04. Smooth Running A Guide to Improved Running Form or How To Run Better Developed and Presented by Bob Roncker
Why did I name this document Smooth Running? With each stride many people strike the ground with a jarring thud. Since we land about 1000 times per mile, this incorrect repetitive action can be a source of problems. There is a better way. You can skim more gently across the earth. This document explores techniques of running - a subject that until recently received very little attention. Although there is no perfect form for everyone, it’s my contention that certain basic principles for good form do exist. Many of these principles mimic what is done during “natural running” - the form used when running barefoot on a natural surface. Using some of these techniques, while running with shoes, may improve your running form so you become more efficient (consume less energy and go farther or faster with the same effort) and perhaps reduce injury. Our body, like a crew team in a racing shell, is most effective when all the parts are balanced and work in unison.
There are, in my mind, three areas that potentially cause problems for a lot of people. Eliminate them and you become smoother. Think of the acronym HOS. The subjects of concern are:
Straight Leg Landing
Think of what a checkmark looks like. Anyone incorporating HOS will probably form a checkmark with their feet and legs. You want to avoid that.
I suggest you first read this document and view the videos at the end. Get an overall picture of what Smooth Running consists of. Then, take those ideas that make sense to you. Practice them one at a time. As it becomes ingrained, move on to another element. Combine what you learn. We will never reach perfection, but we can always strive for improvement. Enjoy the journey.
Keep in mind. It’s critical that this process be gradual. You don’t enter a weight room for the first time and start lifting the heaviest barbells. No, you begin with something that you can easily handle. As you adapt to and can manage a certain level, you slowly take on a heavier load. The same principles apply here. I know we are impatient. This development may take weeks or months before you reach a point where you are satisfied. Remember, the benefits will continue for the rest of your life. Be prepared for a nice trip. As you approach excellence, you may find yourself moving more lightly and quickly over the ground. You will be Smooooooooooth!
1 Breathing - Belly Breathing As You Run
Oxygen is critical. Consider the importance hierarchy for food, water, and oxygen. How long can we live without food? Two to four weeks. Without water? A few days. No oxygen? Minutes.
While crucial under normal circumstances, oxygen assumes a greater importance when we run for exercise or competition. There are two main breathing techniques - Belly and Chest Breathing. When you inhale, using both mouth and nose, during belly breathing, your stomach expands. It’s a deeper, more effective, way to breathe than the shallower form of chest breathing (chest expansion and stomach contraction while inhaling).
Here’s a way to practice belly breathing. Expel air as if you are gently extinguishing a candle. As the air (and carbon dioxide) leaves, draw your stomach in. Try bringing your belly button toward your spine. Alternate fast and slow rates. Coordinate the rhythm of these movements. What happens after the CO2 goes out? Oxygen rich air needs to come in. As it comes in, the stomach expands.
Exercise - Get into the habit of listening to your breathing pattern. Exercise - Lie down on your back and practice belly breathing. Exercise - Blow out the candle.
2 Posture - The Importance of Good Posture
Correct posture, where there is musculoskeletal balance, is very critical to proper running and walking. It affects performance and helps prevents overuse injuries to limbs and spinal joints.
Head – As much as possible, focus your eyes forward. You head helps create a balanced posture when it is appropriately aligned with your spine. The neck has a slight natural curve, which sits on top of the two curves in the middle and lower back. Correct posture maintains all three curves and prevents undue stress and strain by distributing body weight evenly. If your body is stacked properly on top of itself, it requires little help from your back muscles. When our head, about the weight of a sledgehammer, is out of alignment, added stress applies to the entire spine, from the neck to your pelvis, due to the weight of the head leaning forward or to the side.
Exercise – Hold a small sledgehammer with your arm fully extended forward. Note the difference in strain when the hammer is tilted forward and when it is perpendicular.
What are some elements of good posture? You want to think and be tall. Focus your eyes on the horizon. Be an exclamation point, not a question mark. Be proud – shoulders back, chest out. Be straight and relaxed, not robotic. If you viewed your body from the side, you would see the ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles aligned in one straight line.
Arms and Shoulders - If your arms, hands and wrists are in proper alignment, your lower limbs tend to maintain alignment as well. The arms affect the rotation of the upper body. Since running and walking are essentially a forward motion, avoid movements that produce a side-to-side-sway. Sway reduces forward energy and can be a cause of lower leg problems.
Exercise - Let your arms hang down and freely swing them forward and back – not sideways or in circles - from the shoulder. Many individuals have little movement from the shoulder. Their shoulders are tight and look as if their upper body is in a cast. When running, you want that easy movement with the shoulder being the pivot. Whenever you feel that yourself tightening up in the shoulder area or if your torso is rotating excessively, repeat this exercise.
Elbows, Wrists, and Hands - The Law of the Pendulum: “The speed at which a pendulum swings depends on the length of the pendulum, not on the amount of weight at the bottom.” Our arms and legs are pendulums. Longer pendulums are slower and take more effort to move. You can shorten your arms (pendulums) by bending them at the elbow so your hands rise up near the bottom of your rib cage - approximately a 90-degree angle. This creates speedier arm movements and increases the leg turnover since our legs always move in unison with our arms.
At times the elbows may drift away from the upper torso causing your hands to cross the frontal vertical midline of your body. You don’t want this. This movement usually results in excessive side-to-side rotation, which in turn creates excessive torque in the lower half of your body, adding to the potential for injury. You can correct this by slightly rotating your palms and wrists outwards and keeping your thumbs up. This brings your elbows closer to your torso and reduces wasteful lateral motion.
You want bent arms. You want elbows close to your torso. You want a rapid and tight piston-like back and forth movement of the hands and elbows where the hands do not extend behind the hip line and the elbows to not go in front of the hip line, except perhaps when you are sprinting at the end of a race.
Exercise – In a standing position, count and compare the number of times your right hand comes forward in 15 seconds (fist from hip to chest height and back to hip). Swing both arms as fast as you can. Do this first with straight arms (not bent at the elbows). Then, repeat the same exercise with bent arms (90 degree bend). Notice how much less effort it takes to swing bent arms. What was the difference in the count? So, if you want a quicker stride turnover, create a faster arm swing.
You want firm wrists that are in line with the forearm. Limp wrists are not encouraged. With floppy wrists, the other joints in your body tend to be less engaged. Engaged joints add thrust, enhancing stride length, when your foot is in the position of propelling you forward.
Some of you have seen the E3 bio-grips demonstration. I believe this product helps properly position the hands and wrists, which in turn orients the rest of the body. I was able to lift a fairly heavy individual holding the E3 bio-grips because his joints were stabilized and engaged. It was considerably more difficult when he didn’t hold the grips.
Stabilized joints generally track in a straighter line and give a better push off at each stride. We often see a gain of half a foot when walking only 10 yards? I think of the analogy of running on a beach. It requires more effort when you are in softer sand 25 yards away from the shoreline than when you are near the water’s edge.
You perform best with controlled relaxation. Tension can begin in the hands. Keep them lightly clenched and relaxed. I visualize scooping up a handful of sand and slightly opening my hand so the grains slowly begin to filter out.
Exercise: Notice the difference in your forearms when you experience these three positions.
1. Clench your fist tightly 2. Hold out hand. Straighten fingers in a rigid position. 3. Maintain a loose fist (thumb on index fingers, fingers lightly clenched, thumbs up, wrist firm but not tight, and hand in line with forearms.)
As you assume each of these positions, lightly squeeze your forearm to note any differences in tension. Did you notice a lessening of tension with each succeeding exercise? When running, you’ll be more efficient and less fatigued with relaxed muscles. If you begin to tense up, lower your hands and shake them a bit. That should relieve the tension.
Pelvis - Your pelvic angle is critical to posture. Avoid excessive forward tilt. Tuck in your butt. Your tailbone should be pointed down. This is a hard thing to maintain and think about, but if you persist, you will develop better posture.
Forward rotation of the pelvis may cause the following:
1. Extension of the spine into a swayback position
2. Relative lessening of the ability to flex the hips in relation to the ground
3. Shortened stride due to limited leg extension
Exercise – Here’s a little trick, borrowed from etiquette classes, to help you align your posture. Lock your fingers together and, with palms up, raise both hands as high as you can above your head. Then, drop your hands to your side. Now your pelvis is in the proper position. Periodically focus your mind on good posture and repeat this exercise as a reset while running until it becomes second nature. Do body checks. How is your alignment? Try to develop a sense of how you want your body positioned. Knowing what you want is the first step toward achieving it.
Demonstration – Stand tall while balancing on one foot. Lift the opposite knee as high as possible until it touches your hand. Keep your hand at this point, the same distance from the ground, while you lower your foot to the ground. Now, bend forward at the waist and repeat the same movement. You were probably unable to lift the knee as high off the ground while bending forward. This demo shows how the angle of the pelvis restricts your stride. Similarly, when you bend your neck forward, other parts of the body are affected.
To maintain good posture you need a strong core. Nordic walking is a form of cross training that I use to help develop my core strength. Wearing compression tops by SKINS also helps support and maintains upper body posture.
Exercise - Keep a straight upper body and a "crunch" in your lower abdominal muscles. Contracting these muscles levels the pelvis, which helps build strong core muscles. You can do this sitting at your desk at work as well.
Knees and Feet
Try maintaining your feet in a straight-ahead position. Toeing out, or in, adds stress to the body and shortens each stride. We want as many body parts as possible going in the intended direction. Since with every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, correct arm movements often help eliminate problems occurring with the lower limbs.
Good posture is a key to successful walking and running.
3 Landing – How Our Feet Makes Contact With The Ground
There are three general stride patterns – walking, running, and sprinting. All walkers land on their heels and roll forward. Sprinters, because it is such a powerful activity, tend to be up on their forefoot and toes. Most middle and long distance runners traditionally land on their heels. Now there is evidence to suggest that many people might be better served, from an injury prevention and performance perspective, if they land on their mid-foot.
Injuries tend to come from excessive impact, rotation, or propulsion. Imagine that you are jumping rope. How are you landing? I suspect with your knees slightly bent and on your mid-foot. What if you were asked to jump up the same height, lock you knees, and land on your heels. How do you think that landing would feel? Of the two, which is more comfortable?
Exercise – Try this. Run in place and lift at the hips. Were your feet landing somewhat parallel or in a straight line? Now, put a line on the ground. Stand over and straddle the line and again run in place. However, this time land on the line with each foot. How would you compare the two ways of landing? There is a greater crossover angle when we land on the centerline. A smaller crossover angle is desired.
When we run, we land about 1000 times per mile. The impact is about three times our body weight. Walkers come down about 1800 times per mile with an impact of 1.5 times their body weight (one foot is always in contact with the ground).
It’s good to land underneath our Center Of Gravity (COG). The COG is the balancing point at which all the body planes meet – just below the navel for women and in front of the sacrum for men. You want your feet to come down underneath you with your toes and feet pointing straight forward. If your foot lands in front of the COG, you are likely over-striding — adding a force in the opposite direction — which means that you are slamming on the brakes a 1000 times each mile. That equates to more stress on the legs and joints. Landing under your COG results in fewer or zero torques applied to your foot and ankle.
Individuals who over-stride are almost sure to be heel strikers. The knee joint is straighter and the foot is less balanced because heel strikers normally land on the outside of their heel and roll to the inside (pronate). Then the foot stiffens up and becomes a lever that propels them forward. A fair amount of shock and rotation occurs.
People who gradually change their form of landing and strike the ground below their COG with a slightly bent knee on the mid-foot will note different things happening:
a. Shock seems to be absorbed more effectively.
b. There is less rotation (if the foot is balanced – and not all feet are well balanced).
c. More stress is centered on the posterior lower leg - calf and Achilles tendon areas.
Anyone trying something new knows that there is a period of adaptation. That is certainly the case here. My greatest concern is that people wishing to become mid-foot strikers will fall into the Terrible Toos Trap – Too Much, Too Soon, and Too Fast. I know we want things completed yesterday, but be prepared for a 2-12 month adjustment period. Take incremental baby steps. If you were in a training program that was gearing up for a full marathon six months away, you would not be doing a 20 miler during the first couple of weeks. No, you would gradually increase the distance until you were ready for the long run.
Any vertical movement while running is wasted energy. Seek a smooth transition with light and quick strides rather than bouncing from one to the other.
Exercise – Strive to increase leg and hip flexibility. Improving your hamstring, hip extension, and hip flexion range of motions allows you to increase your stride length and lower your bounce. Less vertical oscillation and fewer steps reduces the total impact to your knees and other joints. It’s estimated that if you raise your center of gravity an extra one-centimeter every step in the marathon this effort equals climbing the Empire State Building.
Exercise - The calf muscles - gastrocnemius and soleus - also need attention. Use of a product called the StepStretch or a gradual program of walking backwards downhill may strengthen and stretch these areas.
Exercise – Have a video taken while running with a fence or other horizontal line behind you as a reference point. Check to see how much your head and body oscillate.
The footfall should be quiet since noise is the result of force being converted into sound energy - the louder your footfall, the more energy being wasted. Strive, while running, to be able to sneak up quietly behind someone. Any slapping is often a sign of over-striding.
How can I tell if I am over-striding?
Possible – At the time of heel strike 4,5, or 6 inches of daylight can be seen between your toes and the ground. This toe lift is the angle between the foot and the ground at touchdown. A high toe lift puts a lot of strain on the anterior muscles and may be a cause of shin splints. A flatter strike is preferred.
Possible - There is a large over-stride angle (The angle formed at the knee when the foot makes contact with the ground. One line is the vertical drop from the knee and the other line goes from the knee through the ankle). Greater over-stride angles result when an individual tries to reach out because of their small stride angle (the maximum opening angle between the lead and trail legs).
Probably Not – while running your knee is bent and your foot comes down behind the knee (negative over-stride angle) or close to being underneath you.
Most of us land exclusively on our heels. Your gait pattern and foot strike may change, as you become more efficient. Typically, the faster you move, the further forward on your foot you will strike. But, you will see later how you can also land on your mid-foot and move at a very slow rate.
Exercise – Go for a run on some trails in a park. Note the way you are landing. Does it differ from the way you make contact with the ground when running on sidewalks or streets? I’d recommend that you try running similar to the way you run on trails more often.
Exercise – Run barefoot or with the Vibram Five Finger (VFF) shoes on a grassy or dirt surface for a short distance. Note how you run and land. Does it differ from the way you run with thick-soled shoes? Try duplicating this foot-strike when running with regular running shoes. My feeling is that barefoot or VFF running is best served as a supplement. I think most individuals, and I know there are exceptions, are not prepared to do much running in the environments (pavement and broken glass) at our disposal.
Strength and flexibility affect our form and mechanics. As we age, this becomes more of a concern. Here is an exercise to strengthen key postural muscles that you can easily do throughout the day.
Balancing on One Leg - Why should we consider this? Running is a series of hops from one leg to the other. We are dealing with milliseconds, but if the time between strides is slightly shortened because of better balance or leg strength, the stride cycle will be more efficient.
The one leg balance exercise is a good test for structural stability and neuromuscular control. It helps develop both lower leg strength and balance, which may help prevent injury and also increase your walking or running efficiency.
Better efficiency shortens the time spent on each foot. Since the interval spent on the ground is lessened, the time between foot strikes is reduced and your cadence is increased.
Exercise -You can do this many times during the day. Balance for one minute on the each foot. You want to feel in control with your balance and you want to experience no strain on your lower leg or hip. As this becomes easier, move up eventually to three minutes. Then start doing it on an uneven surface, i.e. a pillow. Once you can do it for three minutes on this surface start over again at one minute, but now, do it with the eyes closed. A person who can do this for 3:00 with their eyes closed (flat or uneven surface) will have developed excellent proprioception (coordination between the mind and muscles) and lower leg strength.
4 Cadence – The Importance Of A Higher Turnover Rate
This, and the next section, will show you how to land under your COG more easily. What does a stride consist of? One definition of a running stride is “a complete cycle of motion consisting of a period of weight-bearing or support on one foot, followed by a period of non-weight-bearing or ‘float,’ then a period of weight–bearing on the other foot and another period of float.” A walking stride has no ‘float’.
At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, highly respected coach and exercise physiologist Dr. Jack Daniels counted the stride patterns of the athletes for all distances ranging from the 800 meters through the marathon. They found that all these athletes had a cadence of about 180 or more strides per minute (90-95 per side). The variance in speed (speed is determined by stride length and stride turnover or cadence) for each distance is due to stride length differences. Most of these athletes had large stride angles. In virtually all instances the athletes landed under their COG.
My guess is that many of you reading this have normal turnover rates in the 160s or low 170s. This slower loping stride pattern lends itself to over-striding and bouncing. An individual with a speedier leg tempo rate does not have a lot of time to spend in the air. The shorter quicker strides encourage landing under the COG.
Exercise - Test yourself and see what your normal cadence is. Run comfortably for 30 seconds. Count the number of times that your right hand comes forward. Multiply that figure by four. This gives you your stride cadence for a minute. If the number is 40, that means you have a cadence around 160. A count of 45 equals 180 steps per minute. Wherever you happen to be, assuming you are below 180, gradually seek to increase that number to around 180. You can do that by more vigorously moving your arms forwards and back. But, as mentioned above, go about it gradually.
Exercise – Download a metronome app to your smart phone or get a metronome. Run to the various cadences and try to gradually increase your turnover rate. Tuning in to the beat of a metronome allows your nervous system to become accustomed to the desired cadence. It’s a learned response. After awhile the new tempo becomes second nature to you.
Stride cadence can be separate from running speed. Good training principles limit most people to two quality training sessions per week. We cannot run hard every day without becoming injured. We need easier days to recover.
It’s possible to have an easy running effort yet maintain a high (180) turnover cadence. How? Simply move your arms at the desired cadence and lift your feet very little. You shuffle along. There is very little pounding, but your nervous system is becoming accustomed to the desired rhythm. On days that you wish to go faster, move your arms and legs at the same cadence but also purposely lengthen your stride by lifting your leg a bit farther. After a few weeks, the higher cadence should become very familiar to you.
5 Lean – Keeping Over Our Center Of Gravity
Forward lean can separate your form from the masses. Why is going up a hill more challenging? You combat gravity. I have had the opportunity to observe many of the top runners in the world. They harness gravity and allow it to pull them forward. Using your legs to push yourself forward takes a lot of energy. This is the case when we are perfectly upright. Relax and slightly lean forward at the ankles, not at the waist, (which can stress the knees and hurt your back). This running position requires strong core muscles if you are going to do it for an extended period of time.
Even though you have this slight forward lean, you should still “run tall,” by maintaining an erect and straight body where you could strike a line piercing your ears, shoulders and hips. This lean, along with a cadence around 180, should enable you to be over your COG at the time of foot-strike.
Visualization - Let your imagination soar. Pretend you’re a ski jumper gracefully lifting off the jump ramp. You are extending yourself out over the tips of your skis, body fully extended. Your body is straight as you bend at the ankles.
Exercise – Finding Your Balance Sweet Spot - Stand tall. Extend your hands above your head to set your pelvis so you have good posture. Find a position on your feet where you feel very balanced. We normally have three contact points on the ground – your heel and behind the great and small toes. Now, without changing any part of your posture allow yourself to move slightly forward by merely relaxing your ankles. Don’t tilt your head forward or bend at the waist. Next, rock backwards.
Now, lean forward as far as you can, maintaining good straight posture, without falling forward. Are your toes curled up in order to hold you back? Relax the toes and see what happens. This moves you into the first few strides of a run.
As you shift away and then back to your sweet spot, you notice the degree of balance that you feel. After doing this repeatedly I want you to comfortably fall forward with your posture remaining intact. Remember to lean from your ankles and feel how your point of balance shifts forward from your heels to the balls of your feet. As you continue leaning forward, you need to move forward and lift up your heels in order to avoid falling down. This is your first step toward Smooth Running. Familiarize yourself with the feeling of gravity pulling you forward because that’s what you want to experience when you’re out there on the road. If it helps you, I prefer the word “falling” to describe my lean while I’m running.
Exercise - Play around with leaning. Just a little at first. Get accustomed to the feeling. As you lean, you may feel yourself going a bit faster. Having a strong set of core muscles can be very helpful. You need them to stabilize your posture.
This forward tilt should be done gradually. Different parts of your body may take some time getting adjusted to it. You may find yourself landing a little bit up from your heels. Start off with a 9:1 ratio of time spent being vertical to having a slight lean. With time go to 8:2, 7:3, etc. I would advise primarily going at a slow pace and using shorter shuffle steps as you adopt this new technique.
A slight forward lean when you run adds a horizontal component to your energy usage. Like the wheel in motion, you want your movement to be horizontal, not vertical. Running with less effort is about relaxing muscles, opening tight joints, and using gravity to do the work.
Conclusion - I hope what you read here motivates you to continue or begin examining your own particular running form. It is a process. Changes are not (and should not) going to happen immediately. Be gradual.
With mid-foot striking and the wearing of minimalist shoes you systematically get stronger. Mid-foot running may put more stress on your calf and Achilles areas. You may wish to strengthen those areas. My goal is that some of these suggestions enable your running experience to become more enjoyable.
Running Tutorial Videos
Here are some excellent YouTube videos on the subject of running form. They feature Danny Abshire, co-founder of the Newton Shoe Company and Grant Robison with Good Form Running (Playmaker’s in Michigan and the New Balance Shoe Company). Their running technique points are similar to what we cover in our Smooth Running sessions. The final video is on striding efficiency.
11.1 Stop! Look! Listen Running Tutorial
with Danny Abshire
11.2 New Balance Good Form Running (GFR)
with Grant Robison
11.3 Playmaker's GFR
with Grant Robison
Take care. An end goal is nice, but enjoy the process of getting there. You will like becoming smoother!