I’m not saying I have a secret ingredient to make you run super fast or super long. But I do have a bunch of things that have worked for me and have transformed running from something other (crazy) people did, to something I look forward to doing.
Running is a solid part of my weekly routine. I never thought I’d be one of those people. But here we are, let’s just accept it and move on!
For me, the first motivation for figuring out my running form, was to make running bearable. I achieved that a while ago. With those changes, I found that not only did running not hurt anymore, but that it was fun. Then another strange thing happened – I started getting faster.
Note: I don’t go for distance. I have a short attention span and I don’t like spending time recovering from killing myself doing a 2+ hour run. Plus, I don’t really have time to do that.
If you’re looking for some ideas on how to tweak your form to squeeze a bit more out of your body, read on.
Perhaps you’ve just started running and you hate it – please please keep reading. Running doesn’t have to be something other bodies can do and yours can’t.
Everything in this list makes an assumption. This assumption may seem silly or obvious, but it’s not always as easy as it sounds:
You need to know what your body is doing
I don’t mean in general, I mean really zone in. If you are concentrating on your hands you need to know what each finger is doing. If you can’t feel what the bits of you are up to, you won’t know how to change it and you won’t know whether your changes are working.
Ready? Let’s go.
Starting at the bottom. Do you know where you land on your feet? Do you know if you land on the outside or inside of your foot? Are you a neutral runner?
Basically, if you land square on your foot, without rolling to your outside or inside edge, then you’re a neutral runner. If you do either of the other two, then you may have issues with knee and/or hip alignment.
I’m lucky, I’m a neutral gal. This isn’t something I’ve fixed or worked towards – it just is. If you’re not that lucky, don’t panic – there’s a whole universe of trainers which will compensate either way. Your best bet is to speak to someone at a running shop – they can do a gait analysis and give you advice on which shoes will work with you best.
That’s the foundation. Now the bit that you can work on. When I started running, my knees would always hurt towards the end of my run. And then for days after. This is because I was heel-striking, which sent all of the impact force up to my knee and beyond.
Now I’m a mid/fore foot striker. I changed this myself. One day. I just tried it. Instead of landing on my heels first, I switched to the front of my foot. It felt odd, like I was running on tiptoes.
The strange thing about this change, is that it initially felt slower. I think because there’s less to-and-fro in your stride. I remember being AMAZED at my time when I’d run my normal route. I’m talking about an improvement of about 40 seconds per mile. Which is crazy!
There are so many great things about making this change to your stride. The two big ones are; you aren’t fighting your forward momentum so much; and you’re doing some amazing shock absorption.
Like magic, my knees stopped hurting. I don’t really care what actually happens in the human foot and ankle when you run “properly” – the pain was gone. And that’s when the fun started to knock on the door.
2. Knees and hips
I haven’t had to do much adjustment here, but every now and again, I find myself glancing down and checking my alignment. It’s usually when I get tired, and I start to get sloppy.
Ironically, when we get tired and our form slips, we create more work for ourselves.
The main goal with knees and hips is to keep them aligned. For me, this means keeping my hips as square forward as possible. This is all linked to…
3. The core
The core is your secret weapon. It took a few changes before I realised this is where the action is. There’s a reason they call it the core. Duh.
The easiest way for me to imagine it is that I need to make sure that everything else I’m doing with my body needs to disrupt my core as little as possible.
This means that my belly button has to stay facing front most of the time. It shouldn’t move to the side, there should be little or no twisting.
I have an issue with my circulation. This means that I struggle with my hands in anything chillier than 20 degrees. Celsius.
At the start of a run, they will feel icy cold and dead. I’m not kidding. As they warm up, they can be painful. Sometimes it feels like they’ll explode at the sheer shock of having warm blood in them.
This isn’t really a form issue. Everyone else will tell you that your hands should be relaxed. Sometimes they say to imagine holding a potato chip between your thumb and forefinger. Sometimes you have to imagine holding butterflies – alive ones – in your fist-cage-thing.
None of this helps me. My hands are possibly one of my biggest distractions and one of the biggest threat to my form.
So, my advice on hands: forget about the chips and butterflies. Keep them relaxed. But don’t try and create some strange insect container with your fingers – this causes tension for me. Let them fall however feels right for you.
And, if like me, you have circulation issues, feel free to shake those bad boys out. If I’m alone, you’ll probably catch me shaking them above my head, out to the side, wherever.
When it comes to hands, just do what you need to do – but don’t disrupt the core.
Oh arms. How you are both a help and a hindrance.
Arms can be great to get you up a hill. Until you realise the hill is a distant memory and you’re still pumping those arms and wasting a whole bunch of energy.
Or maybe you swing your arms with too much gusto. Thinking you’re keeping your shoulders relaxed, but wait. Check. If you’re swinging your arms across your body, what’s happening to your core? All of that twisting motion is disrupting your balance, wasting energy and interrupting your forward momentum.
One of the most difficult things I found was keeping my arms on a forward plane. I did this by concentrating on my upper arms only. Try and keep those straight down and the forearms tend to follow.
When you run uphill, think about pumping your arms from your elbows rather than your fists – you get the same charge, but it’s easier to maintain alignment.
Just keep them relaxed.
Just. She says. Sounds easy. It’s not always easy though is it?
If I’m cold, my shoulders hunch up. If I’m nervous, my shoulders hunch up. If I’m angry, my shoulders hunch up. You get the idea.
Keeping those shoulders loose and low can take a lot of concentration! But it will pay off. If you don’t relax your shoulders, your arms will join the mutiny too.
Shoulders aren’t just out to get you though. Shoulders can be great to help you lean into things.
I struggle a bit running down hill. I always want to put the brakes on and I do that by leaning backwards. This messes up what I do with my feet and totally disrupts my pace. So, I started leaning in to the downhill. Not too much – although at first it felt pretty scary. Just a bit, to make you run with the downhill. You get a free boost of speed and it is easier than fighting the hill.
7. Neck and jaw
Keep your jaw loose – another thing that’s easier said than done. For me, this is linked to my neck and how I hold my head. I need to keep my head in neutral spine. I’ve read so much about people giving tips telling you to focus on the horizon – but that’s too high for me. If I have my head that high, I restrict my airway too much. It’s not a massive difference, but you need all of the pipe-size you can get, right?
For me and my body, looking about 10 feet in front of me is roughly the right position. This may or may not work for you – find the spot that allows your neck to feel relaxed and that you can get as much air in as possible. Too low and you won’t breathe properly. Too far back and well the same thing, you’ll probably look like a bit of a twat too, since you won’t know where you’re going.
Tip from Shaun T – keep enough space for a tennis ball between your chin and your collar bone.
For me, the trick to getting as much air in as possible is to forget about getting as much air as possible.
I’m not saying completely forget about your breathing. Instead, focus on your out breath. If you concentrate on getting as much air out as possible, the inhalation will take care of itself.
The rest of the breathing thing for me is to listen to some music at the right speed. This helps me sync breathing with my stride.
And finally, possibly more importantly:
Don’t worry about how much noise you are making.
Have you ever listened to a bunch of runners breathing? They sound like serial killing maniacs. So don’t worry about it. Anyone who is listening to you isn’t running. Because if they’re running, they’re not thinking about you and what you’re doing – they’re thinking about what they are doing.
Forget everything else. If your head is telling you that you can’t do something, you need to crush that. You can do it.
My head is out to get me. It tells me I can’t all the time. It tells me to stop. It tells me to walk.
I don’t know why it does this. I know I can do it – I’ve done it before. So it’s just messing with me. There are two things I can do about this:
1. Fight it and prove my head wrong
2. Ignore it and give myself a break
I find 2 so ridiculously difficult. So, that’s what I work on the most.
There you have it.
It’s all about using the right amount of energy in the right places and figuring out what works for you. Pay attention to your body, make small changes and keep what works, ditch what doesn’t.
Most of all, have fun. The more fun you have, the more relaxed your body will be – and the easier everything will feel when it moves together.