The surprising habits that get in the way of running well, and how you can get back on track.
Your body knows how to run—smoothly, efficiently, injury-free. What’s more, the way it runs is tailored to maximize your specific dimensions and preferred movement patterns. Why then, do runners often fall into an inefficient and injury-producing running form? Believe it or not, the blame may lie outside of your training hours. Our modern lifestyles, full of comfort and convenience, conspire to compromise our flexibility, strengths, and balance. Here are five things you’re doing to sabotage your running form, and how to counteract them.
You sit too much.
The most insidious alteration of runners’ form stems from the posture we’ve been forced into most of every day since pre-school: sitting. Sitting keeps the hips in a permanent flexed position, with the thighs in front of the torso. Eventually, our hip flexors in front become short and stiff and the glutes in the back turn off and get weak, throwing off the alignment of our hips and making a natural, powerful, backwards-driving stride impossible.
Your quick fix: Most of us need concerted efforts to lengthen our hip flexors and activate our glutes. You can find numerous stretches and exercises for these around the web and in my book, Your Best Stride. Two you can start with: Before your run, step forward into a lunge and reach for the sky in front of you while driving your hips forward to make a straight line from your back heel to your hands. Hold for 30 seconds then step through to the other leg, repeating 5 times. Coach Andrew Kastor calls this the “Running Warrior.” Then, after your run, do 15 squats, making sure your knees don’t cross in front of your toes, so that you’re using your glutes to lower and hold. Advance to jumping as high as you can from the squat position, pushing off your heels.
You slump while sitting.
Not far behind sitting on the “enemies of a good stride” list is hunching. Back when we were upright creatures, our heads sat tall on our shoulders, our shoulders sat square atop our torsos and our arms swung freely. Now, we sit with head bowed, shoulders inwardly rotated and arms reaching forward to our computers, phones, steering wheels. Eventually, we fall out of balance and are always holding the top of our bodies up. And, as with our hips, we lose the ability to swing our arms comfortably and naturally behind our body, where they cue and enhance the backward drive of our legs.
Your quick fix: At minimum, do arm swings before every run. Start with arms straight and hands together in front of you, swing out and back, focusing on opening your chest and bringing your shoulders back. Imagine cracking a nut between your shoulder blades. Lower your arms with every swing until they are swinging at your sides. Catch your hands together in the back, pull your shoulders back and down and hold for 20 seconds. If this is difficult and if you have difficulty keeping your shoulders and arms back during the run, you’ll likely need to do more structured stretching and strengthening to correct for years of hunching.
You’re wearing the wrong shoes when you’re not running.
Usually we focus on running shoes, and forget the shoes we wear the rest of the day. Many casual and dress shoes, however, are stiff and cramped. Others have lots of “support” underfoot, and many have elevated heels. The result is feet that have lost the ability to act as they are meant to. Arches need to form and collapse to cushion, support and propel. Toes should flex and push off. Small muscles should react to tiny changes in ground surface and quickly balance before we start to lean and have to engage larger muscles up the chain. Feet should feel, splay, grasp, rebound—active tools reacting with the ground, not blunt pods at the bottom of our legs.
Your quick fix: First look for shoes that have room for your toes to move, allow your arch to function and provide minimal underfoot support. Then, get them off as often as you can inside and out, letting your feet regain their mobility, strength and proprioception of the surfaces you walk on.
You aren’t chasing—or being chased.
OK, lamenting the lack of wolves and mountain lions around to keep us on our toes is a bit of a stretch. But lacking the imminent possibility of having to sprint for your life may be one reason why we’ve lost our athletic, balanced posture. We end up with our weight back on our heels rather than balanced over our feet. This imbalance translates all the way up the chain to knees, hips, back, and shoulders. We end up in a passive, joint-locked, sway-back posture that reinforces bad habits and weakens the core. And this translates to our running. As exercise therapist Laura Bergman says, “How you stand is how you’ll land.”
Your quick fix: Get back into a balanced, neutral, athletic posture by getting your hips rotated and stacked under your torso and your weight evenly over your heel and ball. Start by reaching up as high as you can, stretching for the top shelf. Lower your arms without lowering your chest or hips. Then look down and move your hips back until you can see the tops of your laces. Bring your chest forward, moving with your whole upright body, until you feel the weight moving onto the balls of your feet. Bend your knees slightly, rock and rotate your hips, playing with the balance. Lean out until you have to take a step, feeling how easy it is to move. Now find this balance every time you’re standing—in line at the coffee shop, waiting for the bus, at a ball game—until it becomes default, comfortable and sustainable all the time.
You’re too busy.
Like nearly everything else in life, to run well you need to run often. Our cluttered, busy lives rarely make this easy; we must change habits and priorities to become consistent. Consistency, however, was the first key I discovered in common among runners who have excelled for a lifetime when researching my book Run Strong, Stay Hungry. Consistent running gives us the strength, aerobic ability, and practiced neuromuscular pathways to glide effortlessly through the miles. Random running or periodically ramping up rapidly not only sets us up for injury but makes every run harder.
Your quick fix: Make running the default choice every day. Take regular days off, but make those the exception. Those who keep it up for life think “when am I running today,” not “am I running today?” Don’t set a lower limit of time or miles where it is “worth it,” just makes sure you get out and do some. Build—gradually—up to a level where a 30–45 minute run or longer is easy and normal, as natural as a walk, not a struggle. This means slowing down for many. Don’t fear that, it is the path to long-term greatness. Run fast at times, even hitting your top speed, briefly, on a regular basis—but most of your miles should be comfortable and enjoyable.
Jonathan Beverly is a writer, photographer, and coach. A lifetime runner, his passion is to help others experience the joy of training, competing and being fit and fully alive. Jonathan is the author of Your Best Stride and Run Strong, Stay Hungry. He served as editor of Running Times from 2000-2015, and has coached adult runners, high school cross country and junior high track.