Is There Really Such A Thing As Perfect Running Form?
As runners, we all consistently take strides to improve our time on the road. We aim for a faster pace, a farther distance, or even just the ability to end a long run feeling like a graceful gazelle instead of a crawling gopher. That’s likely why the proper running technique and how to achieve the perfect take-off and landing remains a hot topic. But should you even focus on your form, switching up how you naturally transfer weight from one step to the next? Will a tweak in your technique get you to the finish line faster, or could it sideline you with an injury?
The truth is, that’s a really tricky question. While you’ve probably heard some tips on proper running form—stand tall with a slight forward lean, arms gliding back and forth as you land softly on your forefoot and take off solid hip extension behind you – everyone’s mechanics vary. So while a few small tricks might be the start of feeling stronger as you stride, there’s a fine line between changing too much, which can lead to new injuries, and finding a few fixes that help you run more powerfully, sans pain. Let’s examine the step-by-step distinction.
How Your Stride Can Lead to Injury (or Not)
On a run, you experience a reactional force every time your foot hits the ground, says Bryan Heiderscheit, P.T., Ph.D., physical therapist and director of the University of Wisconsin Runners Clinic. That force can look different from person to person, depending on performance and mechanics. “When you hit the ground, the body absorbs energy from that force. For instance, your knee bends to help cushion the landing and decelerate the body’s center of mass,” Heiderscheit explains. “In some individuals, you start to see motions that aren’t so helpful to running—the body’s secondary way to absorb energy.” For some, this might include hips dropping to the side, or the trunk leaning side to side, or the knee collapsing inward.
Heiderscheit says we’ve oversimplified what this force reaction looks like in some individuals. People might point out that the impact of a heel striker is much greater than that of a midfoot or forefoot striker. In actuality, it’s just different forces acting on the body, not necessarily greater ones. “If you’re landing on your heel, you’ve lost a lot of ability in the ankle joint to absorb shock, while the ankle is more involved in midfoot or forefoot landing,” Heidersheit says. “That can be a good thing, as another joint absorbs impact, so your knee or hip don’t have to do as much. But it could also be a negative in that if you’re not ready for the ankle to absorb the shock, then the calf muscle and tissues around the ankle get exposed to bigger loads than what they’re ready to take on.” So simply making the switch from heel to forefoot strike doesn’t mean you’ll redistribute the impact. Rather, the adjustment could lead to other problems.
The same thinking applies to pronation. Researchers still debate whether pronation even leads to increased injury risk: One study that looked particularly at shoes helping to control pronation says, yes, those who pronate and run in a shoe that doesn’t control it could have a higher chance of injury. Another says moderate pronation does not increase injury risk, even if wearing a neutral shoe.
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“The challenge is that we don’t know when pronation gets to be too much, and pronation may be a fairly minor component to injury risk,” says Heiderscheit. “I think over the years, it’s gotten its own reputation that we need to think about a lot, and I think that has happened in the absence of science.”
When You Should and Shouldn’t Change Your Stride
The minimalist footwear movement certainly had its moment in the past, and it focused on letting your feet run free – no extra cushioning or stable outsoles to keep your toes or heels from moving on their natural path. While it sounds like solid practice in theory, problems arose because most runners didn’t prep their bodies for the change in mechanics that kick in when you swap your cushioned shoes for a more minimal design.
A lot of shoes have a cushioned heel for more protection as you land, especially for those who heel strike. Take that away, and it can lead to more knee or hip problems. Or switch to a midfoot strike to accommodate the shoe, and you might experience more ankle or calf injuries. “However, as long as people make changes slowly, your body is usually able to adapt to some small modifications in footwear or running gait,” says Brett Toresdahl, M.D., assistant attending physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery and research director for the HSS Primary Care Sports Medicine Service. “But the bigger changes bring on injuries.”
Likewise, you don’t want to focus on too many changes at one time. “If we see someone and they have a lot of things going on – a lot of instability, a lot of running faults – we wouldn’t take an aggressive approach, changing a lot of things in their mechanics at once,” says Rondel King, exercise physiologist at New York University’s Sports Performance Center. “If you toss a lot of drills and mechanics at someone, it’s exhausting both mentally and physically. So what drills would be best suited for them as of right now?” Rondel says they choose one or two to focus on, have the runner practice it, then check out what’s happening a few weeks later when they’ve had time to adjust.
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While some major changes to a stride (say, changing the foot strike) take some practice and careful viewing, you can easily implement other run cues into your training with little risk of injury, says Colleen Brough, D.P.T., assistant professor of Rehabilitation and Regenerative medicine at Columbia University and director of the Columbia RunLab. Most of these cues require applying your mind to your movement. For example, think about a slight forward lean at the ankles (not a hunched position) to help the glute engage, or literally squeeze the glute on your push-off or engage the core more to keep you stable and upright.
“You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) apply these cues throughout the entire run – try it for maybe 30 seconds at the start or the middle and then on the hills or when you tend to get tired,” says Brough. “Eventually it becomes natural, and you’re better able to engage glute or core muscles.”
If you tend to bounce up and down a lot, which leads to more stress on the joints, Brough suggests another cue: Keep an eye on something in the distance in your line of sight. If you notice it moving up and down a lot, then you need to eliminate some of your vertical bounce. Similarly, paying attention to the noise you make when you land (if you hear a slap slap slap with each footfall) should help you notice whether you need to engage the core more or lean forward slightly to soften the landing.
“The best way to know if [these cues and changes] help is if they alleviate pain on the run. For example, at mile 10 or 15, if you start getting knee pain, and you use the glute push-off cue and the pain goes away,” says Brough. “It also informs you, as the runner, where the likely issue is, and then maybe that’s where you want to start strengthening.” (Keep in mind, all experts mentioned that strengthening your glutes or core alone doesn’t mean they’ll automatically lighten up on the road. You have to think about using them for proper activation—and those are welcome changes to your run form.)
Because keeping your feet underneath your body is also super important to lowering the impact on your joints, Heiderscheit suggests examining your step rate or cadence, another accepted switch in your run mechanics. The exact number varies person to person, but to figure out yours, count the number of steps you take per minute, then increase it by 2 to 5 percent and see how that feels.
Brough does suggest taking a video of yourself running. Analyse what your form looks like compared to someone who makes running 42.2km look like a walk in the park. Maybe you notice a high bounce or that your feet step way out in front of your body. Those few earlier cues just might help fix the problem and make your run more efficient. “If you have to look really hard, though, then there’s probably nothing there,” Brough says.
How Shoes Affect Your Stride
There are plenty of ads that say a shoe will change your run game. And it could be partially true – you need a comfy pair to get you through kilometre after kilometre. But if the shoes don’t feel good, then they won’t protect you from injuries or get you to a finish line faster.
“When it comes to choosing a running shoe – a minimalist or stability shoe – research shows the folks with the least injuries are simply the ones in the most comfortable shoes,” Brough says. “So I’m not going to change the amount of someone’s pronation, but I am going to encourage them to try on different sneakers and find the most comfortable, because that will likely be the best footwear for them.” If you do pronate but a stability shoe just doesn’t feel good, then it’s probably a no-go for you.
There is also the case for a shoe that makes you feel like you’re running stronger, says Brough. Between feeling comfortable and feeling strong, perception is half the battle when it comes to the right shoe for you.
Heiderscheit mentions that if you do switch shoes and feel pain after a run, it’s time to examine the shoe. Switch back to your old pair to see if the problem pops up again. If not, then it’s probably best to forego the new pair. If yes, then it’s time to examine your mechanics.
The Bottom Line
Whether you adjust your stride or not comes down to your goals and how you feel on the road. If you’re feeling fine, crossing off mega mileage without injury, there’s no reason to start switching things up. (If your stride is not broken, there really is no reason to fix it.)
“I believe that there is no perfect running form; each runner has a signature form,” Brough says. “We can choose to optimise that form to either enhance performance or attempt to prevent injury. But there’s nothing out there in running medical literature that says that if you have this form, you’re definitely going to get injured.”
Brough uses one of her clients as an example – a four-time Olympic trails qualifier who happened to have the worst running mechanics she’s ever seen. “There was no way I was going to change that,” she says. And while that person ran injury-free, another person she might see with the same form could end up with a slew of issues.
Heiderscheit agrees that fixing form just to experiment could lead to more bad reactions than good. “When we do gait recommendations, it’s on people experiencing injury or chronic symptoms. Gait re-training can be beneficial for those who experience a lot of pain in the same area or for several months or years, or even who get reoccurring stress fractures,” he says. “But I don’t recommend people adjust gait in the absence of injury. Occasionally performance might be a reason, for instance, if mechanics aren’t efficient, and a runner experiences a high energy cost, he or she might benefit from changing gait. But changing gait to prevent injury – that’s a very slippery slope.”
“Nobody fits that idea of the perfect running form. I think people get hung up on the subtle variations or deviations that aren’t really deviations,” Heiderscheit adds. “Variability is completely fine, and that’s normal and healthy. I usually try not to let people focus on the subtlety. But if you’re having pain, that’s what changes the game.”