For the past few years Bob Roncker’s Running Spot has conducted Smooth Running classes in order to help runners become more efficient in their technique. Danny Abshire, and others at Newton Running, is also interested in promoting improved form (and, he would like to sell a few shoes along the way). This article mimics some of the same principles that we advocate in our Smooth Running classes.
No one has perfect running form, but everyone can improve his or her running mechanics. Doing so can make you a more efficient runner, which means you’ll use less energy in every stride and boost your running economy (the ability to process oxygen efficiently while running). Ultimately, improved form can make you faster and less prone to overuse injuries.
One of the primary ways to improve your running technique is through form drills. Form drills are easy to do and don’t take a lot of time, but they’re often overlooked, forgotten or ignored when a workout is completed. Taking an extra 5 to 15 minutes to do form drills several times per week can make you more fluid, more efficient and even faster for both short and long distances.
Most drills take the aspects of good form — a compact arm swing, soft foot strikes with the midfoot under your center of mass, quick leg turnover, an upright posture with a slight forward lean at the ankles — and accentuate it in a repetitive motion that trains the body to be comfortable with that movement during your regular running mechanics. Some drills are aimed at building smaller muscles (such as the intrinsic group and lumbrical group in the foot), while others help your neuromuscular system fire quicker.
Do one set of each drill three to five times per week. You can do the drills before or after your regular workout, but doing them after a workout can be especially helpful in loosening muscular tightness brought on during your run.
1) Run in Place
This sounds simple, and it is, but it requires an adherence to good form in a semi-stationary setting while varying your cadence from high to very high. If you’re following the aspects of good form, you should be moving forward slightly because your momentum and a slight lean from the ankles will carry you forward. While you’re doing this drill, think about each element individually — a compact and consistent arm swing, light, mostly flat, midfoot/forefoot foot strikes, a steady but relaxed head, jaw, neck, shoulders and torso — and how each plays into the bigger picture of your running form. This drill is especially effective in teaching your body to increase leg cadence (optimally to 180 steps per minute) and learning how to lift your leg to start a stride instead of pushing off. Do three 15-second sessions per set.
2) Jump Rope
Jumping rope is simple, but as a drill it’s not going to help your running unless you’re doing it right. Jumping rope can instill the soft, midfoot/forefoot landings we aim for while running. Your body will naturally not let you land on your heel — especially if you’re jumping rope barefoot — because landing on your heels would inflict too much force on the bones, muscles and other tissue in your heels, ankles and legs. It can also emphasize elastic recoil, as your heel settles on the ground before a new stride begins. Jumping rope also reinforces the notion that a new stride should begin by lifting your leg instead of pushing off. As you jump off the ground, focus on lightly lifting your feet off the ground instead of forcefully pushing off the ground. Alter your tempo between slow, medium and fast speeds, all while concentrating on the tenets of good running form. Each set should be 15-20 seconds in duration.
3) High Knees
Running in place with high knees is another drill that accentuates lifting your foot off the ground instead of forcefully pushing off to begin a new stride. This is essentially jogging in place (alternately lifting your knees to a 90-degree angle with your thighs parallel to the ground). As with the jog in place drill, your slight forward lean and the momentum gained in this drill will gradually move you forward. Be sure to focus on soft, run midfoot and forefoot foot strikes, using your core to lower your leg down slowly instead of letting it crash to the ground. This drill requires, and also helps instill, a compact and consistent arm swing, even though your arms might cycle slightly slower to coincide with the longer hang time of your legs. The motion of your arms will actually help you lift a foot off the ground to start a new stride and keep you balanced. Briefly try this drill with your arms stationary at your sides. You’ll find yourself forcefully pushing your feet off the ground and you’ll have a more difficult time keeping balanced. Keep your torso, head and shoulders relaxed and fairly still during this drill and avoid too much vertical oscillation with your center of mass. Each set should consist of 20 high-knee thrusts or 10 elevations of each knee.
4) Butt Kicks
Butt Kicks accentuate the recovery portion of the running gait phase. Instead of using your hamstring to lift your leg off the ground, think about alternately flicking your lower leg backward with the use of your quadriceps and hamstring muscles then dropping it back down to the ground under the center of your mass. The movement should be quick and pronounced but relaxed, so that you’re able to return your foot to the ground softly at the midfoot. As with High Knees, a compact and consistent arm swing is crucial to keeping your balance and maintaining a high cadence. Each set should consist of 20 butt kick strides or 10 elevations of each leg.
5) Skipping 1 – Quick Skip
The goal of this drill is to quicken the timing of your neuromuscular system so you can increase your running cadence to 180 steps per minute or slightly faster. As you quickly pick up one leg off the ground with the start of a stride, the other foot skips off the ground with two small and quick hops before the legs alternate. There is a staccato sensation to this drill when it’s done correctly. The more you practice it, the easier you’ll fall into a consistent rhythm. A compact and very quick arm swing is crucial to keeping your balance and maintaining a high cadence. Each set should consist of about 15 to 20 seconds of skipping.
6) Skipping 2 – Slow Skip
Unlike the previous drill, this is a slow-action skipping drill that accentuates the high knee action of the lifted leg during a running stride. With this drill, you’ll practice lifting your leg off the ground to begin a new stride instead of pushing off the ground. To extend the duration of the lifted leg in the air, you’ll skip with the opposite foot. The rhythm of this drill will also have a staccato effect, but it will be much slower in nature. A compact, slow arm swing will keep your balance and allow you to maintain a high cadence. Each set should consist of about 15 to 20 seconds of skipping.
7) Donkey Kicks
It seems like a silly name, but it looks just like it sounds. Begin with a straight, slightly forward-leaning posture, a compact arm swing, level hips and flexed ankles and knees of the athletic “ready” position. Pull one leg backwards as if you’re kicking something behind you. While balancing on the midfoot area of the stationary leg, repeatedly pull the kicking leg backward, then allowing it to recoil forward. This drill accentuates good hip extension and teaches your body to make foot strikes under your center of mass. Do 10 kicks with each leg per set.
8) Arm Pull Backs
This drill accentuates the proper motion of the arms during the gait cycle by highlighting the posterior portion of the compact arm swing. Begin with a level head and shoulders, keeping a straight spine with a slightly forward-leaning posture between the chin and hips. Alternate pushing your arms backwards as they are held at 90 degrees (or less). The key is keeping your arms swinging in a plane parallel to your torso and not rotating your body to assist the movement. Do a total of 20 alternating pullbacks per set, 10 with each side.
Danny Abshire is the co-founder of Newton Running, a Boulder, Colorado based company that makes shoes that promote an efficient midfoot/forefoot running gait. He has been making advanced footwear solutions for runners and triathletes for more than 20 years.