How to Optimize Your Running Technique
In many sports you really need to work on your form. In gymnastics, golf or tennis, the top juniors are closely watching the pros and imitating how they move. They’re also applying specific technical advice from coaches. Of course this is essential in sports where the movements are complex and non-intuitive, but what about an activity that comes naturally, like running? Should we analyze our stride, or use advice from experts about foot strike, cadence or posture?
It is only recently that runners have wondered whether changes to gait mechanics can reduce injury rate and improve performance. The traditional approach has ignored technique, assuming it will optimize with sufficient mileage, variable practice and maybe some A and B skips. But now runners can find lots of advice about exactly how to run, including formal models like POSE or Chi running. Do these offer any benefit over the old fashioned “just run” method. Although corrective methods for running are becoming trendy, they are not well-supported by quality evidence. Following is a review of relevant research and theoretical considerations, most of it adapted from my new book Playing With Movement.
Some movements come naturally. Kids learn how to walk, run, squat and climb pretty well without any instruction. But the same is not true for less intuitive skills like backflips, topspin forehands, or playing the piano. We are born to run, but we are not born to shoot three pointers off the dribble.
Locomotion is a very basic survival skill for any animal, and therefore the nervous system structures that coordinate it are primitive, somewhat reflexive, highly efficient, and mostly unconscious. In some animals, locomotive patterns can be elicited simply by stimulating “central pattern generators” in the spine (1). Humans have central pattern generators for gait, but not backflips, which is why this motion doesn’t emerge naturally when kids go outside to play. By contrast, if kids are motivated to get from point A to B quickly, they develop reasonably good running technique without instruction. All they need to do is play around with the different ways to run - fast, slow, left and right, pursuing or avoiding targets, on different kinds of slopes and terrains. This lets their motor control systems explore all the different possibilities for running, which is all they need start figuring out the most efficient solutions.
Adults aren’t as plastic as kids, but over time, with enough variable running, they will unconsciously learn how to run better, even without thinking about it. The body places a huge priority on conserving energy and preventing injury, and is therefore always working unconsciously to run more efficiently and safely, even when your mind is elsewhere.
But could we speed the learning process by consciously applying some technical advice? For example, runners are often told to shorten their stride, increase their stride rate, and avoid a heel strike. Although some high level runners might break these rules, it is argued that they would improve if they complied with textbook form.
One reason to be skeptical of this one-size fits all advice is that everyone has a different physical structure. We should therefore expect they would need to run in different ways to optimize their performance and safety. For example, Usain Bolt has learned to run with a subtly asymmetrical stride - he gallops just a bit by favoring one foot over the other. Experts believe this technique is a clever (and unintentional) compensation for small asymmetries in his structure. “Correcting” them to imitate the textbook would probably just make him go slower. The lesson is that the body finds ingenious solutions to locomotive problems in an embodied “bottom-up” manner, and we should be humble about our ability to make improvements through top-down corrections. This view is supported by research finding that people are pretty good at selecting a style of running that works for them.
Research on heel-striking
Although heel striking is often derided, it is not associated with increased injury rate, and is the most energy efficient way for most people to run (2, 3, 4). This is why the vast majority of runners, including close to 75% of elite half-marathon runners, are heel-strikers (3, 5). Further, trying to correct running form is unlikely to prevent injury, and will often cause runners to be slower and less efficient (3). Several studies have asked runners to change their habitual stride length, and found they required more oxygen to run at the same pace (6, 7). For example, sixteen triathletes were given expert supervision in the POSE method, which recommends a transition from heel to forefoot strike. At the end of twelve weeks, forefoot striking was still less efficient. (8) In fact, simply directing attention to running form, without effort to change it, is associated with reduced efficiency (9). This follows a general rule about motor control - conscious attention to the body tends to create stiff and awkward movement, often called paralysis by analysis. But if you stay focused on the goal of the movement, the body is better able to self-organize (17). Most of the intelligence that coordinates movement is unconscious, and this is especially true for fundamental movements like locomotion.
Research on pronation
What about pronation? It has long been argued that excessive pronation of the foot is bad, and may contribute to overuse injuries at the foot, knee, hip and even back. However, after decades of study, it appears that overpronation is not meaningfully correlated with injury risk, and even if it was, it remains questionable whether gait correction would reduce the risk (11, 12). If the tendency to pronate is caused by the bony structure of the foot and ankle, this is not something that can be changed. Perhaps pronation can be altered by orthotics? It is true that orthotics can reduce injury risk. But it doesn’t seem to matter whether the orthotic is custom-made or bought off the counter (13).
You could also try to purchase a shoe that is specifically designed to reduce pronation. However, research indicates that shoes don’t always have the biomechanical effects intended by the designers. For example, cushioned shoes do not reduce ground impact force, because the body seems to “want” a certain amount of feedback from the ground, and it will work harder to get it through a cushion (14). According to Benno Nigg, a leading expert on the connection between running shoes, gait, and injury, this is because the foot has a “preferred movement path” (15). Thus, when runners wear different shoes, they usually continue to follow the path they prefer (12). Following this logic, the best shoes to prevent injury are those that facilitate the preferred pathway, and this can be determined by simply picking the shoe that is most comfortable. In one of Nigg’s studies, runners who were allowed to pick their shoe inserts based on comfort experienced less injury than the control group (16). Based on this study and more than four decades of looking at the complexities of the issue, Nigg’s practical advice for runners is simple: try on four to five pairs of shoes, jog around the store, and pick whatever shoe feels best.
Playing with running
There is a common theme to this research: the body has very good intuitive sense of how to run safely and efficiently. It learns through trial and error, and the best thing you can do to help it learn faster is to go through lots of trials and errors in high volume and sufficient variety.
Does this mean we should ignore all the biomechanical advice about how to run? I think not. Why not use it as a source of ideas for how to expose your body to some novel running experiments? Try consciously applying a new technique for five minutes, then forgetting about it and running naturally. If there is something useful about the new form, it may give you a “feel” that is unconsciously incorporated into the next few miles. For example, running with a mid-foot strike or higher cadence is not something you must try, but its certainly a reasonable option. This is especially true if you have knee pain, because a forefoot strike tends to shift mechanical stress away from the knee. On the other hand, it also shifts more stress to the achilles and foot, so don’t assume one is better than the other (10).
The lesson is that there are many different ways to run, and they all have different costs and benefits. You have the best chance of finding what works best for you if you play with as many as possible, by running on different terrains, at different speeds and levels of fatigue, in different footwear, etc. As you improve, your gait may indeed start to look more “textbook”, but these changes will evolve in a way that is embodied and authentic, more robust and sustainable than consciously trying to run with “good form.”
To learn more about coordination, fitness and pain, check out my new book, Playing With Movement: How to Explore the Many Dimensions of Physical Health and Performance, available now.
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14. Baltich et al. (2015). Increased Vertical Impact Forces and Altered Running Mechanics with Softer Midsole Shoes. PLoS ONE 10(4), 1–11.
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16. Mundermann et al. (2001). Relationship between Footwear Comfort of Shoe Inserts and Anthropometric and Sensory Factors. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33(11), 1939–45.
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