Want to know how to run with the perfect running form? My advice is simple, don’t! Say what? If you are looking to read another boring article that gives a bunch of running tips that you try to emulate without success then, you are in the wrong place. If you are looking for an article that may change your mind on what you have thought of as far as running mechanics are concerned, then please continue on. As a high school track and field/cross country coach for the past 11 years and working as a chiropractor that sees a large number of runners, I have performed countless running form assessments.
A perfect running form is not necessary. Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest human of all time, has anything but “perfect” running form but his form is perfect for him. Researchers at Southern Methodist University, experts on the biomechanics of sprinting, found something unexpected during video examination of Bolt’s stride: “His right leg appears to strike the track with about 13 percent more peak force than his left leg. And with each stride, his left leg remains on the ground about 14 percent longer than his right leg.” You can read the full NY times article about Bolt’s abnormal stride but it makes you wonder if Bolt had been forced to run “perfect” would he still be the world’s fastest man of all time?
Another example of why you can run without “perfect” running form is a study (pictures below from the study) from the men’s and women’s 2017 USATF 10k. The biggest takeaway from this is that “Performance is not different between footstrike types.” That is a HUGE statement. I’ve heard 1,000’s of times that you need to run on the balls of your feet or you should not overpronate or this or that. That is not to say those cues might be appropriate for a certain athlete. However, I think that giving cues based loosely on a general consensus of what constitutes good running form is a poor way to analyze a runner. Some of the fastest runners in the world overpronate and if they did not, they would not be some of the fastest runners.
When I perform a running analysis, whether in my office or at the track, there are a lot of things I just flat out do not worry about. There are some things that I do worry about. My disclaimer, as always, is that what is right for one athlete is not always right for another athlete and it is very hard to make broad generalizations on what is right for you without 1-on-1 contact. I think that it is important for a runner to get their form analyzed by someone who knows running. So what do I look at when I do a running analysis? Here are the 5 main things that I look at:
- Crossing Over Midline
- Excessive Backside Mechanics
- Hip Weakness
The cue I really like for runners is running tall through your pocket. From a biomechanical perspective, if you do that, it will take care of a lot of the potential issues in the running gait. I also like it because the less an athlete thinks about form when they run, the better. This cue is simple and concise, my favorite type of cue. I find a lot of runners have read to have a forward lean while they run and they try to emulate that by bending at the waist and not staying tall through the pocket. This shortens the hip flexors and can shut off the glutes putting you in a poor position biomechanically. While having a forward lean is a running cue with good intentions, it is a very poor running cue for most runners. Very simply, nothing good comes from poor posture.
Overstriding means that when the foot hits the ground, it hits in front of the hip. Almost everyone who overstrides is a heavy heel striker and as a result, they have extended ground contact times. They will also have a low running cadence. The “optimal” running cadence is 180 but be careful, much like running form, running at the optimal cadence might not be right for you. Overstriders often present clinically with a high hamstring tendinopathy. I always preach that the foot can hit any way that it wants to as long as it is under the hip and the above pictures do a good job of reinforcing that concept. However, if someone is a massive overstrider and changes their gait so they do not overstride at all, they often change too much and become injured.
Crossing Over Midline
When someone has a weak gluteus medius, one of the direct compensations is a running gait where the individual crosses over the midline when they run with their feet. The glute med provides a lot of hip stability when you run. I find that in distance runners that have weak glute meds, as they increase mileage, they become frequently injured. This is the type of patient that presents with IT-band syndrome, lateral knee pain or peroneal tendonitis. They are generally a little bouncy when they run and have a low running cadence. Strengthening up your glute meds will be more useful than a running cue to not cross the midline if you are a runner that crosses the midline.
Excessive Backside Mechanics
As a former excessive backside runner myself, I know how hard it can be to fix or as I would say, better this error. Simply put, frontside is anything that occurs in front of the hip, backside is anything that occurs behind the hip in terms of your legs while running. Excessive backside mechanics are the people who bring the heel towards the butt and elongate the time you spend in backside. Backside people are usually bouncy runners with a low cadence. As you can imagine, bouncy means not efficient and more prone to injuries. Of utmost importance to backside runners are increasing frontside mechanics. Frontside mechanics are very beneficial in terms of efficiency and injury prevention. I like wickets for increasing frontside mechanics.
Hip weakness goes hand in hand with several of the above discrepancies that I have described. The more miles you run, the more hip strength you need. Strong hips, specifically glute meds, are one of the best injury prevention tools in the game in my opinion. In terms of hip weakness, you will notice excessive movement in the hips throughout the running gait. This may present with “knee knocking”, side to side motion, upper body rotation or other biomechanical discrepancies as well. Much of these errors can be corrected through specific strength work for the hips.
-Dr. Brian Damhoff DC MS
Dr. Brian Damhoff DC MS is a chiropractic physician and owner of Elite Performance Institute in Naperville, IL. He currently coaches track and field/cross country at Plainfield North High School and works with the Northern Illinois University track and field/cross country program as the team chiropractor.