The idea that technique is essential for the simple act of running is finally starting to catch on. By maintaining a balanced center of gravity and maintaining a strong foot, you generate maximum propulsive force and minimize impact trauma with each stride. This allows you to transform from a rookie sloppy jogger to someone who looks and feels like an athlete. In this article, we dive into why we pay attention to running technique, with videos on how to improve running form with a few simple drills.
Runners and joggers of all ability levels jumped into the conversion around a post I wrote about proper running technique. I noticed quite a few comments and questions on the video along these lines:
Is trying to run like a deer — springing along with active feet — necessary and appropriate for a jogger?
Are these technique tips just the domain of sprinters?
Will I get “tired” trying to maintain the correct form as described for an entire marathon? Or should I just shuffle along to save energy?
Here is the deal. Executing proper technique is critical at all speeds and durations, for a two main reasons. First, you minimize impact trauma and obtain the best return on investment for whatever energy you muster to make forward progress. This applies whether you are running a marathon in two hours (like the superhuman Eulid Kipchoge), or four hours, or jog/walk for six hours.
Second, if you activate strong feet, you maximize the spring-like potential of the Achilles tendon, making that 26.2 mile journey much less arduous and far more enjoyable. Same for a 100-mile journey! Watch how Zach Bitter’s feet remain active and snappy for nearly 12 hours at his American record track run. Granted, the visual is completely different depending on how much impact force you generate with each stride.
Another example is Usain Bolt, who was discovered to generate over 1,000 pounds at impact, while a casual jogger might impact the ground at forces of only 1.5-3x bodyweight. The jogger’s stride pattern will be a scaled down version of Bolt’s powerful stride down the track lane, where he covered nine feet, eight inches (2.95 meters) per stride!
We have a natural inclination to try and advance the body forward while running. However, correct technique entails applying force directly into the ground upon each stride, allowing the spring-like effect of a proper landing to propel us forward naturally. This is akin to the high jumper’s challenge: instead of following the natural inclination to try and jump right over the bar and into the pit, correct technique entails jumping straight up into the air and allowing the angular momentum from the curved approach to catapult the jumper up and over the bar. That’s how you jump two feet over your own head like the legendary Stefan Holm.
How to Improve Running Form: 3 Steps to Untraining Bad Habits and Retraining Proper Form
Christopher Smith is the greatest Speedgolfer of all-time, renowned PGA teaching professional, and an expert in advanced motor learning methods for athletic performance. He asserts that the following three elements give you the best chance of unwinding, modifying, and improving dysfunctional habit patterns and ingraining new ones:
Slow Down: Execute the desired technique corrections at a slower speed and/or less load than normal. Your mind/body system will be better able to feel the modifications at a lesser speed, creating your own personal internal model.
Eliminate pressure, anxiety, and stress (and the accompanying expectations), so you can practice new motions without fear of failure.
Cognitive engagement and brain assimilation: This is where drills are so valuable. Drills help hard-wire good technique into your central nervous system. The technical term for this is “myelinate”—encasing your nerve endings in a protective coating so they become adept at firing in the correct pattern repeatedly. Sloppy, repetitive training of old habits will simply reinforce the old habits.
Improved Running Form is Yours to Keep
What’s difficult for many runners is to reprogram the neural patterns that you are familiar with for something new. Retraining new movements feels awkward and unnatural at first, until your body realizes that the new way is much more safe and efficient.
For these reasons, I emphasized the point on the video that there is no turning back once you learn good technique. Even when you are innocently jogging for warm up, you need to maintain that strong foot so your brain will remember when it’s time to speed up. So when you are out there running, turn down the earbuds and concentrate on new movement patterns until they become automatic.
Perform drills as often as possible—at least a few of them every time you run. The following drills require you to exaggerate various elements of good technique so that they flow beautifully when you put everything together and start running. These are very challenging moves that our master filmmaker Brian McAndrew and I have segmented into an “Intermediate” video and “Advanced” video. That’s right, there are no easy drills! These running drills are especially valuable if you’re a beginner – you’ll train proper form from the get-go, before you’ve taken on habits that don’t do you any favors.
Focus on Quality Over Quantity for Effective Running Drills
It’s of paramount importance that you execute the drills perfectly from start to finish. If you experience even the slightest bit of fatigue causing your form to waver, stop the drill, jog it out and end the workout. For example, notice on the advanced video’s bicycle drill how I land straight up and down every time, balanced over my center of gravity just like when running. Hey man, that’s the beauty of having multiple takes on the set! In real life, it’s easy to over or under rotate on the bicycle move such that you land with your spine angled backward, behind your center of gravity (too early) or with spine angled forward, in front of your center of gravity (too late)—particularly when you get tired or distracted (e.g., while jabbering into the lavalier mic to make a video.) When this happens, you will feel a jarring sensation in your legs or spine that is not pleasant and potentially injurious.
Please enjoy each video a couple times at home to really study the impact positions and technique tips before you go out and attempt them. I’ve added a few more helpful comments for each drill as follows:
Running Form Drills – Intermediate Drills To Improve Technique and Protect Against Injury
High heel, high toe
This is the bread and butter of the running drill world! It’s not that strenuous and very scalable as you get fitter. Once you get some experience, you can try to get those extra few inches of knee height and work those hip flexors; this is a muscle group that gets so terribly compromised when you sit at a desk for hours. When I’m feeling my best, I’ll try to hold the high knee position for an extra beat to enhance the degree of difficulty.
High Heel, High Toe (aka Buttkickers)
Don’t worry about forward progress, just focus on getting the heels up to your butt. You can easily do this drill in place at your cubicle. Did you know that one of the greatest human running machines of all time, Walter George, did a bunch of his training running in place while working at a print shop? This old-time legend destroyed the world record in the mile in 1886 with a stunning 4:12, in a match race that was witnessed by 30,000 screaming fans betting heavily on the outcome. This time held as the world standard for an astonishing 30 years.
Stand tall throughout and notice the huge penalty when your bodyweight collapses even a smidge into the ground, instead of preserving the spring potential of the Achilles.
Advanced Running Form Drills – Advanced Drills To Improve Technique and Protect Against Injury
Keep that dead leg ramrod-straight and try to get the toe to gently brush along the ground. It’s easy to lose focus and have the dead leg start to participate unwittingly with a little knee bend, then a little more knee bend. The drill really does wonders when the leg is completely straight.
Start gently with miniature pedal revolutions until you get the hang of it. Go ahead and skip a few potential takeoffs to make sure that every single takeoff is executed perfectly and landed perfectly. Oh boy, is it fun when you can get into the rhythm of taking off on opposite legs with no break. A stint of these is as tough as blasting a real live 10-20 second sprint.
Here’s another drill that is really scalable. You can start without even leaving the ground and executing the motion while walking as demonstrated. Your hamstrings are often the last muscle group to become really resilient and adapted to sprinting. Okay, the calves get a vote, too (That’s why you’ve got to watch the calf stretch/heal plantar fasciitis video).
As with the hip flexors, your hamstrings get traumatized by sitting in a chair all day. When asked to become a prominent source of power for the running human weekend warrior, it’s no wonder the hammy strains and tears are one of the most common athletic injuries. I enthusiastically recommend doing a few kickouts at the end of every single workout you conduct to keep them strong and flexible! I also do them at airport gates and rental car check-in counters to keep the hammies happy.
Who knew that putting the engine in reverse could be the single best trigger for optimal sprinting technique? Just shift back into drive and carry on with the same technique attributes in place: high knee, high heel, and dorsiflexed foot.
We talk so much about the importance of sprinting in the Primal Blueprint, and these drills can stand alone as an effective sprint workout before you even unleash your first proper sprint. Truth be told, I required several days of recovery after filming because we were out there for quite a bit longer than my average sprint session. All in tireless devotion to bring you some awesome drills that will spice up your sprint workouts, improve your technique, and help you become more resilient against injury.
You can pick and choose your favorite drills and intersperse them into workouts frequently, or go through the complete cycle once in a while for an excellent high intensity workout. You can even choose a few to work on for a few minutes here and there as microworkouts.
Enjoy these drills and make up some new ones if you wish! Don’t overdo it at one session to the point of technique breakdown, but do a sampling of them every time you finish a run workout or have a break at the gate before your connecting flight. Thanks for reading, and let me know if you notice changes in your running efficiency.