Whenever I spectate at a race, I always find myself marvelling at the leaders’ enviably elegant gaits. Their feet barely touch the ground and their strides are so long! Seeing that beauty in motion may make you want to try emulating them on your next run. But you shouldn’t. Willing yourself to run differently than what comes naturally – such as actively trying to land on your forefoot or midfoot, decreasing your ground contact time, or changing your stride length – makes you less efficient and may even lead to injury.
Instead, it's important to make the way you run work for you. How? Start by following proper form cues, which are universally accepted among coaches, scientists, and sports-medicine professionals. Their simplicity is what makes them such winners: they’re sufficiently straightforward that you can perform them correctly with little effort and, when implemented, they can create changes that enhance your form without altering it.
Of course, there’s a catch. You might sit at a desk all day, slumped over a computer screen – and that does nothing good for your hip and shoulder mobility, or your posture. So, to reap the full benefits of form cues, you'll first need to develop strength and flexibility; both will help correct the constraints your form takes on from your day-to-day habits. I explain how in my book, Your Best Stride. Here, I’ve cherry- picked the best cues that all the pros – and their coaches – use to run more efficiently.
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On a track nestled in the mountains of eastern California, I watched coach Andrew Kastor conduct a morning speed workout for the Mammoth Track Club. As the intervals took their toll, Kastor implored each athlete to ‘Run tall!’ If there is one cue that stands above all, this is it. Running tall simply means being as upright and balanced as possible. It starts with the hips: pull your bum in, rotate your hips back, straighten your spine and lift up your chest. Your shoulders should be pulled back and down. Your head is stacked directly over a straight spine and neck. Imagine a string attached to your head, lifting you upward and gently pulling
Keep your elbows back
Physiotherapist Abby Douek tells runners to touch their waistband with their wrist on each stride; it ensures that the arm drives back and opens up behind the body. It also cues the legs to drive backwards – which iskeylaterinarunor race, when you tend to lose power. Driving your elbows back also shifts your balance upright and forward, so your feet land directly beneath your body and push back to propel you forward. This arm position also helps ensure that your movement and force all travel in a forward and backward direction. If your arms stay in front of your body, they tend to swing across your midsection, mis- directing motion and wasting energy in sideways and rotational movements.
Do 10-second strides
It may not make much sense at first, but when you feel tired, that’s not the time to slow down. Douek says distance runners think they need to do that to cover more mileage, but she says it’s better to speed up for 10-second bursts every five to seven minutes once fatigue has set in. You don’t want to sprint – just pick up the cadence and the speed slightly. It changes the muscle groups you call on and can make running feel easier and more natural. Then you can focus on holding that form as you return to your slower, longer-run speed.
Run soft and run quiet
This cue has scientific backing: in a 2011 study from the University of Delaware’s Motion Analysis Laboratory, US, runners who were told to run softly and more quietly were able to reduce their foot impact – that means less stress on bones, joints and muscles. After eight sessions, the subjects retained the change for at least a month. Other coaches confirm what I have seen: runners are able to run more smoothly simply by trying to make less noise. Coach Bobby McGee says, ‘Avoid muscling the run. Think about running on thin ice.’ He can tell when a runner is getting better because her stride is quieter and he can’t pick her out from among a group.
TOP TIP: THINK ABOUT BEING ON A SKATEBOARD
A cue I’ve heard from coach Tom Miller and 2004 middle- distance Olympian Grant Robison is to visualise riding a skateboard or scooter, and using your foot to propel you. The key is that you would never plant your foot in front and brake. Instead, you bring your leg through in a swinging motion, touching down beneath you and then driving straight back. If you do the same when running, you’ll encourage a landing closer to the body in front and a long stride out the back using your glutes. Both are essential for a powerful, effective stride.
Adapted from Your Best Stride: How to Optimize Your Natural Running Form to Run Easier, Farther, and Faster –With Fewer Injuries, by Jonathan Beverly (Rodale).