The perfect running form - why you shouldn’t run tall

why you shouldn't run tall

Before I started running, a few years ago, the furthest I had ever really run was precisely 13 full-pelt steps down a vault runway. I was a gymnast for 17 years and as far as running went, all I cared about was generating enough speed and power to flip over something while still having enough control to stop – if necessary – within a nanosecond of plowing into the vault.

I didn’t realise how much my gymnast background had affected my running form until I started training for half and full marathons. Some of the coaches I worked with told me I run tall, while others just bluntly told me I run like a gymnast – which, to be honest, I took as a compliment at the time. I do indeed run tall: chest upright, my chin tilted slightly up, spine almost perpendicular to the ground. And it has never bothered me; I have finished 12 half marathons and three marathons, generally improving my time with each race.

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It wasn’t until I was doing a few sessions to improve my speed during a half-marathon training block that a friend and running coach said to me, ‘Wow, you run really tall. Aren’t your quads exhausted?’ It was only then that I realised my running form might not be an amusing quirk, but that it might actually be holding me back. This coach suggested I try leaning forward a bit when I run, because shifting my weight could make running a little easier for me. Because I was training for a personal best, I decided I’d take any advice that could get me to that finish line even a little faster, so I spoke with some experts on the topic.

Perfect running form - Why you shouldn't run tall 

‘Run tall’ is a common coaching cue, but it’s a somewhat vague direction and so can be easily misconstrued. I always took ‘run tall’ to literally mean run upright, which is why I never thought my form was that bad. After tall, the more upright you are, the taller you are, right?

But here’s why that interpretation is not doing you any favours: running is a two-part motion. ‘You want a little bit of braking force to catch your balance, and then you want to be able to generate force to propel you forward,’ explains Reed Ferber, professor of biocmechanics at the University of Calgary, Canada, and director of the university’s Running Injury Clinic. If you’re running too tall, your feet will hit the ground too far in front of your pelvis and centre of mass – also known as overstriding – which generates braking force and slows you down.

‘Think of running as a shock wave that’s going to travel up your body,’ says Ferber. ‘Your foot passes that shock wave on to your knee, then your hips, then your spine. Your spine is supposed to absorb most of that force, but if it’s too stiff and upright, it can’t absorb enough. So your knee undergoes unnecessary stress, and your hamstrings and glutes have to work overtime to absorb that stress.’

Having to create that extra forward propulsion can also put great stress on your ankle joints, says Danny Mackey, head coach of the middle distance runners of the Brooks Beasts Track Club, based in Seattle, Washington, US. ‘It’s more force than the joint is intended to handle,’ he explains. Not to mention the unnecessary force this places on your poor quads: ‘When your leg muscles have to generate more force to propel you further, it fatigues your quads even faster,’ says Ferber.

What to do instead

Running form is unique to every runner, but, as a general rule, Ferber recommends that you run with a slight forward lean. Imagine you have a string attached to your sternum and someone is standing
in front of you, pulling that string so your chest comes slightly forward. ‘What that will do is pull your shoulder blades upright a little bit, out of that hunched posture we get from being on our phones and computers all day,’ says Mackey. From that stance, your body should appear as one long line from ankle to shoulders, at just a slight angle to the ground.

Think of it as being almost like a controlled fall; you want to lean forward enough that you might tip over if you had to stop suddenly. ‘You’re putting yourself in a slightly unstable position to maintain forward propulsion,’ explains Ferber.

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What does that look like? When you run, imagine your pelvis as your centre of mass. To move that mass efficiently, you want your foot to land just under your hip, says Mackey. ‘That centre of mass should be out in front of you so that your momentum is going forward, then your feet grab at the ground and pull it quickly underneath you with each step versus your feet stretching way out in front of you,’ he says.

‘Our bodies want to be efficient,’ adds Mackey. ‘If you start running upright, you have got to create propulsion – and that is really metabolically costly.’ However, if you lean in, you just might save yourself some energy, some pain and some seconds at the finish line.

Training yourself to lean in 

Research has shown that you can change the way you run in six to eight weeks, says Ferber. Not so long. ‘This is not a dramatic thing; it’s really subtle and it needs to be done gradually,’ he adds.

Simple running drills – A skips [driving the knee up and bringing it down fast], B skips [similar but aim for a more circular motion with the leg], ankle, calf and knee dribbles, high knees, bum kicks – can all reinforce movement patterns. ‘The name of the game is repetition,’ says Mackey. Two sets of 20 metres for all of those should take you less than six minutes as a warm-up. Then, when you’re running, he suggests checking in every time you hear your watch beep at a mile: How’s my form doing? What are two things I need to work on? ‘You pay attention as long as you can and then you check in again,’ he says.

Mobility and flexibility work are also key: ‘If you’re restricted, if you have very tight hamstrings or ankles, you’re not going to be able to get that lean all the way from your ankles to your shoulders – it’s going to break down somewhere,’ says Mackey. And, of course, any core work that strengthens your gluteus medius, gluteus maximus and transverse abdominals is going to help strengthen your spine and help your body better handle the force generated by running.

It takes time, but your body does adjust to these changes. As I kept training for that half-marathon PB, I started being more aware of my body and where my feet were landing. Every time I caught myself running ‘too tall’, I made minor tweaks and carried on. Soon enough, my speed picked up and my legs felt less tired on longer runs. On race day, a few weeks later, the miles felt easier and I clocked some of
my faster splits toward the end of the race. As I crossed the finish line, I realised I had run a PB not by seconds, which was my goal, but by five whole minutes. If that’s not proof that one tiny change can bring big results, I don’t know what is.