Running is the most simple and straightforward of fitness activities, so we generally don’t pay much attention to learning and refining proper running form. Consequently, there’s a widespread problem of joggers and runners with extremely inefficient technique that can lead to slower times and increased risk for injury.
Unfortunately, when you plod along at a jogging pace, the penalty for inefficient running form and lack of explosiveness is minimal. In contrast, when you sprint, you try to generate maximum explosive force with each footstrike, so even the slightest technique inefficiency or wasted motion delivers a severe performance penalty. Sprinting, Primal Blueprint Law #5, is a great way to clean up technique errors and drift in the direction of proper running form.
Here, we’ll break down the components of proper running form. If you struggle with some of the technical explanations, watch the technique instruction video to help you grasp the concepts.
The Fundamentals of Proper Running Form
The basics of proper running form are pretty simple: Your body should be in stable position with your center of gravity balanced over your feet at all times. The classic image you see on trophies or in clip art of a runner with legs extended way behind or in front of the body represent egregious technique errors.
Instead, check out this slow motion video of the greatest sprinter of all-time, Usain Bolt. Wait until the sprinters get up to speed and are standing tall, then notice how Bolt and the other sprinters preserve straight and elongated spines at all times. Their feet land right underneath their bodies with every stride. The sprinters never lurch forward unless they’re diving for the finish line tape!
Proper Running Form: Like Riding a Bike?
The illusion that you must run forward—extending your legs or torso forward to cover ground—leads to overstriding at all speeds. If you alter the position of your torso relative to your moving legs, you’ll have a significant energy cost to recalibrate for the next stride.
Instead of trying to cover huge chunks of ground with forward-lurching efforts, envision running like you pedal a bicycle: Your upper body is upright and stationary (like sitting upward on the bike seat); feet cranking the pedals in a smooth circle, then feet returning to the same position under the seat with every revolution.
For the most efficient energy transfer on each stride, focus on getting your feet onto the ground and off the ground as fast as possible—as you would to pedal a bike faster. You can also strive to run like a deer or a canine companion, who exhibit a stable center of gravity (albeit over four legs, not two), incredible explosiveness off the ground, and zero wasted energy.
3 Common Running Form Mistakes
The biggest issues I see that disrupt proper running form:
Upper body instability: Leads to unecessary side-to-side motion of the torso, arms, and pelvis
Destabilized core: Leads to overstriding
“Lazy feet”: You land and sink into the ground instead of exploding off of it
When you implement proper running form, you’ll feel lighter on your feet and more explosive right away. Let’s cover each of the fundamentals of proper running form so you can begin striding like a beautiful deer.
How to Correct Upper Body Instability
When your spine compresses and your neck retracts toward the shoulders during running, you lose kinetic energy, promote inefficient breathing, and instigate a fight-or-flight activation. Dr. Kelly Starrett, creator of The Ready State, author of the bestselling injury prevention and rehab masterpiece, Becoming A Supple Leopard, and all-around legend of the elite athletic performance scene, explains:
“We’ve seen up to a 30 percent decline in VO2 max due to compromised breathing and a misaligned load anywhere along the spine. When runners fatigue, they become destabilized. The pelvis gets overextended and their man-bellies hang out. Mechanically, the nervous system becomes compromised and unable to generate maximum force, or transfer energy into the ground. Furthermore, when the 11-pound head is destabilized and the neck is destabilized, the athlete defaults into a shallow, ‘stress-breathing’ pattern. This over activates the sympathetic nervous system—the fight-or-flight response—and makes workouts more stressful than they should be, and more difficult to recover from.”
Hold your head high and onward we go! To correct upper body instability while running:
Keep the torso and head quiet and tension-free at all times. Pay special attention to keeping the cervical spine elongated.
Keep the hips and shoulders forward-facing. Don’t swivel or rotate from side to side, and don’t rock the pelvis forward and backward.
The only energy output from your upper body should be to pump your arms for momentum. The faster you run, the more energy you’ll exert to pump the arms. At jogging speed, you essentially relax your arms and achieve a gentle, natural counterbalance swinging of the arms to help balance the swinging of the legs. When you sprint, you drive the arms forward and backward powerfully.
Regardless of running speed, you don’t want your shoulders to lurch forward, nor should any part of your arms or hands cross the centerline of your body. Envision your arms pumping back and forth in one plane like a locomotive engine or oil well.
All the energy for arm swinging should come from the larger muscles in the shoulders, while your hands, forearms, and upper arms should be completely relaxed instead of tense. Sprinters make a point of extending the fingers to prevent a natural inclination to make a fist and tense the forearms. For the arm swing, pick an angle, such as 90 degrees, and preserve that angle throughout the arm swing. Avoid the common error of straightening your arm on the backswing, as this results in a loss of energy backwards.
How to Correct a Destabilized Core
While we emphasize relaxation instead of tension, realize that you need to generate explosive forward propulsion from your extremities from a stable base—your core and pelvis area. Again, the urgency of keeping your core and hips stable instead of loosey goosey is minimal while jogging, but extreme while sprinting.
Correcting a destabilized core seems simple, conceptually:
Make a concerted effort to slightly engage the core muscles throughout the stride pattern, especially at impact, and especially as you start to run faster.
This will preserve that straight and elongated spine as well as prevent the disastrous error of energy collapsing into the ground. This energy collapse is quite common and can cause the hips to become un-level upon each stride impact. Remind yourself to engage your core muscles—pull in those abdominal muscles—as you run. This will also help keep your spine elongated and your neck straight.
How to Correct “Lazy Feet” or Shuffling
To maximize explosiveness and minimize energy loss on each stride:
Dorsiflex the foot as soon as you launch off the ground. Aggressively flex the ankle and foot upward as high as you can (up to 30 degrees, toward the shin) as soon as your foot leaves the ground.
Through the stride pattern prior to the next impact, point the toes forward with the sole nearly parallel to the ground. This achieves an energy coiling effect in preparation for the next footstrike, where you’ll transfer that energy onto and off of the ground ground as quickly as possible.
You can also visualize the instructions above in the context of pedaling a bike. Pushing the pedal forward requires dorsiflexion of each foot in order to keep your feet on the pedals while completing the circle.
The opposite of dorsiflexed feet: lazy feet, which occurs when one leg leaves the ground and that foot remains relaxed in a drag through the air, toes pointed toward the ground.
When that uncoiled foot hits the ground on the next stride, there is no kinetic energy to leverage. The foot lands, spends much more time on the ground than a spring-loaded foot would, and the impact of your entire bodyweight transfers onto the pavement or trail. Then you recover from the impact, summon a bit of force, and get your foot off the ground again. This practice wastes potential explosive energy that could be returned by consciously (at first) dorsiflexing the foot.
Watch the clip above to see the slow motion of lazy foot. Look carefully and you’ll notice a barely perceptible collapsing of energy into the ground, even on that very slow jogging stride. Due to the energy collapse, the foot spends more time on the ground than it does with a quick stride generated by “strong foot” running.
Pretend that your running surface is hot lava. As soon as your dorsiflexed foot hits the ground, explode off the ground before you get burned. “On the ground, off the ground” is a great mantra as you move at any running speed. While a sprinter drives the knees high into the air, exploding off the ground and taking long strides accordingly, a jogger makes smaller circles and takes shorter strides. Nothing changes in your running form as you speed up except you take longer, more explosive strides.
Watch the clip above to see how my technique looks the same at a variety of speeds.
Every time you jog, run, or sprint, strive to achieve the bicycling over hot lava technique and you will soon ingrain the “strong foot” running form to the extent that it will feel terrible to jog with lazy feet. Good luck and enjoy a more graceful and explosive running experience.
Have you tried these or other running form corrections with success? What’s worked and what still feels difficult? Share in the comments below.
Tremendous credit and appreciation for these lessons goes to retired U.S. Olympic team 1500-meter runner Michael Stember, who presented his running technique clinic several times at our PrimalCon retreats in Oxnard, CA. Michael captivated the crowd each time with an incredibly passionate and precise clinic on how to run properly. Now he does the same making sushi in Brooklyn, NY.