Running Mechanics 101: The 5 Basic Stages of Proper Running Form

As the weather is turning colder, gyms are opening their bay doors to let in the sunlight and let out athletes to run before winter. The increased volume of running can lead to various aches and pains such as shin splints, sore calves and hamstrings, etc., that weren’t prevalent during the colder months. As more and more running is programmed, it is important to return to the basics and practice proper technique to prevent injuries. 

Most of us probably assume that running is a natural movement pattern and there is no need to practice proper form. However, all running-related injuries can be pinpointed to poor running mechanics. Therefore, it is important to understand the five basic stages of proper running form, which are posture, lean, pull, shift, support, and land, and how to integrate them into your running. 

Having the correct running posture is imperative to being an efficient runner. A compromised posture can result in an overload or misuse of the muscles and joints that are in action while running. In order to avoid these problems, it is necessary to establish a neutral posture (flat back) and then stabilize this position by engaging your core (similar to what you would do before starting a deadlift). In order to run with the most efficiency and handle the force placed on your body each time you land, you have to turn on the muscles in your trunk to lengthen and flatten your back; you will need to set your hips and ribcage in a stable position as well. In order to feel what a good position is, you can practice holding the hollow body position and focus on engaging your glutes and contracting your core by drawing your rib cage down towards your belly button and then bringing your belly button in towards your spine.

The second stage of running is called the ‘lean’, and this is the idea of using gravity to actually pull your body forward and let it do as much work as possible. Most of the time when athletes run, they push off the ground with one foot while also stepping forward with the other one. This starts putting the body into motion, but is actually counter-productive because every time they push their foot away from the ground, they are using their own energy to propel their body, therefore, working against gravity. 

However, a much better approach is to actually shift your general center of mass over your base of support so that the power of gravity will take over and actually force you forward. To prevent falling to the ground and keep your momentum moving forward, you have to alternate your feet and put your supporting foot underneath your general center of mass to keep up with your forward fall. The farther you fall forward, the quicker you have to move your feet to keep up with your general center of mass, and ultimately, the faster you will run. The degree of your fall determines how fast you will have to move your legs to keep up.

In order to correctly execute the foot pull, draw your heel toward your butt using the power of your hamstrings while maintaining a neutral foot position. Some things to be aware of and avoid when performing this component: dorsiflexion of the foot (pulling your toes up), lifting your knee up (instead of simply letting it shift forward), and extending your leg back behind your body. All of these faults can cause you to put forth more energy than necessary and increase your susceptibility to injury. 

When you shift supports (move from one foot to the other) there is a brief moment when both of your feet leave the ground and you are completely suspended in midair. This is what distinguishes running from walking. If you are falling forward and pulling your feet correctly, then your feet should cross paths and your legs should remain under your body. A common fault during this stage of running is pushing off with a forward leg swing. One leg trails behind your body and you are then landing on the heel of your forward foot. This slows down your momentum, restricts the efficiency of your stride and increases your chances of injury.

The final stage of running is the ‘land’. There are several different points of the foot that you can land on – the heel, the heel and ball of the foot, or the ball of the foot. The best and most effective foot position to land on is the ball of the foot for several reasons: you will be able to use your arch as it was designed, you will be able to absorb the shock of your bodyweight, and you will engage the muscular-tendon elastic system that helps reduce impact and preserve energy. 

Keep in mind, landing on the ball of your foot does not mean that your heel never makes contact with the ground. When performed correctly, your foot should be relaxed and your heel should touch the ground for a split second before you go back to being on the ball of your foot before you shift supports. This will reduce the load placed on your calves, Achilles, and ankles during the striking phase of running, which will in turn minimize the injuries that can occur with a ball-of-the-foot landing. 


Power, Speed, Endurance: A Skill-Based Approach to Endurance Training by Brian Mackenzie