More speed. Better efficiency. Fewer injuries. These are the three biggest reasons why runners should try to improve their running form. But how do you know which changes are right for you?
Fundamentally, a runner’s stride is a complex mix of two different energy sources: metabolic, energy produced by the muscles; and elastic energy produced by tendons and other connective tissue that stretch and recoil like a series of springs to propel you forward. A runner’s fitness level will limit the amount of energy the muscles can produce, while the functional strength of the soft tissue will dictate the most efficient way for a person to run.
“The more you utilize that elastic energy, the better you become at hitting the ground and absorbing those impact forces,” explains elite-level coach Steve Magness, author of “The Science of Running” and head cross country coach at the University of Houston. “The problem for novice runners is that their tendon strength tends to be very low, so they’re not really storing or utilizing much of that elastic energy. They can make huge gains by doing things like plyometrics and practicing sprints.”
Good running form, then, is more a byproduct of continually improving your fitness level and functional strength than it is a conscious effort to employ a certain footstrike or adopt a one-size-fits-all style of running, such as Chi or Pose running techniques.
“New runners need to spend the first two to three months during a new training program to allow the soft tissue to stiffen,” says exercise physiologist and elite coach Greg McMillan. “It’s an important adaptation. Even just a small improvement can lead to huge gains.”
Translation—you can improve your form without consciously trying to improve your form.
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In addition to focusing on functional strength and doing the right type of workouts to improve fitness, recreational and sub-elite runners can make huge gains in efficiency and reduce the likelihood of injury by regularly doing basic form maintenance drills that encourage a shorter stride and increased cadence. At the elite level, these improvements are marginal at best, given an already high level of fitness and strength attained from years of training. “If you consistently do the right training, good form tends to take care of itself,” Magness says.
We’ve outlined a series of universal form fixes all runners can work on to run faster and more efficiently with less likelihood of injury.