You’ve probably heard about running form analysis or know someone who has been through it. But do you know what it is exactly, or if you can benefit?
Let’s be clear from the start about what it’s not: Going to a shoe store, hopping on a treadmill and getting an assessment from a store sales rep. This is nothing more than a gimmick to steer you toward purchasing running shoes, inserts, and more.
At the other end of the spectrum is a day-long analysis performed in a clinic, like the famous University of Virginia Speed Clinic. You’ll get all the information you need and more – plus pay a pretty penny – for this high-end service. While there’s no doubt there’s much to be gained from this approach, it’s probably more than the average runner needs.
There’s a middle ground, however. A service like the Running Form Course is one example.
A good, thorough form analysis is much more in-depth than the shoe-store version and cannot be accomplished with a two-minute jog on a treadmill. It should be overseen by a qualified professional, either a running coach who knows what he or she is doing or a physical therapist who understands running form. Video should be part of the drill, and a set of thorough analytics and recommendations should accompany the package.
To really understand form analysis, we checked in with Olympic triathlete and run coach with Race Ready Coaching, Joanna Zeiger, PhD. She says form analysis is a good idea for anyone who runs consistently:
I have all my athletes go through it. It’s important for any committed runner, at any level, in order to run at the most efficient form possible.
I liken it to a fingerprint. We all have our own unique style and even after form changes, you’ll still maintain that style.
A word to the wise: don’t expect an overnight fix. Form analysis will likely turn up several places for improvement and you won’t be able to implement it all at once.
A better approach is improving each element gradually, which will require a hefty dose of patience. If you’re up for the long game, however, it can pay off.
Running Form Analysis Basics
Better than my form are those shaved legs!
The approaches to form analysis will vary depending on who you have turned to for help (you’ll see this in this group interview with 6 running form experts).
Live, in-person running form analysis is best, and video will probably be part of the overall look (though this is also the most expensive option).
If you’re working remotely with a coach, video is essential. Zeiger agrees, noting that any running form analysis should include video with a complete, head-to-toe look at how an athlete moves. You want to find someone who is going to break down your form frame by frame.
What are coaches looking for? Zeiger’s team examines four basic tenets of form:
- Where your foot lands, either under your center of mass or out in front
- Muscle imbalances
Then, based on the finding, specific suggestions are made to upgrade your running form.
Focus on Breathing First
You might be surprised to find that a common starting point for running form analysis is breathing. Zeiger explains:
I’d say that 99 percent of runners are chest breathers. The only runner I’ve ever encountered who could properly breathe from the diaphragm was a dancer who had spent a lifetime perfecting it.
When you breathe shallowly from your chest, you are creating patterns that are detrimental to your form and movement. It’s much easier to engage your glutes, hip flexors and other important body parts when you draw breath from your belly.
A dead giveaway that you don’t diaphragmatically breathe is seeing your shoulders rise with each breath. Instead, you want your belly to extend with the breath intake, something that feels unnatural for most runners.
To fix poor breathing patterns, drills are in order to help athletes improve. None of this is easy. In fact, in order to truly nail proper breathing, you need to put it into practice all day long. The hope is that stead, daily practice will eventually lead to a new, second nature form of diaphragmatic breathing that will carry over into your running.
Some people, Zeiger says, never fully get the proper breathing down, and many will throw in the towel out of frustration:
Many people, when they see themselves on video are horrified by how they look. They see the big picture and get overwhelmed, but we break it down into small chunks.
If and when a runner nails diaphragmatic breathing, the other pieces more easily fall into place. From there, analysis can move onto other benchmarks, like cadence, landing under the center of mass and muscle imbalances.
Running Form Metric #2: Cadence
Cadence, or how many steps per minute you take when you run, is another area that analysis can help improve. While many runners are familiar with the goal of 180 steps per minute, this isn’t a formal “rule.”
In fact, if your easy running pace is slower than 10 minutes per mile, this might be downright impossible. Instead, aim to run more than 170 steps per minute if your easy pace is faster than 10 minutes per mile. Or 160+ steps if you’re slower than 10 minutes per mile.
Even small improvements in cadence can make a difference in your economy and how you’ll feel. Zeiger adds:
If you can get up to something like 170 or 175 steps per minute, it will help. You’re not going for a big jump in cadence, but rather, incremental change. You can start with one step faster per minute, and go from there.
Runners interested in cadence improvements can turn to running form drills that emphasize high knees and quick feet, all in the hopes of slowly bringing the turnover rate up.
Here are a few examples:
Establish your baseline cadence – either with a watch, an app, or plain old-fashioned counting footsteps per minute. Set targets to meet along the way and remember to move up slowly.
Form Analysis Metric #3: Landing Location
A third basic measurement is whether or not runners land with their feet extended out in front of their bodies, or under their hips or center of mass.
Landing perfectly under your center of mass is probably out of reach for most runners, but any improvements in over-striding will help improve power, running economy, and injury resilience. Your body will absorb less impact and you will more efficiently use energy return with each stride.
As with other form tweaks, Zeiger recommends an incremental approach and sets of drills to help with improvement. Complete 2-3 sets of 3-4 running drills several times per week and more efficient movement patterns will start to become second-nature.
Another helpful cue to help runners land underneath their hips is to practice “putting your foot down.” This changes how you think about running; instead of “reaching out” with your leg to cover more ground, you’re putting your foot down directly underneath your body.
This subtle change in perspective helps ingrain this cue permanently into your muscle-memory.
Do You Have Muscle Imbalances?
The final tenet to consider with running form analysis is whether or not runners have imbalances (which most do, as Jason talks about here!). These imbalances put more strain on ligaments, tendons and the muscles themselves.
Injuries are a sign that something is indeed out of balance, but before reaching that stage, an analysis of simple movement patterns like squats, lunges and similar movements, is a good way to spot them.
Some key exercises to help improve these issues include:
- single-leg squats
- “superman” extensions, performed prone on your stomach
- single-leg deadlift, first unweighted and then progressing to weighted
- one-legged bridges
- walking lunges with a twist
All of these exercises are included in our flagship training program Injury Prevention for Runners.
In addition to addressing muscular imbalances, it’s a smart idea to check on overall balance, because running at its essence is a series of one-legged stances. There are many simple ways of improving balance:
- Spend time on one leg while brushing your teeth or standing in line at the grocery store
- Up the ante as you become more adept by closing your eyes in this stance
- Make it harder by throwing a ball back and forth with a friend while on one foot
- The hardest option? Performing single-leg bounding (a plyometric that’s best done by experienced runners)
Addressing and correcting imbalances early can be a productive strategy for preventing injuries before they even occur.
How to Start Improving Your Form
Working on form improvements can feel time consuming and overwhelming. It’s also not exactly what runners would love to be doing and it will be a long process.
It can be tedious and slow but if you want to do the things you enjoy, sometimes you have to do things you don’t enjoy in order to pull it off.
When you get injured, you often receive a set of rehab exercises to help heal. Then once you’re better, you quit and often times end up injured all over again.
As with rehab, the drills you start to improve your form should be looked at as lifetime commitments. Once you have them mastered, they won’t take that much of your time, and if you find yourself squeezed for time, it’s better to drop a mile out of a run and fit them in than the other way around.
And if you’re one of those runners who doesn’t want to see how you look on film, Zeiger says get over it in the name of improvement:
Most runners are actually horrified by how they look on film, but they need to move beyond that. Once you can see how you look and where you need improvement, it becomes must easier to visualize as you put in the work.
Form work isn’t sexy or fun, but it is important.
Make it a regular part of your routine with:
- Weekly strides and form drills
- Breathing properly
- A focus on cadence and where your foot lands
Let’s not also forget that strength training is one of the best ways of improving your form.
Because all weightlifting is for runners is coordination training under resistance. With more coordination – and power – you’ll have a more economical and fluid stride.
Finally, if you want the help of a professional but don’t want to blow the mortgage on a live in-person video analysis at a top sports lab, check out The Running Form Course that provides expert guidance and video running form analysis.