How to Master Running Form and Avoid Injuries (For Good)

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Eric Orton is a renowned performance expert and running coach who has dedicated his life to exploring the potential of the human body and mind.

Over the past 25 years, Eric has coached Olympians, professional, and age group athletes, including runners for distances from 1500m to 240 miles.
Eric is the coach in the international bestseller, Born to Run, and has written two books: The Cool Impossible, and Born to Run 2: The Ultimate Training Guide.

Not to be cute, but I describe the ideal of the running form you’ll soon be learning as “performance” because “form” is at the heart of the word. 

Without form, there’s no performance, full stop.

Some runners argue that they do not need to work on form. They have all kinds of reasons, such as: “I am not serious enough to need to learn,”; “Nobody taught me how to run in the first place,” “I’ve been running fine for years,”; “My body runs as it should.” 

I understand.  But why not challenge that thinking?  See how good it can feel to reinvent your run form. 

Also, if you have been suffering from aches and pains and even injuries associated with running, there’s a reason, and one of the root causes is likely overstriding and poor form.

A person running on a track.
Photo Credit: Eric Orton

Our bodies are designed to move in a certain way, common to all of us, and because of this, I fundamentally believe there is a single “best” way to run. 

Yes, some may have a more innate ability to run than others (just like in any sport).  But with the proper instruction in form, you can learn to run to the best of your ability, with the greatest efficiency.

Think of sprinters

They spend years honing their form and technique, focusing on the slightest movements to improve their time by hundredths of seconds. 

If you watch the Olympics or any other track and field event featuring the hundred-meter dash, you’ll see that all of these sprinters look basically the same when racing, from the moment they start to when they pick up speed to the final burst down the stretch to the finish. 

They have the same form because it’s clear to any in their sport what the most efficient way to sprint is.

A person running on a track.
Photo Credit: Eric Orton

But then go to a marathon or ultra race and watch all of the runners. They move every which way, with different foot strikes and biomechanics. 

No other sport works this way. Tennis, golf, and swimming – all of these sports teach form as fundamental to training. Why? 

Because the right technique translates into perFORMance gains. 

Running is no different, and there are biomechanical studies that detail the efficiencies of proper foot strike, cadence, and leg stiffness and how this affects injuries and performance. 

More than trying to improve performance, though, I believe running with proper form is important because it trains your body into its natural state of muscle equilibrium, allowing you to layer on the advantages of the strength that comes with every step we take as runners.  

YES, running should be the most functional type of strength training you do. Important as well – particularly to those who struggle with tightness, aches, and pains – form will lead you down a path where you’re running with ease.

Tightness occurs when some muscles work more than they should and others do not work as much as they should. With proper form, you are training your muscles and body to work and move in unison as one unit, taking away the tug and pull of muscles that cause tightness. 

Ever wonder why stretching feels good but really never holds or works long-term?  Because it is about needing to change how we use our muscles.

People working on technique in the mountain.
Photo Credit: Eric Orton

Now, here’s the good news.  Learning proper form is easy. 

Now here’s the not-so-good news. 

If you are changing a lot with your form, executing good run form consistently will take time to develop the muscle memory for it to take hold. Mastery is not won through more knowledge but rather through constant awareness and practice.

This is where runners can get frustrated.

Just because it requires some work and practice doesn’t make it impossible. A common mistake is because it takes practice and muscle memory; runners get impatient and think they need to “learn more” when they just need to practice more. 

Therefore, it is best to begin this change when you are not in a high-volume training cycle for a race. The perfect time is after a big race when you are recovering, and your run volume is lower so you can have the patience to practice.

People working on running form.
Photo Credit: Luis Escobar

Proper Foot Strike

Ok, you have been sitting enough; jump up and take your shoes and socks off. Time to show you how easy it is to learn proper foot strike.

Simply run in place at an easy-to-moderate effort. See, you did it right; no coaching necessary. 

Notice how you naturally had a subtle forefoot first landing on the ground? Now try running in place, heel striking first….wait, don’t do that; that will hurt.  When we run in place, we naturally gravitate to striking the ground with our forefoot.

Mid-foot or heel striking will not feel good because when we strike with our forefoot, we use the natural springs and elastic energy within our feet and calves.  

Everything in proper run form starts with how we strike the ground.

Landing with a subtle forefoot-to-heel strike is the first line of stability in your stride. The big toe engages the ground, which then engages the arch, which creates a stable base for your knees and hip. 

By landing with your forefoot, your arch, ankle, and calf provide some shock absorption or elastic energy to help keep you healthy and propel you forward. Striking with the forefoot also helps prevent you from overstriding and allows for better cadence.

A person running in the mountain.

If this is not convincing or motivating, let’s talk about what happens when you overstride and heel strike first. 

When we reach out in front of our body and strike the ground first with our heel, this puts a tremendous amount of force through that leg.

Along with ith this, a lot of work for the quad muscles, and because you are not getting stabilization from your forefoot, you are not able to stabilize at the hips or glutes from the heel foot strike.  

So what does this mean? 

It results in your quads overworking, hello tight IT band.  Since you are not able to stabilize well at the hips and glutes, these muscles do not work and eventually go dormant, causing tightness.

In addition, because you are not able to stabilize well, your hip flexors are called into emergency mode to help stabilize.

Their job is to just lift the leg, but now it is overworking to help stabilize, causing the hip flexors to be tight, causing a tilt in your pelvis, and reducing your running gait range of motion. 

So not only does this all leave you chronically tight, but you will hit a speed and performance plateau because you are not able to improve your force production due to the lack of hip and leg extension.  A vicious cycle that is all caused by how and where you strike the ground.

Let’s get off the negativity and on to some coaching points, skills, drills, and remedies to help you become a stronger runner.  Proper form is the correct application of strength.

Forefoot Awareness and Practice:

Perform these to feel the subtle forefoot landing.

#1: Two Leg Pogo

#2: 100 Up Minor and Major

Coaching points:

  • When Running, don’t keep your heel off the ground; let the heel kiss the ground after the subtle forefoot landing.
  • Start out conservatively, running 5-10 min at a time, and progress from there based on calf soreness.

Skills and Drills

Practice these to reinforce run form mechanics and to create muscle memory.

#1: Running Logs

#2: Skip for Height

Coaching Points:

Watch these for common mistakes and things to think about.

#1: Common Run Form Mistake

#2: Force Production

Running Muscle Memory:

  • Strength Running: Run as easy as you can with foot strike focus. 2-3 min per mile SLOWER than your normal EASY pace.  Start out conservatively, running 5-10 min at a time, and progress from there, based on calf soreness.  
  • Run Uphills for forefoot strike strength.
  • Run Downhills for glute strength and run form practice.

Movement Snacks 

Try these to help with tightness while Run Form takes hold. *Note these are not a solution for tightness, but will help speed up run form development.

#1: Shin Box: Tight hip flexors and quads.

#2: 3 Point Crab: Tight hip flexors, quads, and shoulder mobility.

#3: Straight Leg Bear Crawl: Tight hamstrings and calves

Run Strong, To Run Free.

Eric

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Eric Orton is a renowned performance expert and running coach who has dedicated his life to exploring the potential of the human body and mind. Eric was one of the coaches who pioneered the online coaching industry and has operated his run coaching business for the last 25 years helping Olympians, professional, and age group athletes, including runners for distances from 1500m to 240 miles, Ironman triathletes, cyclists, etc. His study of ancestral cultures, like Mexico’s legendary Rarámuri ultrarunners, has made him one of the foremost authorities on running, evolutionary biomechanics, and human performance. Eric is “the coach” in Christopher McDougall’s international bestseller, Born to Run, where his coaching was instrumental in helping Christopher complete the epic adventures described in his books, Born to Run and Running with Sherman. Eric is author of two of his own books: The Cool Impossible which has been published in 7 languages and 15 countries, and Born to Run 2: the Ultimate Training Guide. Eric travels the world speaking and coaching clinics on running. He is the former Director of Fitness at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and currently lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

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