Five tips to improve your running technique

Fitness expert, and avid runner, James Fell spent the day with a running coach. Find out what he learned, and how you can apply it to your technique.

James S. Fell 5
A young fit woman goes for a run on a city pathway

Perfect your running form to improve your health and your running time (Photo by iStock).

While running is one of the most universal activities, the reality is, 80 percent of people have poor technique — and improving it is easier than you know. When faced with the prospect of altering my own running technique, my initial response was, ‘No. Freaking. Way.’

I mean, who really needs a running coach? Humans have been running for centuries. You just put on some shoes, go out and do it. Your technique is what it is, and trying to actually change it seems a Herculean task with minimal potential benefit. Hey, I finished my first marathon in under four hours with the technique I had so what could be so bad? Well…

Why we’re terrible runners
It mostly boils down to computers and shoes.

Many of us have desk jobs and comfy chairs, so we slouch forward, staring at the computer screen. This poor posture translates into our running.

The other problem is comfortable shoes. Not just running shoes, but any shoes. They make the muscles in our feet weaker so they’re not as well adapted for running. We wear runners with thick pads that allow us to hammer into the ground repeatedly rather than teaching us to run softly and silently.

Read on for how to fix these issues:

1. Stop running like Rocky
Imagine Rocky Balboa in the 12th round. He’s hunched forward, arms hanging low. That’s what most people run like. Don’t believe me? Go watch. I didn’t notice until I started running properly, but the majority of runners have their arms low and are leading more with their foreheads than with their chests.

Check out this photo of me about 30 km into the LA Marathon last year. This is what doing it wrong looks like.

James Fell running the LA Marathon

Writer James Fell running the LA Marathon (Photo courtesy James Fell/Facebook).

But now I’m training for my second marathon and hope to qualify to run the Boston Marathon next year, so I needed professional help. Cory Fagan at TCR Sport Lab in Calgary has a masters of science degree in exercise physiology, and thus far he’s helped me make great improvements in my running technique.

“You don’t want to do the Rocky Balboa run,” Cory told me, mimicking hunching forward with his arms hanging low. Instead, you want to:

2. Run tall, run proud
“You need to run with presence, like you own the path,” Cory said. “Run like you are a person of high status.” It’s important to do the opposite of the way you may sit at a desk. Imagine that there’s a piece of thread attached to the top of your head that’s pulling you towards the sky. You want to lengthen out your abs and try to stand as tall as you possibly can.

No more of the Rocky stuff. Instead of leading with your forehead, it’s important to thrust your chest out and lead with it instead. This takes some of the pressure off your quads (in the front of your legs) and engages the butt and hamstring muscles as well. It also evens out the shock of running across the entire musculoskeletal system.

To assist with this, it’s a good idea to practise proper posture when not running. Move the back of the seat in your car up, stand tall everywhere you walk and try not to slouch at your desk either (that last one is the hardest, I’ve found).

3. Fast hands = fast feet
Professional runners have a faster stride cadence, which means they don’t take really long strides. A long stride means you hit the ground harder, which you don’t want — more on that in the next tip.

To run with a faster stride rate, you need to pull your hands up higher so that sometimes your thumbs will brush against your chest. You want the angle to be less than 90 degrees, which creates a shorter lever, so you can rock your arms at the shoulder joint more rapidly (with a short movement). Your feet will naturally follow the same cadence.

If you’re used to taking longer strides, this will shorten them and make the strides faster, which will more than compensate in terms of speed.

4. Practise barefoot
Not outside though, unless you’re a masochist.

Cory instructed me to get on a treadmill for about five minutes once or twice a week in my stocking feet. The reason is that, without those padded runners on, you learn the proper way to land, which is softly and quietly. “The disadvantage of good running shoes these days is that they eliminate the foot’s ability to sense the ground, so it allows you to just slam hard,” Cory explains.

It’s more of a mid-foot strike, but practising barefoot will get you used to the idea of hitting the ground a lot softer. This isn’t just about injury prevention, but minimizing effort and improving overall efficiency.

5. Consider ditching the music
I’ve written about how, at the beginning and intermediate levels, listening to music can enhance your running performance. But when you get to higher performing levels, you need to be in more of an “associative state”. That means paying attention to what’s happening with your body and thinking about your technique involves paying attention.

Give it a try. Put your focus into technique instead of your playlist and see what happens.

It’s easier than you think
It didn’t take long for me to pull all of Cory’s advice together. My coach took before and after video and put it on a split screen for me to see. Of the before video he said, “That guy looks like he’s coming to the end of a marathon, and he’s not going to make it.” But of the after video Cory said, “But that guy looks like he knows what he’s doing.” The simple change in technique knocked five minutes off my 10K time like it was nothing.

There are more advanced tips that I’m learning as well, but you’d need a coach to go hands-on with to teach them. If you’re looking to get faster and go further, as well as prevent injury, I recommend a qualified coach. I’m very pleased with the work TCR has done for me.

Running can help you look good, and by focusing on improving your technique, you can look good while you’re doing it too.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. His syndicated column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Chicago Tribune runs in dozens of major newspapers across America. He also does celebrity fitness interviews for the Los Angeles Times. Fell is also the senior fitness columnist for AskMen.com. Based in Calgary, he is an avid runner, cyclist and weightlifter and wishes he had more opportunities to go downhill skiing with his wife and two children. You can look for his first book out in early 2014. Visit his site for a free metabolism report.