4 Ways to Improve Your Running Form Without Thinking About It
Expert tips to break out of a running rut and let your body discover a more efficient stride.
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Want to improve your running form? You should first work on developing mobility, strength and balance to counteract the effects of modern sedentary life. But, even with those changes, you likely won’t see much difference until you break out of the ruts of the stride you have now.
Over time your body selects the stride that is most efficient for you. We each, subconsciously, find what works for us, and our brains and bodies ignore other options. Our movement patterns become deeply embedded, creating our unique, consistent running style that a training buddy can pick out a mile away. This conformity lets us become very efficient, using only the muscles required and letting others rest.
Problems arise when our bodies change. While our preferred movement paths were initially selected to be most efficient—given the bodies we had at the time—these stride habits can become ruts that keep us from changing when our fitness, mobility or strengths improve.
“We need to break out of those ruts,” says John Kiely, an Irish performance scientist who studies neuromuscular patterns. “And to do that, we need to do something different.”
Kiely says that after changing our body, we have to alert the nervous system that we have new resources and convince it to try new patterns. We need to recalibrate the controller. “Change proprioception, change strength, change tissue capacity—then it’s got to be shaken up,” he says.
Here are four ways to accomplish that shake up and start rewiring a more efficient stride:
Wear many different shoes, sometime none
One of the easiest ways to get your body to run differently is to change your shoes regularly. Studies have shown that rotating different shoe models reduces injuries by varying the load applied to your biomechanical systems. Those changing loads require you to engage muscles in different patterns, thus making you move differently and shaking up entrenched habits.
Podiatrists agree that wearing the same shoe every day can lead to problem-creating stride ruts. “The best thing to tell people is to change your shoes every day, so you’re not building up patterns,” says sports podiatrist Rob Conenello, past president of the American Association of Podiatric Sports Medicine.
Paul Langer, podiatrist and advisor to the American Running Association, agrees. “Instead of telling yourself how to move—shorten your stride, 180 cadence—just put on a different pair of shoes. It happens pretty naturally, because of different sensory feedback.”
You don’t need a whole closet of shoes (unless you want that). You can have one lighter, more minimal shoe and one somewhat heavier and more cushioned. Try wearing a model with a slightly different heel-toe drop. Or a trail shoe and a road shoe—providing you get on the trails at least a few times per week.
But what if you say, “These are the only shoes I can run in without getting hurt?” This probably means you need to experiment with other models more than most. Just do it gradually. Initially run only a few miles per week in a slightly different shoe, letting your body build the necessary strengths and develop new movement patterns to accommodate a different heel-toe drop, level of cushioning and sole geometry.
The most drastic, and effective, footwear change is to go bare—occasionally. Very few can run bare all the time, nor is it a necessary or desired goal as we generally don’t run on natural surfaces. But going bare briefly—around the house, playing in the yard with your kids, walking and striding on grass—will provide extraordinary sensory feedback to your nervous system on how to move smoothly and efficiently.
“I like barefoot. I think it is a nice training tool,” says Langer. “I don’t think you realize how much sensory feedback you get from your feet until you kick of your shoes.”
Play with cadence
Step rate, or cadence, has received a lot of attention in the past decade. Conventional wisdom maintains that most runners need to speed up their turnover. 180 steps per minute is often cited as a goal for every runner at every pace. But is there an ideal cadence?
“That’s something that I argue against vehemently,” says Bryan Heiderscheit, Director of the Runner’s Clinic through the University of Wisconsin Sports Medicine Center and a leading researcher on cadence. “The idea that there is a single optimum for all flies in the face of the science.”
The truth is, step rate is different for every body and pace. Our bodies naturally select a cadence that is most economical for our unique mechanics and the situation, such as pace, terrain, level of fatigue.
Like other elements of good stride, an effective cadence is a mostly result of improved fitness, mobility and strength. “It is the result—if you get good mechanics, step rate will increase,” Heiderscheit says. “But you can also use it as a stimulus to help bring out proper mechanics.”
Cadence, being easy to manipulate and easy to measure, is a great way to vary your stride after you’ve improved some of your capabilities, particularly as, implemented correctly, it can help correct the inefficiencies from overstriding, or reaching out and landing in front of your body.
Simply count your steps per minute, or start paying attention to the number reported by your Garmin or other reliable smart watch, and try to increase it slightly without increasing your speed (on the Garmin it is easy to set up a screen that shows both cadence and current pace). If you generally run with 165 steps per minute, for example, try hitting 168-170, keeping your stride behind you and landing quicker. Or, some days—particularly if you already typically run with a high cadence—try focusing on striding slower, letting your leg stretch farther out behind you and your heels stay on the ground longer. You’re not trying to match a preferred cadence with this exercise, but letting your body play with options.
It may feel weird, it may feel harder—but that is the point. As you focus your attention in order to maintain a new stride rate, you start to note how your legs are moving, where your feet are landing, where your balance falls. More importantly, your subconscious neuromuscular system notices and recruits newly-developed muscles, and you start to create new movement patterns.
Train on technical trails
Few actions shake up your stride more than hitting a gnarly single-track. Every step on a trail requires different balance and mechanics to keep you upright and moving forward. That built-in danger is important.
Kiely says that to create changes in your movement patterns, you have to get your neuromuscular system’s attention. “It’s doing something different physically, but it’s also doing challenges that are sufficiently engaging that you have to actually zero in, you have to focus intently on them,” says Kiely. Amidst the barrage of stimuli it faces every minute, your brain has to recognize that, “This is important—if I don’t get it right there is a consequence.”
The strategy is to hit a section of rough trail fast enough that you have to completely dial into the moment, the act of running takes your full, undivided focus as you dance across the terrain. “There’s a sweet spot, it’s not reckless,” Kiely admits. “But it’s not in your comfort zone, not something you can do automatically. The key thing: you have to concentrate on it, you have to focus.”
That focus does something magical: it changes the brain chemistry and enables a re-modeling of learned patterns. It allows the brain to discover new ways of movement and create new, more efficient patterns based on the body you have today.
One final, easy way to wake up your neuromuscular system is to add strides, dynamic exercises and drills to your routine. All of these engage different muscles, increase range of motion, and create movement patterns outside of your normal running stride.
Options abound, from simply hitting your top speed in strides a few times every week, to lunges, various skips, form drills, hurdle mobility exercises and leg swings. Research how to do each with proper form so as not to reinforce poor movement patterns, and focus on what you’re doing to engage the remodeling process. As you take your body through new movements, the variety of stimulus works at the muscular and nervous-system level to convince the body to try new stride patterns the next time you head out on the road.