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How to Know If Your Running Form is Good

Come on, we're aaaall thinking it.

All wondering it.

We ALL have that inner dialogue:

Am I doing this right? How do I know if my form is any good?...or bad?? What am I even looking for? How is running so complicated?

That brings up another elephant in the room.

Why are there so many different running form gurus?

"Why is this so overwhelming? Have I messed myself up that badly because I'm running "wrong"? How do I actually translate what I'm reading into real-life running?"

(Not gonna lie, at this point I get too frustrated and say "whatever", aggressively slip on my running shoes, and head out the door. You all have much more patience than I do sometimes.)

Another honest moment: tracking down running form research papers is a….bear. You'd *think* there'd be a clear-cut article out there that says: THIS IS IT! THIS is the GOLD STANDARD! Run like THIS!

Nope.

Nope.

Nope-ity nope nope.

Or maybe I just don't know how to use google scholar and pubmed and…you get it.

But yes, enter *more* frustration trying to find the answers to your very logical, very understandable, and actually SUPER important question: how do I know if my running form is good and if I need to change something?




Spoiler: the reason this article doesn’t exist (at least not in August of 2022 that I am aware of) is that to say "THIS is the GOLD STANDARD of running form!" essentially equates to in the research world as "THIS is the running form that prevents ALL injuries for EVERY SINGLE runner ever!"

Guess what? No one wants to make that absolute statement. It would potentially be academic-and-research-suicide.

So what's a runner to do in the mean time?

Oh, lots!

There's still lot's we can do to help you figure out if your running form is an A+ or maybe an average C.

The first thing you need to do to get started…

Take a video of yourself running.
From the back and the side.

I know, I know, no one wants to do this. It's not the most flattering, I get it. But the only way to *see* your running form, is to get eyes on it, either yours or somebody else's (ideally a professional).

The first thing you're probably going to think is,

"That cannot be how I look! I saw this going differently in my mind: looking good and feeling natural! But seeing myself in this video, what's going on with my arm swing, stride, cadence…?"

Let me riff here: this disconnect could potentially be from kinesthetic awareness and proprioception. (I know, big words.) But this speaks directly to our situation here: the perception from your grain as to how you and your joints feel moving through space, what you feel, the movement you are aware of can be *different* from the visual representation of that movement in the video.

Example: Trying to catch a baseball. You swear you're lined up to catch the ball! But instead of catching it, it lands about 3 feet behind you. Oops. Don't got it.

The solution to both of these: practice, time, and regular re-evaluation and feedback on your performance. So go take that video. Which leads me to my next point..

Have a "toe to head, what should my body look like" checklist.
But don't obsess.

Easier said than done, completely understand!

What makes this easier: understanding the WHY behind each point. When you understand the purpose, it gives you context. You're not just taking my word for it or your favorite running coach or form guru.

You are the expert of your own body. And there are going to be some things that just won't completely go away.

Example: meet my right foot. It's a pancake. It's literally just made that way. It does this weird pronation, calcaneal eversion heel-whip-snappy thing as I toe-off. It's really bad with the wrong running shoes and no corrective orthoses. But with my custom inserts and the right running shoe, it's still there but it's light years better!!

3 Tips you need to burn into your brain before diving into this running form checklist:
  1. Our goal is running form perfection; our aim is bodily symmetry.

  2. Our bodies are ever-changing, dynamic, movement systems that need to be evaluated as a WHOLE.

  3. "Running velocity affects lower energy kinematics"

What does that last one mean…

It means, your running form naturally changes when you run slower vs faster. Will you look like Usain Bolt or Allyson Felix on your easy run? Probably not! At least you shouldn’t…because you shouldn't be sprinting your easy run. Because of this, I'd actually encourage you to take videos at an easy pace AND a hard pace and learn how your own body adapts and changes in response to the challenge of faster speeds. You just might impress yourself ;)

Let's Dive into our Running Form Checklist
Disclaimer: This article I found: is amazing! Dr. Souza himself, the author, recognizes the limitations of his own article and the current literature at the time when he wrote this, which was 2016. It's a tad old, I know. The literature has different opinions now on a several things, but honestly, it doesn't directly change a formal gait assessment. And like I mentioned above, trying to find anything recent and as comprehensive as this article, was a bust. Along the way, I'll be adding in my own professional opinions as to what you should look for waist up.



Set up

  • 2 videos of you running: from the side and the back

  • Ideal setting: treadmill (because it's easier) but outdoors is just fine (you might need a running buddy)

  • Over-achiever award:

    • Do this 2x, at your easy run pace and at race pace (or faster, like a sprint). See Tip #3.

    • Use neon duct tape: use these as markers on specific body landmarks. It'll help you visualize different aspects we're talking about during the evaluation, but they're by no means necessary.

    • Landmarks: "C7 spinous process, posterior superior iliac spines, anterior superior iliac spine, greater trochanter, lateral knee joint line, lateral malleolus, midpoint of the calf, superior and inferior portions of the heel shoe counter, and head of the fifth metatarsal."

Warm Up

  • Acclimate to your running surface of choice for 6-10mins.

    • Studies have identified changes in kinematics deviating from normal running mechanics with treadmill running up to the initial 6 minutes."

  • Only have a weird "hitch in your step" after a certain mile? Take your videos before AND after that mile marker so you can compare and contrast objectively.

Remember: "As such, the analyses included here does not provide the reader with specific angles or measures that are 'abnormal.' Each metric is described, and indicators of normal kinematics are provided." Use the process, follow the process, and see Tip #2.

Assessment from the Side

Foot strike

  • What to look for: Where are you landing on average? Forefoot, midfoot, rear foot/heel strike? Remember, we're on a spectrum here and "…it is not uncommon to misidentify a foot strike type when observing running at full speed. "

    • "At this time, there is limited evidence that any 1 foot strike pattern is more or less likely to cause a runner to sustain an injury."

  • So what do you do then?

    • This: always landing hard on your heel? Probably not great for you. Trying to always land on your forefoot but now your foot's hurting? Also, probably a sign. We want your foot strike to be natural and efficient, which is why it varies from runner to runner because each body is different and unique

Hip Extension

  • What it is: Think about pulling your leg straight back as if you're winding up to kick a soccer ball; this is hip extension. And you NEED it for running!

    • However, the optimal amount of hip extension during running remains elusive." (hmm great, very helpful.)

  • What you're looking for: roughly 10 degrees of symmetrical of hip extension. This isn't a whole lot of movement, but you're looking for a noticeable leg trailing behind you.

  • The reason this matters:

    • "Commonly observed compensations for persons with reduced hip extension include (1) increased lumbar spine extension (your low back is doing the work your hips were made to do), (2) bounding, a strategy to increase float time to increase overall stride length in the absence of adequate hip extension, (3) increased overstriding, including excessive reaching during initial contact as a strategy to increase stride length, and (4) increased cadence to increase running speed in the presence of a limited hip extension."

Trunk Lean

"Trunk lean is a variable that has received little attention in the scientific literature. However, this is not the case in the popular running non–peer-reviewed literature."

  • Is it super important? The research-jury is out.

  • Is it helpful? Maybe.

  • The idea behind it: by falling into your next stride, you allow gravity to do the work and decrease the load and pressure on your knees vs a super straight, upright posture which might not be as energy efficient.

  • What's important: 7 degrees of trunk lean comes from a "combination of hip flexion, pelvis anterior tilt, and other small kinematic adjustments." Again, see tip #2 and #3.

Overstriding

  • Why we care: overstriding can cause "increased risk of tibial stress fractures in runners" and knee pain (patellar femoral pain)

  • However, having a long stride does NOT equal overstriding!

    • "Overstriding is a description of a running pattern in which the foot lands in front of the person’s center of mass, and is associated with reaching, including hip flexion with knee extension, before initial contact."

How do you find out if you're overstriding?

  1. Use your video from the side

  2. Pause the video and go through frame by frame

  3. Screen shot an image where you front foot/heel has *just* come in contact with the ground

  4. Draw on the picture. Find that outside ankle bone (lateral malleolus) and draw a vertical line up.

  5. Does that line hit within your hips?

    1. Yes: you're good!

    2. No: if that vertical line hits in front of your hips, then you're probably overstriding.

Assessment from the Back

Base of Support

  • What this means: where are your legs and feet located beneath you? (I know, this sounds like an odd question, but hang in there with me…)

    • "A general rule… the left and right feet should not overlap in their ground contact location. It is not necessary that there be a large gap between the foot placement locations of the left and right feet, but there should be some space."

  • Why you care:"A narrow base of support has been linked to tibial stress fractures, iliotibial band syndrome, and several kinematic patterns that have been associated with running injuries, such as excessive hip adduction and overpronation"

  • What you're looking for: does it look like you're about to trip yourself? Or are your feet so wide apart you look like a lumbering elephant? Bare minimum: your feet should be less than hip width apart.

Knee Window

  • What this is: "Evaluation…is simple...the presence or absence of a space between the knees at all times of the running cycle...from a posterior (back) view. The knee window does not need to be large"

  • Why you care: if the knee window is NOT present, it could imply poor "alignment of the hip, knee, and ankle" resulting in "excessive hip adduction, excessive hip internal rotation, and excessive knee valgus (which) have all been implicated in running injuries."

  • What you're looking for over-acheiver award: are your feet or lower legs kicking out to the sides or are your heels scraping the inside of the opposite ankle? These are easy-to-spot signs of potential butt-muscle weakness.

From the Waist Up*

*my professional opinion and what I use in the clinic

  • Strong, straight, (mostly) upright torso with a proud, open chest

    • (I personally don't get hung up on forward lean unless a runner has pain.)

  • No slouchy, rounded shoulders

  • Head and neck upright on your shoulder; forward head/neck looking like a turtle

  • No bobble head; your head and neck should not be listing off to one side or flopping side to side. Your gaze and head are steady, looking ahead

  • Arm swing: comfortably close to your sides with some space as if you're carrying a couple books under your arms.

    • From the front, arms don’t cross excessively in front of your body. In fact, as you run faster, your arms cross even less in front of your body and stay even more straight ahead (aka no books under your arms)

Let it be easy, running fit fam…

Follow-Up

How do I know I'm actually making progress?

You do another running form check-up.

You chose when.

1 week later. 1 month later. But consistent re-assessments of your form is the only *objective* way to measure your progress.

How do I know I'm evaluating my own form right?

You don't.

It takes practice…for everyone!! (including PT's! I remember being in PT school and struggling with this. They don't give us a magic pill that instantly enlightens us. We had to struggle and learn it, too.)

It's ok to continue reading and watching helpful videos! It'll click in time, I promise. Don't give up!

Final Notes

Let this be easy. Let it be quick and dirty.

Study your own movement and body, but don't obsess over it.

And if you're looking for your next step after your self-running-form evaluation, I have one ready for you! If the over striding is driving you bonkers and cadence and stride length don't make sense, and you've heard strength work makes your form better but you don't know where to start, check out my workshop, Running Form 101. You'll walk away with actionable tips, exercises for stronger form, and maybe, even feeling faster than before. Go check it out!

Remember, gait assessments of any kind are an art and science. As you do repeated check ins and self-form-evaluations, you'll begin to practice this art/science combo and start to see differences. Sometimes they're subtle; sometimes they're not.

Regardless, it takes practice and time.

But you're ok with that, because you're part of the running fit fam, which means you…

Dare to Train Differently,

Marie Whitt, PT, DPT //@dr.whitt.fit


P.S. You next steps? Take my Running Form 101 Workshop!


 

References

Jay, D. (2018). Running Rewired (pp. 23-33). Boulder: VeloPress.


Souza, R. (2016). An Evidence-Based Videotaped Running Biomechanics Analysis. Physical Medicine And Rehabilitation Clinics Of North America, 27(1), 217-236. doi: 10.1016/j.pmr.2015.08.006

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