Running Form Mistakes and How to Fix Them

Running with improper form can waste a lot of energy and may also lead to injury. Making small improvements in your running form can help you run faster and injury-free. Here are four of the most common running form mistakes and how to avoid them.

Running Form Mistake #1: Heel Striking

runner on sidewalk
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Heel striking is when your feet are landing in front of your hips, so your heel is hitting the ground first. Ideally, you want to land mid-foot, or on the ball of foot. Heel striking, which is fairly common among runners, can lead to injuries such as shin splints and joint pain. It’s also a less efficient way to run because you’re in essence braking with each step, so you waste a lot of energy.  It’s a lot harder to push off your foot when it’s in front of your hips.

Here are some ways that you can work on getting away from heel striking and becoming more of a mid-foot striker: 

  • Make sure that you don't lunge forward with your feet. This is especially important when running downhill, when many runners have a tendency to overstride. Focus on landing mid-sole, with your foot directly underneath your body with every step. A short, low arm swing is the key to keeping your stride short and close to the ground. Try to keep your steps light and quick, as if you're stepping on hot coals.
  • Most people will naturally land mid-sole when running barefoot. So try running on carpet, grass, or turf with no shoes for short periods of time, so your body can find its natural stride. Start with 30 seconds at first and work your way up to a minute or more. This doesn't mean you should run barefoot all the time, since that could lead to injury. But running short intervals on a soft, safe surface allows you to practice mid-foot landing.
  • Another great way to practice mid-foot landing is by doing running drills such as butt kicks, skipping, high knees, running backwards, or side shuffles. When you do any of those drills, it’s impossible to land on your heels. So, the more you practice them, the more you’ll be accustomed to landing on the front part of your foot, as opposed to your heel. You can do running drills as part of your pre-run warm-up or work them into your run. For example, you could intersperse 30-second intervals of high knees or backwards running every 4-5 minutes during a 30-minute run.

Running Form Mistake #2: Unrelaxed Upper Body

runner on a trail
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When you’re trying to improve your running form, it’s tough to try to just stay relaxed. But it’s important to keep your shoulders and arms relaxed because if you’re tense, it could lead to neck, shoulder, and back pain during and after running.

Here are a few tips to ensure that your upper body is relaxed and you’re using efficient upper body form:

  • Keep your arms bent at the elbow at a 90 degree angle.
  • Shake out your arms or raise your shoulders to your ears every mile or so, and then put them back at their ideal, relaxed position.
  • Keep your hands in a loose fist, as if you’re holding an egg and don’t want to break it. If you have them in a tight fist, that tightness will radiate up your arm and lead to tension in your shoulders.

Running Form Mistake #3: Slow Cadence

two men on an early morning run
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Your cadence, or stride turnover, is how many steps you take during a minute of running. For most runners, their cadence stays the same at various paces and speed changes are accomplished by altering their stride length.

Efficient runners have a high stride turnover -- about 180 steps per minute. The slower your cadence, the more time your feet spend on the ground, and the more energy required to propel your foot forward.  A faster cadence improves efficiency, decreases the stress on the muscles, and minimizes the impact on your joints. So if you improve your cadence, you can become a more efficient, faster runner.  Here are some things to try:

  • Do this drill to help improve your stride turnover: Start by running at about your 5K pace for 30 seconds and counting every time your right foot hits the ground. Then jog for a minute to recover and run for 30 seconds again, this time trying to increase the count by one. Repeat this several times, and try to add another step each time. See how close you can get to the ideal of 180 steps per minute.
  • As you're trying to increase your turnover rate, focus on taking quick, light steps. Pick your feet up as soon they hit the ground, as if you're stepping on hot coals. Your feet should be landing under your hips, not in front of you.
  • Practicing running drills (which also help avoid heel striking) is a good way to work on your stride turnover because they force you to be quick on your feet. Incorporate high knees, side steps, butt kicks and other running drills into your warm-up a couple of times a week.

Running Form Mistake #4: Inefficient Arm Swing

Trail runner
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Some runners swing their arms across their chest, which wastes a lot of energy and can also cause you to hunch over (which can lead to back, shoulder, and neck pain).  Here’s how to properly swing your arms so you avoid injury and be as efficient as possible:

  • Keep your arms at your side, parallel to each other, and bent at a 90-degree angle is the most efficient way to hold them.  Your elbows should close to your side, not sticking straight out (no chicken wings!).
  • If your arms cross over your chest, you're more likely to slouch, which means you're not breathing efficiently. Imagine a vertical line splitting your body in half -- your hands should not cross it.
  • If you feel yourself bending over, poke your chest out. Shake out your arms and readjust them in the 90-degree angle position at your side.
  • You should rotate your arms at the shoulder (not at the elbow), so they're swinging back and forth, like a pendulum. 

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