Here’s What Bad Running Form Looks Like: 9 Signs To Look For

Fix up your running form for improved running economy.

Bad running form. Experienced runners know what it looks like when someone else has it. Sometimes, you look at another runner, and you just know. But, it is often hard to tell if you yourself run well or need to brush up on your running technique.

And if your running form is bad and you know it, don’t worry! It is never too late to fix it; don’t feel alone. No one is immune to bad running form. As for new runners, you’ve caught it in time.

Unlike going to a yoga class or following a YouTube Pilates workout, we’ve got no one to correct us or tell us what proper form really looks like.

Although good running form may look slightly different for everyone and their unique biomechanics – even the pros have their own running style – there are definitely some fundamental running form mistakes to avoid.

A person with good running form.

What Is Proper Running Form?

The ideal running posture is stacking body systems in a straight line.1Collins, C. K., Johnson, V. S., Godwin, E. M., & Pappas, E. (2016). The reliability and validity of the Saliba Postural Classification System. Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy24(3), 174–181. https://doi.org/10.1080/10669817.2016.1138599

‌This means that your lower leg, thigh, pelvis, trunk, neck, and head are all stacked in a straight line, one on top of another.

It is also important for each of these ‘body systems’ to be neutrally tilted. So, for example, if you had bad running form, your hips might be tilted sideways, or your head could be tilted backward.

In other words, proper running form is when your body is aligned.

Why Is Proper Running Form Important?

Having proper running form is super important if you want to avoid injury.

Not only that but having good running form makes you a more efficient runner. You can direct all your power to driving forward.

A person sprinting up stairs.

How Do I Know That I Have Good (Or Bad) Running Form?

Work with a coach. This is a luxury, but if you have the opportunity to do so, working with an experienced running coach is a great way to have your running weaknesses spotted, pointed out, and corrected.

If getting a running coach isn’t for you, film yourself! Lose the shame and set up your phone as you run past it.

From the video, you can analyze your running form and see where your weaknesses lie. Slow that video down, and you’ll be able to magnify those bad running form weaknesses and common mistakes and then work on correcting them.

Related: Chi Running Guide: 5 Tai-Chi Elements To Incorporate In Your Running Form

What Are The Signs Of Bad Running Form?

The following list of signs could all be indicators of poor running form and should prompt you to take stock of the way you run. Here’s what to look out for.

  • Neck pain while running.
  • Overly fatigued quads or hips.
  • Restricted breathing during easy runs.
  • Elbows shooting side to side, not back and forth.
  • Reoccurring specific muscle soreness.
  • Knee or hip pain shortly after running.
  • Shoulder pain while running.

If you experience any of these symptoms while running, it is worth taking the time to evaluate your running form so you can work to avoid possible running injuries.

A person jogging.

What Are Common Mistakes In Running Form?

There are many things to look out for regarding bad running form.

Let’s work down the list from head to toe.

Mistake #1: Craning your neck forward.

If your head hunches down when you run, you could soon be in the market for some neck strains and pain.

According to the Sports Injury Physio, having your head misaligned adds about 5kg of strain to your neck muscles and joints.2Neck Pain While Running – Quick Fix Guide. (2016, July 20). Sports Injury Physio. https://www.sports-injury-physio.com/post/neck-pain-while-running

Try to correct this by ensuring that your head is stacked. A good way to work on this is to think of your spine being lengthened as if a balloon were pulling you up from the back of your head.

This can take some practice, but it will be worth it in the long run.

A person overstriding.

Mistake #2: Looking upwards.

Much like Mistake #1, looking upwards while running is a bad idea for your neck health and causes unnecessary strain. But it goes beyond that.

Looking upwards as you run will shift your center of mass backward. This shift of your center of mass actually increases your likelihood of overstriding (Mistake #5- to be discussed soon!).

Mistake #3: Hunching your shoulders forward.

Hunching your shoulders while running is linked to general bad posture in everyday life, and you’ll likely make this mistake if you are a forward neck craner.

Hunching your shoulders as you run tends to increase the pressure on your chest and respiratory system, making it harder to breathe profoundly and utilize oxygen during your run.

Poor shoulder posture can also contribute to improper hip extension. When your upper body collapses and your center of gravity shifts forward, you won’t be able to achieve a neutral spine.

This means that you won’t be able to extend your hips properly, and instead, you will have to bring your legs forward to support you.

Instead, your neck and shoulders should be relaxed and upright.

A person with an exagerrated arm swing running.

Mistake #4: Swinging your arms from side to side.

When your arms swing side to side instead of back to front, your torso will rotate to compensate and maintain balance. This is pretty inefficient, and energy that could propel you forward as you run is lost in this side-to-side motion.

Proper arm technique while running looks like a smooth rhythm, elbows driving backward, arms close to the body, and arms naturally swinging from back to front.

Mistake #5: Overstriding.

Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, but overstriding makes your running much less efficient. Overstriding increases the effort it takes to lift off and cushion your landing, and most overstriders end up heel striking as their foot strike.

It also increases your risk of injury by ramping up the load on your hips and knees.

Measuring your cadence is a good way to tell if you’re overstriding.

Generally, a ‘good’ cadence should be around 160 to 190 steps per minute. If yours is in the lower range, then there is a good chance you are an overstrider.

A person running.

Mistake #6: Not engaging your glutes properly.

This is a common type of bad running form often overlooked.

When your glutes are not engaged, your other muscles have to do more work to support your running.

Consequently, it makes this running issue hard to identify. Your glutes won’t experience the brunt of the injury. Instead, the issue could manifest itself in hip flexor tightness, IT band issues, or an array of other problems.

Getting your glutes to fire properly can be done by isolating the glute muscles by stretching or performing strength training exercises, thus essentially ‘waking up’ the lazy glute muscles.

A close up of running shoes.

Mistake #7: Letting your knees collapse inwards.

If your knees collapse inwards as you run, it can lead to a host of other not-so-good knock-on effects on your running form, such as:

  • Pelvis – External rotation
  • Hips – Internal rotation
  • Tibia  – External rotation
  • Rearfoot – Internal rotation
  • Forefoot – External rotation
  • Foot arch – Pronation

Essentially, your whole form will be out of whack. Many of your joints will have to rest on each other but in a twisted fashion.

This can lead to many injuries, including plantar fasciitis, shin splints, aches and pains, knee injuries, and lower back pain – which may be sciatica.

For good form, you will want to run with your knees driving directly forwards, in a neutral alignment.

A person running.

Mistake #8: Running on your tiptoes.

Landing right on your toes is effective for sprinting and short, speedy bursts, but landing too far forward on your toes isn’t recommended for longer distances as it increases your risk of injury.

Tiptoe running during long-distance running could lead to shin splints or other injuries. Instead, comfortable midfoot striking is generally recommended for distance runners.

Mistake #9: Pounding your feet.

If your feet come crashing down as you run, you are increasing the impact on your joints, and it is an inefficient use of energy and a way to increase injury risk.

Work on treading lightly and minimizing your feet’ sound as they strike the ground.

A person running.

How Do You Fix Bad Running Form?

Correcting your bad running form may seem like an overwhelming task.

But here are a few things to keep in mind as you work on becoming a more efficient, less injury-prone runner:

  • Look ahead.
  • Make sure your foot lands under your center of mass.
  • Keep your arms at roughly a 90-degree angle.
  • Relax your hands.
  • Keep your spine lengthened.
  • Relax your shoulders down and back.
  • Keep your arms at your sides.
  • Rotate your arms from your shoulders.
  • Don’t bounce up and down too much.
  • Run lightly.
  • Keep your cadence quick.
  • Stretch and add weights to your training plan to correct muscle imbalances and injury prevention.
  • Lean forward slightly, but don’t bend at the waist.

Proper Running Form- How To

So we’ve discussed bad running form, now let’s flip the dialogue and focus on good running form!

Check out this article for form fix tips on how to make proper running form look effortless.


Photo of author
Maria Andrews is a runner, adventure lover, and UESCA certified Ultramarathon Coach. When she's not running around the woods or plotting adventures, she's spending time with her nearest and dearest, cooking up a storm, or working on Marathon Handbook's sister website, yogajala.com :)

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