Kevin M. Beck has been a runner since 1984 and is currently a senior writer for Running Times magazine.
Beck has served as a distance running coach at various levels and is coached by two-time U.S. Olympic marathoner Pete Pfitzinger. He also helped coordinate a research study on exercise and diabetes at the University of California at San Francisco, where he was a diabetes researcher and exercise technician for the Mount Zion Medical Center.
“As a physical therapist, I am often asked how the body should look while running. There are many biomechanical interpretations of proper running form. Most physical therapists’ stand is that an athlete’s individual flexibility, strength, and joint mobility define his or her form, so there is no one correct answer; however, a runner’s knowledge of what constitutes basic proper form is important.
As detailed in chapter 1, running is broken into phases based on the positioning and movement of the foot:
- Footstrike. The initial contact between the ground and the foot
- Midstance. Composed of two subcomponents:
- Foot-flat. Body completely over the stable foot contacting the ground
- Heel rise. Beginning of the propulsion forward as the heel begins to leave the ground
- Toe-off. Final propulsion and last contact between the foot and the ground
- Swing-through phase. The leg swinging under the body getting into position for the next footstrike
To get a feel for optimal running form, try going through the following movements in slow motion while standing in front of a mirror. Balance on one leg and strike the ground approximately six inches (15 centimeters) in front of the body with the other foot, either at the heel or the midsole. Be sure to flex the knee of the moving leg 10 to 20 degrees and the hip 20 to 25 degrees and lean forward slightly at the trunk. As the body weight completely transfers to this foot, keep the knee bent, letting it cushion the joints at the foot-flat phase. The body continues to move forward, and the hip extends (straightens), the knee extends, and the heel lifts. This is followed by the toe-off phase. As the foot leaves the ground, the thigh swings backward maximally. The direction of the leg changes as the thigh drives forward, with the knee bending in the swing-through phase. Try this with each leg; a few rehearsals should give you a feel for the optimal relative positioning of each part of your body during an actual run.
That takes care of proper lower-body mechanics, but what should the rest of the body do during this movement? The following list describes upper-body movements and how they coordinate with lower-body movements.
- Maintain an upright body position while relaxing the shoulders and face. Less tension in these areas helps promote more relaxed, free-flowing movement throughout the body as a whole.
- Hold the sternum high. This allows the chest to expand and increases lung ventilation.
- Swing the arms from the shoulder joint forward and backward, maintaining a relatively fixed elbow bend at 90 degrees. The shoulder is a pendulum; allowing the arms to passively swing as a result of momentum imparted by gravity rather than actively “flailing” or pumping them minimizes energy wasted through excessive body movements.
- Synchronize the arms with the legs, mimicking the same rhythm. The arms are used for balance, momentum, and to assist with forward propulsion.
- Engage the trunk muscles with a slight lean forward to help support the upper body over a moving lower body. Think of a long spine and visualize space between each lumbar vertebra.
- Rotate the pelvis slightly forward. If you put your hands on your hips, under your fingers is the portion of the iliac crest called the ASIS (anterior superior iliac spine). These points of the hip move slightly forward as the leg swings through and prepares for the footstrike. This hip drive provides propulsion and forward momentum while wasting little energy.
- Let the knee drive the leg forward with the footstrike about six inches (15 centimeters) in front of the body. The feet stay under the hips and the hips under the trunk, which helps maintain the body’s center of balance.
- Transfer your body weight evenly from one foot to another, making sure only one foot is on the ground at a time. If both feet are on the ground at the same time, you may not be propelling yourself forward efficiently during the toe-off phase.
- During toe-off and in the beginning of the swing-through phase, the leg must go past the front-to-back midline and behind the opposite leg. This creates propulsion.
Strong supporting muscles help you maintain efficient running form. When these muscles fatigue, your form deteriorates. Being aware of your running form and consciously trying to maintain form during the latter stages of a run are important means of preventing injuries. Of course, conditioning can help you avoid muscle fatigue and the muscles’ failure to function. However, muscles will fatigue, especially in long events such as the half-marathon and marathon, so it’s important to think about maintaining proper form. Although it is difficult to think of your form for the duration of a long race, reminding yourself of the basics when you start to fatigue centers your focus on the running motion and helps you optimize your performance. The visualization exercise at the end of the chapter emphasizes conscious awareness of proper head-to-toe form. Conditioning and form drills, detailed in chapters 1, 4, 5, and 6 will strengthen your body and enable you to put this visualization process into practice.”
Remember to check out the running videos also.