Why We Should Change Our Perspective on Running Form

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Whenever I consult with a new client or patient, they often want to talk about three different things. How they don’t stretch enough, they don’t use a certain muscle group enough when they run and how their running form is bad. I’ve written about the first two topics before (check those out HERE and HERE). I wanted to touch on how running form is often discussed and how I think we should change our perspective on evaluating running form. We are going to divide this article into two types of runners because I think that is important when discussing running form: 

  1. Runners dealing with pain

  2. Runners looking to improve performance

RUNNING FORM WITH HEALTHY RUNNERS

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Running form has been a highly debated topic over recent years. Many different researchers, coaches, trainers and social media influencers have thrown out their individual thoughts on how there are certain characteristics that are necessary for “good” running form. We often live in a world of absolutes. There is a right and wrong way to do something, and no room for anything in between.

My perspective on “ideal running form” has changed a lot since I began working with runners. I use to think there were certain characteristics runners had to display or they were risking getting hurt and not reaching their potential. When evaluating a healthy runners form, I think we need to move away from searching for an “ideal gait pattern” and instead ask the question, “Has this person adapted to their running gait?”

What do I mean when I say “adapted”?

Getting a Boston Qualifier is a big goal for a lot of runners. When I first started working with clients on strength training, I had a mid-50s runner reach out to me to help him with lifting as he set his sights on his first BQ. We went through an assessment and it was very surprising to me that he had been able to stay healthy based off his severely tight hamstrings, hip flexors and weak glute muscles (all assessments I thought really mattered back then). When I watched him run, I was even more shocked. A big, overstriding gait pattern. Loud, aggressive heel-striking on both sides. Yet he was healthy.

Looking back now, that running gait worked for him! He had adapted to it over time and made smart training decisions as he built up to races. I would argue if we changed how he ran so it was more “ideal” we would have been putting him at risk of getting hurt.
If someone is healthy and checking off their performance goals, I generally don’t want to upset that runner’s ecosystem. If a runner exhibits a large, overstriding gait pattern, and has dealt with multiple bouts of anterior knee pain or multiple tibial stress fractures, it might be appropriate to reduce that runners stride length, teach them to land a little softer, in order to decrease some load through an area of frequent irritation.

Before we get into the specifics of running mechanics, lets first discuss what is often our goal when training. As we try to build our base, peak for a race, or just generally raise our fitness level through distance running, we are often aiming to improve our running economy. 

Running economy is defined as the rate of oxygen consumed at a given submaximal running velocity (Moore 16’). Izzy Moore did a fantastic article summarizing the variables we can actually change to improve our running economy. Her article can be found HERE. I also did a summary video of this article a few months back. 

What is not included in this summary? Absolutes when it comes to running form. The one variable she found was having less hip extension at toe off and we often here we should be striving for MORE hip extension in the press.

There is not one specific foot strike pattern, arm swing, hip position or any other kinematic variable that makes one runner’s form better than another. We see this in the injury literature too. As much as enthusiastic coaches on social media want to tell you their is a right way to run, that is not true. We actually have a recent article showing when you think about your running form, you perform WORSE! Read it HERE.

When I was a new grad, that article would have come as a shock to me and the way I practice. I think it is an important reminder that the human body is really good at adapting. That is why we can see so many healthy runners, running at a variety of different paces, and displaying large variations in running mechanics.

RUNNERS DEALING WITH PAIN

Disclaimer: using any one image to judge a runner’s mechanics is not ideal, but play along with me for a second. Also, when dealing with pain we also need to be considering progressive loading drills, footwear prescriptions, training volume and a host of other variables.

With that being said, these are two common running form presentations.


Runner #1: Rearfoot Striking

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A runner comes in with anterior knee pain and exhibits this pattern on initial contact. Judging off this image, we might be able to come to the conclusion that the runner is overstriding (based off the position of their shin) and is rearfoot striking (more load on the knee and hip). They might also have a lower cadence r step rate. All of these characteristics shout “More loading to the knee!”. Since this runner is exhibiting knee pain, we might want to change how this runner is running.

Now many of you might be saying, “Yeah, I read in a magazine/blog that heel striking is awful and overstriding is keeping me from my goals.” Here is the catch. I would argue no ONE running form characteristic is bad without taking into context the athlete, their history, their current situation and a host of other factors. Many examples exist with all of these characteristics and are healthy and checking off their goals. In this instance, we must consider changing this persons mechanics based off their individual presentation.

Runner #2: Forefoot Striking

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A runner comes in with achilles tendinitis and exhibits a forefoot striking pattern at initial contact. We know that running with a forefoot strike places more load on the achilles and foot. This would be an instance when getting them closer to a rearfoot strike would be appropriate for the time being. It is not that forefoot, midfoot or rearfoot striking is bad, but it is an important variable to assess based of an individual’s presentation and history.

Here is the bottom line.

If a runner is having pain, and exhibiting running form characteristics that are placing increased loading on that area, they will often benefit from some kind of running form training in order to get them back to consistent running as fast as possible.

Running form is a complex topic and we really have to take an individualized approach to determining whether a runner’s form should be changed. We also have to make sure we are taking a comprehensive view at the individual and making sure we are getting them stronger, in appropriate footwear and developing individual return to running plans for the individual.

Thanks for reading!

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Nathan Carlson PT, USATF

Nathan Carlson