No matter if you’re a 5K runner or marathoner, fast or slow, experienced or a newbie, becoming a better and more efficient runner can be broken down into four simple running form tips, says Golden Harper, founder of Altra Running. He recommends running with a tall posture, keeping arms close to the body, landing softly on a bent knee and keeping cadence high.
Why should you trust him? Harper, 35, runs a lot and has for a long time, he has a degree in exercise science from Brigham Young University and he has helped runners improve their form for years while working in a running store and developing Altra’s zero-drop footwear. He holds national- and world-best marathon times for 11- (2:57:27) and 12-year olds (2:45:34). His marathon PR is 2:44:53, which he set when he was 13. He was an NCAA All-American in college and won his first ultra-distance race, the Alpine to Slickrock 50-miler in 2008.
“Running practice is the only practice we show up to and the coach says go run and I’ll see you in 45 minutes. And we wonder why we get hurt,” Harper said trailside during a running form clinic at the Camelbak Pursuit Series outside of San Francisco recently. “Learning proper technique helps to protect your body when you run.”
If you have joint problems or structural imbalances (as many recreational runners do), proper form becomes all the more important, he says. Once you feel good about form, take it to the trail to help further strengthen feet and ankles. According to Harper, humans are meant to run over uneven terrain efficiently. So get busy!
A tall, “proud” or forward-momentum posture is like getting a gravity assist as you go, Harper says, and it’s definitely easier than fighting gravity.
Start by standing tall with the gaze forward towards the horizon, not down or up at the sky. Have your chest and hips slightly forward, with shoulders back and relaxed. When you lead with your chest, Harper says, the hips follow and momentum will start to carry you forward. Think of it as a slight forward lean, but be sure not to bend from the waist. This stance engages your core and is your body’s most powerful posture.
Harper repeats the mantra, “run proud, run tall, run proud, run tall,” as he goes.
If you start to notice your form falling apart during a run, Harper recommends something he calls ‘Shoot the Moon.’ While running, quickly shoot your arms towards the sky at a 45-degree angle. It automatically opens your chest while realigning your body into a taller and more efficient posture.
Also called compact arms or “chicken wings,” carrying your arms close to the body and reducing arm movement will help to conserve energy needed for running.
“Sometimes I think we take our arm cues from aerobics videos from the 1980s with huge, bombastic arm movements,” Harper says. “Unless you are running faster than 5:30 miles, keep those elbows close to your body and behind your hips.”
The arm movement should be short, compact and relaxed, with arms at less than a 90-degree angle. If arms or shoulders are tense, that will defeat the purpose and blow through your energy reserves. Also be sure not to move fists across the midline, no swaying back and forth. You want to actively pump elbows back, to both open the chest and airways and maintain a proud posture. The forward motion is passive and for recovery. For those running around a 10-minute mile, there should only be about two to three inches of arm movement
Long before modern innovations, running shoes were hard and flat, and, according to Harper, runners had better form because they were forced to. These days, with built up running shoes and higher heel to toe drops, upwards of 83 percent of runners over stride, meaning the foot lands in front of the knee. When that happens, not only is it like putting on the brakes, but also the leg can’t bend and absorb impact the way it should.
The goal is to land with your foot directly under your knee, and with the knee bent slightly. When this happens, the legs act as springs, as they are designed to do. Instead of focusing on where your foot meets the ground (as in heel, midfoot or forefoot), focus on how it meets the ground. Another way to think of it is to focus on landing softly or quietly. Harper says that if you are running with the proper posture and minimal arm movement, a low-impact foot strike will happen naturally, especially once you up the cadence.
Cadence refers to the speed or turnover of your steps. Harper encourages runners to focus on light, soft and quick foot placement. Ultrarunner Zach Bitter says it’s key for avoiding injury while on the trail.
“When you slow down, you have more time to twist and torque and get injured,” says Bitter, who won the Javelina 100 in 2016, setting a new course record (13:30:28) in the process. “A higher cadence also helps me keep my form and technique dialed.”
Harper says the average cadence averages around 150-155 steps per minute. Upping the cadence to 165 steps per minute for a 10-minute mile pace will reduce all forces on the body by 20 percent according to research says Harper. Aim for 170 steps per minute for a 9-minute mile pace, 175 steps per minute for an 8-minute mile pace and 180 steps or more for a 7-minute mile or faster pace.
More time in the air, equals less time on the ground, which means less fatigue. It will take some time for your body to adjust to the speedier pace, but you’ll eventually adapt and become more efficient. To make it easier, download a free metronome app for your phone or count steps. You can also make playlists with your desired cadence.