Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
I have attempted to change my running form approximately 15 to 900 times, depending on how long it needs to stick before counting as an “attempt.” It’s a lot like my approach to nutrition. I’ll sometimes try to eat a few more fruits and veggies after reading the most recent research article. But then, it’ll be 8 PM, and the giant sized box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch will shoot me a text.
“I thought I blocked this number.”
“YOU CANNOT QUIT ME.”
My running form started in a bad place. I was a sprinter when I went to college, focused on explosive power. So when I started running, I had a jogging form influenced by what I knew. Low cadence, lots of bounce and excessive side-to-side motion, looking a bit like I was trying to smuggle a pineapple between my thighs. With more miles over the years, much of that smoothed out as my cadence became more reasonable and my thighs were only capable of smuggling a kiwi at best. But it still wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, and I think it may have hurt my performance. In fact, I think it’s one of the reasons I got into trails in the first place.
On trails, whatever form deficiencies I had were more smoothed over since biomechanics changed based on the terrain. On roads, meanwhile, there was nowhere to hide. If one part of my stride was a mess, you could multiply that by however many thousands of steps were in a race, and I’d always undershoot what my aerobic system and musculoskeletal system may have been capable of.
That underscores the big problem when talking about form. A 2016 review study in Sports Medicine summarizes the literature, finding that form changes generally lead to reduced running economy. The theory is that athletes self-select the biomechanical patterns that work best based on their backgrounds. In practice, though, that relationship doesn’t always seem to hold over longer time horizons.
“Gait retraining” looks at altering form using visual or auditory cues. For example, a 2011 study in the journal Clinical Biomechanics connected six female runners and four male runners to accelerometers that gave them real-time feedback on force through their tibias while running. After the retraining based on those visual cues, the runners reduced tibial acceleration by 50% and force loading by 30%, and the benefits stuck around a month later during retesting. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that gait retraining interventions decreased injury rates by 62% relative to a control group with no intervention. While it’s uncertain how that ties directly to long-term running economy changes, there is a big conclusion: form changes can make a difference on health outcomes and sustainable biomechanical patterns.
But there’s a big problem: How do you actually make form changes that help?
That’s the question I continually stumbled on over the years. My co-coach/wife Megan and I think about the question all the time, since there seem to be form cues that work for some athletes but not for others. For more info on this topic from a world-renowned expert, check out Joe Uhan’s writing at iRunFar, or work with a specialist like Joe.
This article is a follow-up to a 5-point article on form from January, which listed some of the things that have helped athletes we coach. Both articles are designed for athletes that are similarly flummoxed by proper form cues, desperate to find something that works long-term. After the January article, Megan and I talked about form on our podcast (listen and subscribe, it gets weird!), and a listener said that something we said resonated with them fully and helped them to a breakthrough.
Reduce the angle formed by your tibia and femur as your foot pulls through and knee drives forward, and maintain quick strides.
That statement: Reduce the angle formed by your tibia and femur as your foot pulls through and knee drives forward, and maintain quick strides. As Joe Uhan says, high-heel recovery should feel like a “hip-driven foot lift, underneath your body, and forward in a cyclical motion.”
Actually, that was not it. I wish that was it. That statement makes biomechanical sense based on the studies and physiology. No…the statement was much, much more embarrassing (and on-brand):
PRANCE LIKE A SHOW PONY
The phrase was motivated by one of the greatest YouTube videos of all time, initially sent to me by trail running superstar and coach Jenny Quilty. Look at how the pony practices high-heel recovery, lifting its hoof under its body in a cyclical motion, and driving its knee. May we all be a bit more like that swag-a$$ pony.
During COVID, I set out to overhaul my form with that general cue. This intervention stuck. Lucky number 901! My road interval times are now faster than ever, though it’s impossible to know if the show pony swag has anything to do with it. My biggest clue that something changed was when Megan posted a video of me running on her Instagram, and people commented that it looked smooth and efficient, something I had never heard before, unless it was dripping with sarcasm (carrying a phone is key because it’s much easier to prance like a show pony when listening to “Pony” by Ginuwine). My dad was even at the finish line of my first post-COVID race and commented that my form looked great, totally unprompted! Pony-tested, dad-approved.
Over the years, I tried to run with high cadence, slight forward lean, posture changes, doing daily prayers to a copy of “Born To Run,” everything you can think of. But the simple cue of bending the knee after the foot left the ground to reduce that tibia/femur angle helped everything else work into place. I may not be a show pony, but I’m no longer a charging hippo, and that has to count for something.
The coolest thing of all: this cue has seemed to help other athletes we coach. Here is an overview of how we describe it in training logs.
Prance like a show pony focuses on reducing the angle formed by your shin and femur as your leg pulls through past your center of gravity.
Prance like a show pony focuses on reducing the angle formed by your shin and femur as your leg pulls through past your center of gravity. Think about bending your knee as your foot leaves the ground, rather than keeping a more straight leg. It’s passive, not active, letting your heel go up toward your midline under your body, while practicing knee drive forward. Like a figure skater that spins faster when their arms are in, the bent knee may help you use the same amount of energy to go faster, while the knee drive increases power and improves posture. Finally, make the motion quick and relaxed (higher cadence with quick strides rather than lower cadence with bouncy strides), even at slower paces.
The best part about the form cue is that it’s easy. Give me 5 things to do, and I’ll do 0 within a week. Give me one thing to do, and I have a fighter’s chance.
It’s super simple to try
First, remember: always work with an expert if possible. People like Joe are brilliant and incredibly helpful. This article is a bit like trying to fix a broken computer by turning it off-and-on before giving it a good whack, rather than taking it to the Genius Bar.
If you are in the whack-camp, as you start runs, focus on passive bending of your knee as your foot leaves the ground. While running up hills, think about knee drive. And as you get tired during intervals or tempos, recommit to higher cadences. You can even get the feel for it when walking prior to runs, thinking about bending your knee rather than keeping a straight leg. Practice that high-heel recovery, you sexy, Ginuwine-worthy show pony.
Some athletes we coach have said it really helps them at faster paces and on uphills in particular. And either way, you can always laugh about that one time you tried to run like a show pony because of an anecdotal article in a running magazine. Perhaps I have been playing a prank on you this whole time. There’s only one way to find out!
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.
From Trail Runner