Running Techniques for Beginners, Part 1: Learning Proper Form
Running can be a profoundly life-changing form of exercise. But if you’re new to running, you might not know where to start. It can be overwhelming: the numerous training plans, the hundreds of running shoes to choose from, and the pressure to run at a competitive level almost immediately. Where does a new runner begin?
My next few posts on The Practical Runner will focus on some important running techniques for beginners. These tips are basic ones, but everyone has to start somewhere and the beginning is usually the best place.
Even veteran runners can benefit from reviewing these tips. Sometimes to progress in your training, you need to make sure you haven’t left your core building blocks behind.
This post is going to focus on a critical component of running: form. Learning the right way to run is top of the list of running techniques for beginners.
Why is proper running form so important?
There is a reason why elite and Olympic runners spend a significant portion of their weekly training practicing their running form. Running form is important so that you are maximizing the effort you are putting into your exercise and avoiding serious injury.
Many new runners focus too much on running shoes and training programs at the start of their journey. While both of those components are indeed vital to training, they are completely wasted if you aren’t working on your form. You can have the best running shoes in the world and the best program or coach, and it won’t do you a lick of good if your form is inefficient.
Additionally, some newbies think that running form is about the feet and nothing else. Your feet are only one component — albeit a critical one! — but hardly the only physical aspect that we need to work on. Correct running form involves alignment of a series of points of the body, from the head to the feet.
That said, developing correct running form takes time, so don’t expect to master this process right away. Remember, practice makes perfect.
Poor running form can slow you down and cause injuries that may bring your newfound commitment to running to a grinding halt. In order to avoid these problems, here are some running techniques for beginners which apply to form.
As you run, keep your head straight as if looking at the line on the horizon. Don’t hold your head up too high or let it drop to your chest. Focusing on the horizon will promote a natural alignment by straightening your back and neck.
Try to keep your jaw loose and don’t let your chin stick out. Also, make sure that your head is aligned with your hips. If your focus is too far forward, the rest of your body will follow.
Shoulder positioning can be especially challenging to recognize and master. Keeping the shoulders in alignment is something that I still have to work on weekly during my running drills, and I’ve been running for many years.
Ideally, you want to keep your shoulders relaxed and square; don’t let your shoulders creep up to your ears and don’t let your shoulders droop, causing you to lean forward, especially when you experience fatigue during your run.
If you feel yourself tensing up in your shoulders, shake them out and release the stress and tension that is holding you back.
Torso and Waist
A runner’s torso should be straight so that you are running in an upright, tall position. You want to lean just slightly forward as you run, but this takes time and practice, along with a stronger core, to achieve the appropriate balance. If your head and shoulders are aligned properly, your torso will already be in the right position. You will minimally lean forward from your ankles and not from your waist.
Running tall with your shoulders back allows for maximum lung capacity, allowing easier breathing during exercise. Make sure you don’t hunch over and don’t lean too far back. Leaning back while running can place immense pressure on your back, hips, and knees because your stride is overly elongated. Hunching too far forward causes you to use a high impact stride leading to back and knee injuries.
With the waist, it’s easy to think that twisting your body at the waist will make you move faster, but it will do the opposite. Eventually, you will want your waist to work in tandem with your hips to propel your body forward.
Arm movement is an essential part of proper running form. The arms are the source of energy that move you forward while preventing over rotation in your torso. When running, your arms should be relaxed and move naturally with your stride.
It’s important to keep the elbows bent at a 45 – 90 degree angle and swing your arms up and down. Keep the arms between the level of your chest and waist. Make sure that your arms do not cross your body, but keep the movements forward and backward.
One of my running coaches always noted how I would clench my hands into fists when I became tired or out of form while running. She advised that I imagine that I was running while cupping butterflies in my hands. It sounds silly, but it definitely worked.
If visualization isn’t enough for you, then keep in mind that you want your hands and wrist to be relaxed. Gently cup your hands so the fingers are just grazing your palm. Or just imagine you’re holding those butterflies!
Proper form for hips can be tricky if you overthink it. The best way to approach hip placement is to have your hips facing straight ahead. This form should happen naturally as long as your head, shoulders, and torso are aligned properly. If any of those three components are off, your hips will fall out of alignment too.
It’s a no-brainer that knees are a core component of correct form, but sometimes beginning runners misunderstand what to do with the knees during action. You aren’t going to be sprinting right away, if at all; you may decide to run competitively at some point and then you can work on form for shorter, faster strides. But for now, at the beginning, work on your basic form by keeping the knees fairly low to develop an energy efficient stride and form.
Additionally, the knees should be slightly bent while running to absorb the shock that occurs when your feet hit the ground.
Legs play a critical role in the type of stride you develop as you run. You want to have your feet land underneath your body, so you want to make sure your lower legs don’t extend in front of your body. That action results in an overly lengthy stride that will throw off the rest of your form.
Last but far from least are your feet. They are the first components to push off the ground and the last to land, and everything about your form, from head to legs, will influence how your feet strike the pavement. The feet should land directly under your body. Once your foot touches the ground, bring the foot back up immediately toward the buttocks. Don’t drive your feet to the floor; let gravity bring your feet back down.
Ultimately, with time and practice, you will want to aim for a foot strike cadence of 180 steps or more. In the meantime, make sure your feet touch the ground as lightly as you can. Land on the mid foot area, then roll your foot forward toward the toes to push-off for the next stride forward. Spring off the ground; don’t stomp and stamp when you land.
Form Counts, and This is Why
Running form is important because you will use less energy to run faster. Proper form will keep you relaxed and injury-free. Your endurance will improve and you will be more likely to hold your running pace over longer distances.
So keep looking at training programs and running shoes, but remember that form comes first and foremost. Follow this guide and get running!