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How to run properly: Running form and technique for beginners

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A common question I get from beginner runners who are looking to improve their form and technique is how to run properly.

Many beginner runners don’t think about their running form and technique when they start running. After all, running is so freeing – the temptation is just to set off without a care in the world.

Whilst this is completely fine to begin with, over time as you clock up the miles you may want to give more thought to your running form and technique. If done incorrectly, incorrect or improper running form can slowly cause imbalances in your muscles and put you at higher risk of injury.

In this guide we’ll explore:

  • Why running form and technique is so important
  • Why ‘changing’ your running form and technique may not be the best idea
  • The best ways to improve your running form

We’ll also explore how to run properly and the key components of proper running form and how they can benefit you and your running in the long term. These include:

  • What good running posture looks like
  • The importance of proper arm swing
  • Why your footstrike matters
  • Why running cadence is one of the simplest parts of running form to master
  • The importance of good core strength
  • How to breathe when running

Why is running form and technique so important?

According to a 2017 study, running technique is a key component of running economy and performance. Many components from running form to footstrike and breathing come together to create optimal running form and technique.

Running form and technique is so important because it encourages better movement patterns and muscle recruitment. This in turn will help you run more efficiently and reduce the risk of fatigue and overuse injuries like IT band syndrome and runner’s knee.

Form and technique is particularly important for runners who run long distance or who run more frequently.

Related: 4 simple tips to improve running form

Can I change my running form and technique?

There are very few scenarios in which you should actively change your running technique. After all, everyone runs differently and each runner has their own biomechanics and body structure which determines how they run.

Factors such as age, gender, weight and injury and medical history will be determining factors in terms of how you run.

That said, there’s no harm in learning about good running form and practicing various drills and techniques to help you implement small changes to improve your running form over time.

Related: The essential guide to head to toe running form and technique

What are the best ways to improve my running form and technique?

One of the best and most simplest ways to improve your running form and technique is to practice running drills.

Running drills are essentially dynamic exercises that focus on running technique and help you develop the technical skills and proper movement patterns needed for running. They also help to strengthen the muscles and joints needed for strong, fast and less injury-prone running.

Drills can be done as part of a warm-up before a run, race or speed workout. You can also do them as part of a standalone session if you really want to hone in on a particular technique or skill.

Aim to do running drills at least twice a week in order to reap the benefits. As with most things running-related, the more consistent you are, the better the results will be.

Related: How to warm up before a run: 4 actionable tips

Which running drills should I be doing to improve my running form?

When considering which running drills to do, make sure these align with your specific goals and needs. For example, if you struggle to lift your knees during a speed session, focus on running drills like high knees and carioca that get you into the habit of lifting your knees.

Likewise, if you suffer with lazy glutes, running drills that target and activate the glutes like A-skips and straight-leg bounds will be beneficial for you to complete before a run.

Although you can choose to complete a variety of running drills, they are much more effective when used to address certain movements or skills that you’d like to improve or work on.

Related: 7 essential running drills to improve form and performance

how to run properly

How to run properly: Posture

Good posture involves you training your body to walk and run, and indeed sit and lie, in a certain way. Positions where the least strain is placed on joints, supporting muscles and ligaments during movement are best.

Good posture when running is key to ensure you don’t create imbalances in your muscles, which often lead to injuries.

For many of us, sitting behind a desk all day creates bad posture habits. The tendency is to hunch over, lower your shoulders and head.

A simple way to mimic good posture is to stand up tall and imagine you have a rod from the top of your head going all the way down to your feet. The rod starts at your ears then passes through your shoulders, hips, knees and ankles all in a straight line.

See how much better this feels?

Good posture when running is about the following elements:

  • Keep your chin lifted
  • Stand up straight with your shoulders back and neutral spine
  • Keep your hips high, distributing your weight evenly on both hips
  • Squeeze your belly button and imagine it’s trying to reach your spine
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor
  • Try not to look at the ground when running – keep your gaze upright and forward

When I work with beginner runners, I ask them to imagine they have a helium balloon attached to their head with a piece of string.

They lift their chin and move their shoulders back. It’s amazing what these small changes can do to someone’s running form.

You’ll find that once you start to raise your hips, the other parts of your body, including your chest and shoulders, will also straighten up.

Related: 4 simple ways to improve your running form

How to run properly: Arm swing

Although running predominantly uses your legs to power you through, your arms also play an important role.

How you hold and swing your arms makes a big difference to your stride and performance. Good arm swing can help you run faster, more efficiently and even lower your risk of injury as well as help stabilise your body.

There is an easy way to see just how important your arm swing is and how it can affect your overall rhythm.

Run with your arms relaxed down by your sides. You’ll notice that this creates additional work for your back, hips and legs and also makes running feel really uncomfortable!

Arm swing helps propel you forward (especially during faster runs) and lift your body off the ground with each stride.

The key is to keep your arms by your sides and try and not let them cross your body. If you let your arms cross your body too much, it will cause rotation in your spine and thorax and will create inefficient running form.

Here are a few simple tips to perfect your arm swing:

  • Drive your elbows back
  • Keep them close to the sides of your body
  • Keep them relaxed to avoid stiffness in your shoulders
  • Remember to keep your elbows at a 90 degree angle – try not to straighten them out too much
  • Don’t have them too bent either as this will affect your form and how you propel your body forward

It may feel strange at first, but slowly but surely it will soon become second nature.

Related: Proper arm swing and 5 ways to improve it

how to run properly

How to run properly: Footstrike

The way your foot hits the ground (also called ‘footstrike’) is important when it comes to good running form. Your footstrike falls into one of three categories:

  • Heel footstrike
  • Forefoot footstrike
  • Mid-foot footstrike

There isn’t a clear favourite in the running community, mainly because all three footstrike types can be used in different ways and on different terrains.

Many runners will also use all three footstrikes in one form or another throughout their running life. This is partly due to the reasons stated above, and the fact that we all have different biomechanics (your body’s natural mechanisms).

Heel footstrike is probably the most common amongst runners, whereas mid-foot footstrike is most the most preferred as it distributes your weight more evenly throughout the foot and ankle.

Related: Proper running footstrike and ways to improve it

How to run properly: Cadence

Running cadence is probably one of the simplest things to master when it comes to proper running form.

Put simply, cadence – also known as stride rate – is the number of steps a runner takes per minute (SPM). It plays an important role when it comes to proper running form, and has even been shown to reduce the risk of injury in runners.

The correct cadence varies amongst runners and depends on factors like height and weight of the runner. Studies have shown, however, that a cadence of 170 SPM or higher is ideal for performance and injury prevention.

Related: 4 simple ways to improve running cadence

How to run properly: Core strength

Your core is extremely important when running. A good core means you are able to hold a strong and stable position for longer, thus allowing you hold proper form and posture.

Your back and stomach muscles are key components for good core strength. Unfortunately, running alone won’t improve your core strength, you need to dabble in strength exercises as well as running to really see results.

There are lots of core strength exercises you can do to improve your core strength.

Here are just a few that I recommend:

Hollow body hold

  1. Lie flat on the floor. Your lower back should be touching the floor without any space in between.

  2. Bring your knees to your chest and lift your head and shoulders off the floor.

  3. Reach your arms forward so they are straight in line with your toes. Don’t let your lower back arch off the ground.

  4. Hold this position for 30 seconds.

Once you are comfortable with that position, work towards extending both arms back over your head and both legs at an upward angle in front of you.

Keep your tummy and legs tight in a curved formation. Again, don’t let your lower back come off the floor.

Hold for 30 seconds, or as long as you want as you become stronger.

Plank

Probably one of the most popular core strength exercises, depending on who you ask!

The plank is a great all round exercise that can improve your core strength hugely over time if practiced regularly.

Even better, it requires no equipment and there are lots of variations on the standard plank if you like to mix things up a bit.

  1. Place your forearms on the ground with your elbows aligned below the shoulders, and arms parallel to the body at about shoulder-width distance.

  2. Clasp your hands together.

  3. Ground your toes into the floor and squeeze your glutes to stabilise your body. Be careful not to lock or hyperextend your knees.

  4. Neutralise your neck and spine by looking at a spot on the floor just beyond your hands. Your head should be in line with your back.

  5. Hold the position for 30 seconds. As you get more comfortable with the move, gradually increase the time in which you hold the plank.

Many people forget to breathe when they do a plank, so make sure you are taking slow and steady breaths.

And try not to lift your bum too high in the air.

Your bum should be in line with your shoulder girdle. If a forearm plank is too challenging for you, you can try a knee plank.

By resting your knees on the floor, you create less stress in the lower back.

Superman pull

Superman pulls target your lower back and are great if you suffer from lower back pain.

  1. Lie face down on the floor and reach your arms forward and straighten your legs (like a superman in flight pose).

  2. Engage your lower back and shoulders and raise your chest and arms off the floor. Your legs should be off the floor at this point too.

  3. From here, engage your latissimus dorsi muscle (either side of your upper back) and draw your elbows in towards your chest like you’re doing a pull up.

  4. Extend your arms in front of you again.

Repeat 12 times and do 3 sets with 30 seconds of rest in between.

how to run properly

How to run properly: Breathing

Breathing when running can be difficult when you think too much about it. However, it is a lot easier to breathe deeply when you have good running form and posture.

You may have already heard of ‘belly breathing’ . This is a breathing technique that involves taking deep breaths and using the diaphragm a lot more to draw more air into your lungs.

Many runners take short breaths and therefore underuse their diaphragm. When you take short breaths, you rely too much on your chest muscles and therefore take in less oxygen.

You also underuse your intercostal muscles (the muscles in between your ribs) so they become smaller and quick to fatigue.

It’s important to strengthen these so they can fully support the breathing process.

To train yourself to breathe from your belly, practice belly breathing lying down, sitting down and standing up.

  1. Lie down on your back and keep your upper chest and shoulders still.
  2. Focus on raising your belly as you inhale, lower your belly as you exhale.
  3. Inhale and exhale through BOTH your nose and mouth.

General health advice out there is that you should breathe from your diaphragm at all times, whether you’re running, walking or sleeping.

If you practice yoga, you’re probably used to breathing deeply anyway.

Breathing deeply is a great way to relieve stress and anxiety symptoms, so what better way to start!

Related: How to breathe when running

More tips on running form and posture:

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Steven Booth

Saturday 28th of November 2020

Good post. The only thing I would disagree with is knee lift. What you describe is what sprinters need rather than distance runners. The way I describe a correct running action is to drive back with your thigh muscles and let your foot fall back to the ground slightly in front landing on the front of your foot .. Landing on your heel is a no no, that's for walkers not runners. Pity your photo shows a heel striker.

Amy

Tuesday 31st of March 2020

Hey! Thanks so much for this post. I found it through Pinterest I believe. I applied it to my run today, and I really think it helped. And even though I don't know if it's why, I went even longer than I was supposed to run for—victory! So happy. I am a beginner runner, and I literally have only gone running twice now, but oh my goodness, I love it. It's hard, but I feel like it's something I can push myself in, and also just use what I know is in me towards something good. Thanks so much! Have a wonderful day, and if I find a subscribe button on your blog, I'll hit it. :) God bless. -Amy

Run With Caroline

Thursday 2nd of April 2020

Hi Amy! Glad you found my post useful! And even better you're now a runner! Congrats! I wish you all the best on your running journey :)