How to Fix Running Form and Why It's So Hard
Have you ever tried switching up your running form? I have. And it’s hard. Which is crazy. How can it be so hard to learn to run with relaxed shoulders? But it’s just so much easier to run the way I always have.
Why do I want to change up my running form, anyway?
There are two main reasons you should consider altering how you run:
1. Run More Efficiently - Running with good form allows your body to do its job. If you stop hunching your shoulders, your lungs are able to breathe more easily. If you learn to relax your hands and face, the energy your body was using to keep your hands fisted can now be sent to your legs to propel you forward.
2. Prevent Injury - If you learn to “sweep” the ground with your feet instead of pounding the pavement, your joints will thank you! If you learn to shorten your front stride, you could prevent the pain of shin splints later in your training plan.
Is there a time I should avoid changing my running form?
Has anyone ever told you not to buy new shoes right before your race? They’re right, by the way. It’s because you don’t want to change anything within a month before your race. This includes your running form! Wait until after your race to try switching things up.
It’s important to note that you will slow down at first. Your muscles will be worked in a different way. It’ll be awkward. It’ll take time and energy to fix. Accept that you’ll get slower. Work through it and come out faster and more efficiently on the other side.
Have you ever identified a friend from far away before you could see their face… just from their running form? It’s because everyone has their own unique style of running. These slight differences aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
Just because your friend has a shorter stride than you doesn’t necessarily mean your stride is too long. If you’re hitting your running goals and you aren’t struggling with injuries, changing up your form may not be necessary.
Okay, but let’s say you are ready to work on your running form. You go out for your first run with form in mind, and you have perfect form… for the first 5 minutes. But you notice after the first couple of miles that you’re back to your regular form.
Why is it so hard to correct running form?
There are two main reasons that you may be struggling to correct your running form: Habits and Muscle Imbalances.
1. Habit Change
Have you ever heard the phrase “It’s hard to unlearn a learned behavior?” It’s true.
I recently got a longboard skateboard that I’ve been learning to ride. According to Dr. Richard Scmidt, who wrote Motor Learning and Performance, it takes between 300 and 500 repetitions to learn a movement. The correct way to turn on a longboard is through the ankles. If I turn the right way every time, it’ll take me 300 to 500 turns to really learn this movement.
Dr. Schmidt emphasizes, though, that it takes between 3,000 and 5,000 repetitions to change an existing motor pattern. Let’s say I learn to ride my longboard by leaning my whole body over the board, and later learn I should be turning from my ankles. It’ll take 10x more turns to learn to do it correctly than if I had just done it correctly from the beginning.
Now, running is a tricky one. You’ve been running your whole life. Most people don’t think about form when they go out for their first run, or start training for that first 5k. They just run. There’s no starting from scratch with running. Every change you make to your running form will take 3,000 to 5,000 repetitions.
Let’s say you’re working on your foot strike. If you run with a cadence of 180 strides per minute, that means each foot will strike the ground 90 times per minute. With this cadence, it takes nearly an hour of running perfectly with every single foot strike to reach 5,000 repetitions.
Most likely, you won’t be successful in placing every single stride perfectly for an hour straight. That would be mentally exhausting. Every step done incorrectly throughout the run further reinforces your old running form. Each reinforcement of your old form means that you’ll have to complete that many more repetitions of your new form to be successful.
Here are a few ideas to get you to those 5,000 repetitions and to change your form for good:
1. Set an interval timer on your watch or phone. When the timer goes off, do a quick “form check” to make sure you haven’t fallen back into old habits.
2. For every mile you run, plan to focus on your form for the first quarter-mile. The more you do this, the longer the good form will persist throughout the rest of each mile. One day, this new form will feel natural for your entire run.
3. Use physical landmarks. Every time you cross a street, reset your form.
2. Muscle Imbalances
Your muscles may not be strong enough yet to hold correct form for an entire run. If you’re activating muscles that you don’t normally use while running, it’ll take some time to develop these muscles.
When you first started running, you most likely didn’t jump right into a 10k run. Your muscles (as well as your tendons and ligaments for that matter) just weren’t ready for it. So if you’re changing up your form, you can’t expect these new muscle groups to jump right in and be ready for a 10k run on day one.
For example, if you run hunched forward (which constricts your lung capacity), you may need to develop your back muscles in order to hold your shoulders in the correct position throughout your run.
It may even start with focusing on developing your back muscles to maintain correct posture while sitting at your computer or driving your car. After they’re strong enough to maintain correct posture while you’re statically sitting at your computer, then they’ll be more ready to hold your shoulders in the correct position when the rest of your body is in motion.
So, where should I get started? There are actually 11 components to correct running form, but there are a few that the majority of runners could benefit from taking a closer look at.
Top 3 Running Form Mistakes
1. Looking down - When you’re running, you shouldn’t see your shoes. You should be looking approximately 10-20 feet in front of you. This is not only important for safety purposes and seeing the terrain that’s coming your way, but also for keeping proper head alignment. If you’re looking down, you’re most likely hunching your shoulders as well.
What to do about it:
You can either implement one of the habit form techniques discussed earlier, or formulate a “looking ahead” specific reminder for yourself. Some people place a flashy ribbon or small pom pom on their shoes. If you find yourself looking at that ribbon, it’s your reminder to look back up.
2. Hunched Shoulders - Your shoulders should be relaxed and in a neutral position. This neutral position will most likely feel like you’re holding them back at first. This keeps your upper body open for more efficient breathing.
What to do about it:
Focus on posture while sitting at your computer. Set a timer for every 15 minutes to keep your shoulders back and down. On your runs, set an interval timer for every 5 minutes to focus on keeping your shoulders back, relaxed, and down. For your strength training days, work on strengthening your core, lower back muscles, and your upper back muscles.
3. Bouncing - Treadmill runners are especially likely to be “bouncers”. You want your muscles to be propelling your forward, not up. Propelling your body up wastes precious energy and makes you an inefficient runner.
What to do about it:
To work on bouncing less, try to think of your foot as pawing the ground rather than striking it. A lot of watches show your vertical oscillation. Take a look at the data from a recent run, and try to decrease your vertical oscillation on a weekly “check-in” run.
For more ideas on how to become a more efficient runner, check out my recent blog post about How to Improve Your Running Efficiency.
If you’re looking for more weekly running tips and inspiration, be sure to sign up for my weekly newsletter below! I promise I won’t spam you :)
Happy Running! ✌️😊
Jillian is a treadmill-despiser, wife to Brent, and has never had better posture at the computer than while writing this article. She’s also a freelance Health and Wellness Copywriter. Find out more about how she can help you meet your business goals over at www.beckhamcopywriting.com