my life.

Here’s what he wrote about 90 strides a minute (It’s so good I’ll just quote it):

“During the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, my wife and I spent every day of the running events counting different runners’ stride frequency, often several times for the same runner, during prelims and finals and also early and late in the same race. In all we examined about 50 runners, both male and female and in events from the 800 to the marathon. Of all the runners evaluated, only one took fewer than 180 steps per minute…

In our lab one time, I tested an Olympic gold medalist in the marathon. At a 7-minute-per-mile pace, the rate was 184; at a 6-minute pace, it moved up to 186; and at a 5-minute pace, it moved up to 190. This represented a 16.5 percent increase in running speed and a 3 percent increase in rate. It is quite clear that runners seem most comfortable with a particular rhythm, and that rhythm varies little as they change stride length to increase speed during different races…

Solid running form means your foot strikes underneath you.  One reason I strongly emphasize trying to run with a stride rate around 180 steps per minute is to minimize the landing shock associated with running. Keep in mind that the slower the leg turnover, the more time you are spending in the air; the more time you spend in the air, the higher you are elevating your body mass; and the higher you elevate body mass, the harder you hit the ground on the next landing. Believe me, it is during the impact associated with hitting the ground that many little injuries occur.’

This is why we also want to (2) Run Softly.

The harder your feet strike the floor the louder the noise they will make.  That’s why we want to (3) Run Quietly.  2 and 3 are different sides to the same coin.

I did a whole blog (link here) on how running on the treadmill can effectively diagnose an inefficient stride.  How?  Because the treadmill will amplify a LOUD footfall.  You can hear bad running form on a treadmill.

More words from Dr. Jack on efficient strides:

‘So, how do you minimize landing shock when running? A simple way of explaining it is to pretend you are rolling over the ground rather than bounding from foot to foot. Try to avoid placing each foot out in front of yourself, which often acts as a breaking action, increasing the impact force as you go from one foot to the other. Try to have your feet land closer back, toward your center of gravity, so your body is floating (or rolling) over your feet. you and propels you forward.  Usually this happens when you run at 90 strides or more.’

 The runner on the left side is putting on the breaks.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way- there is nothing wrong with more than 90 strides a minute.

There is nothing wrong with fewer than 90 strides.

I taught this class for about 18 months, and in the time I only had 3 people who were consistently under 90.  The lowest recorded was 84, and he was arguably the 2nd fastest guy to take the class.

Like I said- you should be around 90.  A little less, a little more, you’ll be okay.

But if you’re around 90 and hitting the ground HARD.

Or LOUD.

Then shorten your stride, spend less time in the air and run lighter.  Run quieter.

I would often secretly count runner’s strides during class, when they weren’t aware that I was counting.  This would give me a more authentic stride count because the minute I tell people to count strides they focus and (I thought) performed a little.

Asking them to count, I thought, is like telling someone to act natural.

Turns out I was wrong.  If you ran 90 while you were ‘acting natural’ you usually ran 90 while just running (not overthinking it).

Moving on (4) An efficient running stride resembles a wheel.

This is logical.  The wheel is, according to physics, the most efficient way to move forward.

I’ll never forget being in a Z Health seminar being led by Dr. Eric Cobb (he’s up there with Jack Daniels on my list of fitness giants) where he said something that has stuck with me (I’m paraphrasing below):

‘To understand great movement I studied the movement of athletes who performed at the top of their sports for over ten years.’

Why only the best athletes?  Because to play at the top level, you must move well.

Why ten years of performance?  Because longevity is further proof that they are moving efficiently.

So he only looked at the best of the best.

And what did he find?

That great athletes move in arches, not angles.

From the R phase manual:

‘look for arches vs. angles in the human body.  Curving arches or arcs of motion that engage all the joints of the moving area are efficient.  Angles, on the other hand, usually indicate a loss of mobility in a joint or in a series of joints that are important to the motion.’

Arches (like wheels and circles).  Fluid.  Efficient.  Not wearing down on the joints or muscles with injury or inefficiency.  This is how the best athletes move.

Here’s a life lesson for you: Mimic the best whenever you can.  I know I’ll never run like Bolt, or Pre, or Rupp, but I should at least aspire to run like them.  So should you.

And that brings us to (5) Run tall.

Most people run efficiently early on (hence the good stride count on just about every runner).

And then fatigue happens.

And fatigue leads to threat posture.

And threat posture leads to bad form.

What’s threat posture?

It starts with fatigue.  When you tire you get stressed out.  When your body experiences stress 2 things will happen:

  1. Your body flexes.
  2. Your body adducts.

In plain speak: your shoulders and hips round forward and in.  Your body seeks out the fetal position. Hard parts protect soft parts. the runner above illustrates threat posture, as do the fans below (except for the 2 Father of the year candidates on the bottom left) is in threat posture.

This is your body’s reaction to physical and mental stress.  Flexion (folding at the hips) and adduction (shoulders and legs round in).  You instinctively cover your most important parts (face, brain, heart) with some of your hardest parts.

You can’t run efficiently when in this posture.  The head drops, shoulders round forward, the spine sags, and the hips tighten (so you run with your butt sticking out).  You tire and you lose your powerful posture.

Let’s run tall instead.  The taller you run the less you inhibit your own stride.  Your movement is free and fluid.

This TED talk illustrates how our posture dictates our attitude.  If we create great posture then our attitude will follow suit.

Run tall.  Shoulders back, hips tucked under you.  Think positive, and when your mindset starts to slip, fix your posture.  When your posture starts to slip, fix your mindset.

And  now that you know all of that, what next?

Alright.  It’s one of those beautiful days, not a cloud in the sky, the air is crisp, the thermometer is in the magic zone between 50 and 65.  Your gear is on.  You are swearing to yourself that today you’re going to run with the best form?  This time you’re going to do it all right.  You’re gonna run tall, and quiet, and soft.

But then you get distracted by your watch, you get thirsty, or you stop to check for traffic.

You stop thinking about your running form.

And then you remember :10 minutes later that you were going to focus on form.  Shit!  Refocus!

And then you see a cute runner, or a funny shaped cloud, or you wonder how far you’ve gone.  Another :10 goes by and you haven’t focused on your form.

I’ve forgotten more info about good running form than most people care to read and sometimes my form still sucks.  Because let’s face it: you get tired, distracted, you run on uneven surfaces, or you get a calf cramp.  All of that knowledge goes out the window because realistically you can’t focus on running form for more than 100 meters.  I’ve tried.  So what do we do then?

1- You know the basics now.  Schedule some form checks.  Every time your watch clicks off a mile focus on the 5 bullet points for as long as you can.  Then don’t worry about it.

I’ll often do a stride count when I’m struggling.

2- Run a lot.  I talk a lot about the SAID principle, i.e. the body Specifically Adapts to Imposed Demands.  By running more you force your body to adapt to running more.  You will become a more efficient runner by running more.

Rocket science this is not.

3- Run fast.  SAID principle back in action.  Fast running must be efficient.  Speed doesn’t allow for poor mechanics.  Speed streamlines everything.  Your body is pretty smart- it will iron out many of your inefficiencies when tasked with running fast.

Schedule in some interval training or hill runs.  The more you do this the more your body will adapt to make you faster (SAID principle).  These intervals don’t have to be long.

4- Mobilize your joints.  Jammed joints create global weakness and instability.  One day I’ll do an entire blog on this, but for now trust me when I say that opening your joints is important and not that difficult to do.  Most important is to open up the joints in your feet.  Here’s a short video I did on opening them up:

And finally attitude creates posture and posture creates attitude.  So…

5- RUN TALL

You know why.

When you have tall posture you feel great.

When you feel great you run great.

But seriously… sometimes running sucks.  When it sucks you’ve got to get tough.  Don’t grit your teeth or punch your chest or other stuff that is stereotypically “tough”.

The toughest thing you can do is remain upbeat and positive when you don’t want to.

Remember that life is great.

You’re not running for your life.

You’re running for a goal!  Or to keep yourself fit.  Or to manage your stress.

I know, I know, I know… running can be a challenge.

And boring.

But every now and then you take a deep breath.  Have a look around.  Enjoy the view.

You may just find yourself standing a little taller, light on your feet (quiet), with an elliptical stride (90/min).

And in that moment you may ask yourself, ‘How great is it to be me?’