I started running just around the time I turned 40. I can’t remember the exact day or how far I went but I remember running around the local park for 10mins thinking to myself how this was the furthest I had run for over twenty years.
I soon became hooked and started running regularly a couple of times per week. Then I did some research on running technique.
I read loads about different ways of landing on your feet - forefoot was supposed to be best. I was a bit confused as to exactly what this meant so the next day I ran purely on my toes. Mmm, big mistake. The next day my calves felt like they had sharp pointy things in them and I could hardly walk for several days from the pain.
It was a valuable lesson as I realised you were supposed to allow the heel to drop down as your foot landed. This was what I had been doing naturally before I started messing around with the running on my toes thing so I just went back to that - much happier calves!
One thing I remember when I first started was people telling me to be careful with my knees. In fact people still say it to me, the line usually being ”oh I tried running for a while but it was too hard on my knees. You should be careful the same thing doesn’t happen to you.“
Other injury warnings followed until I had a list of areas of the body that I would inevitably damage at some point if I carried on; knees, shins, hamstring, calves and fallen off toenails. In fact before I started running I was a little scared of it due to the litany of injuries various people kept telling me to expect to end up with.
Fortunately, I didn’t listen to these horror stories and ran anyway, and those injuries never happened. I also discovered a love for running that I never realised I had before and that it was something I was fairly good at it.
Along the way, I’ve done a fair amount of reading on running technique, spoken to various different professionals on the subject and realised why so many people get these particular injuries when they start running, and why I never have.
Below is a summary of what I have learnt. I believe there are a few basic things most people can do to improve their running style if they wish/need to.
Do with this info as you will. If you’re happy with your current technique and never get injured or aren’t fussed about a possible way to run faster then feel free to ignore it and carry on as you are.
I’m not a doctor or a physiotherapist. These are just tips I have picked up from lots of reading, my personal experiences as a runner and taking advice from professional running coaches (links to these at the bottom of this article).
Whatever you do, make any changes slowly. Listen to your body, as making changes to your technique can take time for your body to adjust. You may need to drastically reduce your mileage and running intensity to allow for this. If you notice any unusual aches or pains then stop running and seek medical advice.
A summary of running technique tips
Here’s a quick summary of the key points, followed by further detail about each one.
- Don’t over stride
- Take lighter smaller steps with a higher cadence
- Practise deep squats to improve your technique
- Run tall
- Relax your hands and arms
Don’t over stride
- Painful knees is most likely a sign of overstriding (reaching out your leg too far in front of you), landing on your heels and running with a slow cadence or steps per min. This creates a braking effect, sending a shockwave up through your leg and hence hurting joints like the knees.
- It’s better to try to take shorter strides, landing on the front or mid part of your foot with your heel coming down straight after (don’t just run on your toes as your calves won’t be too happy).
- Try to land with your foot beneath you so your centre of gravity is beneath you too and take more steps per min. That way you have more spring in your step and reuse the energy to move yourself rather than hurting your joints. This leads onto my next tip…
Take lighter smaller steps with a higher cadence
Imagine a boxer jumping up and down in the ring or training with a skipping rope. The faster they bounce up and down the more spring they have and the easier it becomes.
- Try jumping up and down barefoot, first at a slow plodding pace and then a faster one i.e. about 180 jumps per min or 3 per sec - you should find the latter much less tiring. This number is what I mean by cadence.
You could use a metronome to mark out the beats for you or just try counting 3 steps every second. It also helps counting in threes as you may find yourself landing at first with slightly more emphasis on the first beat and counting in threes avoids this happening on the same foot each time.
If you’re used to running at a much slower cadence than 180 then increase it slowly, a little at a time.
Practise a deep barefoot squat
Children are the best example of how to run - nearly all will run with a short stride, landing on their mid foot and with a high cadence.
Another thing that most toddlers are experts at doing is a deep squat. Most adults in Western society do this balancing on our toes with our heels in the air and our feet pointed outwards. But if you look at how most young children do this it’s with their feet flat on the ground and straight.
The deep squat is a natural resting stance in various cultures around the world. This is mainly due to them having less muscle imbalances from sitting down all day or wearing shoes with an elevated heel.
It’s also a really good exercise to work on the muscles and ligaments you need to run efficiently.
- Try practise holding a deep squat for a minute each day or at various times throughout the day when you would usually kneel down. Do this with your heels in the ground, not balancing on your toes. See the links below for more info on this.
- If you find it difficult to do this at first then try doing something called the assisted squat. This is the same but holding onto something as you move down, e.g. a door frame or table leg.
- If you can, do this without your shoes on.
- Here are a couple of good articles on this. Daily Exercise Tutorials | Vivobarefoot and Foot Function and Squatting — Functional Foot Map by Lee Saxby
Too many people look down at their feet when running. This can affect your posture, causing your head to drop forward and your back to become arched.
Try keeping your head more upright but relaxed. A good way to do this is to imagine a vertical cord coming out of the top of your head. Whilst doing this aim to look straight ahead but keep glancing down to the ground a few feet ahead of you for possible obstacles.
Relax your hands and arms
Try not to clench your fists whilst you run. Keep you fingers relaxed instead and your arms at a roughly 90 angle but relaxed down from your shoulders. Be aware of any tension in your neck and shoulders and allow your shoulders to relax downwards if you notice them tensing up.
Take it slowly at first
One word of warning regarding the points I’ve mentioned. Your body may need time to adjust to a new style of running so take it slowly. If you start feeling pain in your feet or calves etc then stop running and try again when you feel better.
This may mean drastically cutting down your mileage until your body has adapted to the change in running style. Maybe intersperse running with walking to help this.
Changing running technique means your body will be using different muscles which may not be used to the extra work being put on them. Doing too much too soon is a sure way to become injured so listen to your body.
If possible, try barefoot running once a week for part of a training run. Find a park with a smooth tarmac path and run on it for a while with no shoes or socks on.
Your bare feet will usually start to hurt before you get the chance to injure yourself elsewhere from overtraining.
This is a great way to notice possible problems with your technique. If you still try things like over striding, landing on your heels, or sliding your foot forwards as you land then your bare feet will soon let you know about it.
Many people suggest barefoot running on grass but unless the grass is very short and the ground nice and even then you run the risk of stepping on a small stone, down a hole or onto dog poo.
Here are a couple of videos that help demonstrate some of the points I’ve mentioned.
A short video by Champions Everywhere about simple methods to improve your technique.
A much longer video from The Natural Running Center, but one of the best and most comprehensive on showing you how to improve your running style.
Everybody’s body is slightly different so If you want advice specific to you here are a couple of places you can go to.
I have no affiliation with either of them, just a happy customer of both.
That’s a general summary of things. In part two I plan do go into more detail about footwear. Until then, happy running!
- Vivobarefoot - Daily Exercise Tutorials
- Foot Function and Squatting — Functional Foot Map by Lee Saxby
- How NOT to start barefoot running - Xero Shoes
- 5 Common Stride Missteps - Xero Shoes
- Proper Running Technique: Six Ways to Improve Efficiency
- 5 Tips on How To Improve Your Running Form - Natural Running Center
- There’s more to ‘barefoot’ running than thin soles: technique is vital, too - The Guardian
- Why Tight Leg Muscles Are a Good Thing for Running Performance - RUN FOREFOOT
- Dr. Rangan Chatterjee on why barefoot is best for kids - YouTube
- Secrets To Reclaiming Your Flat Footed Squat For Yoga Pt 1 (Update 201 – Ekaminhale