Changing your Form
Many athletes believe that alterations to their running form can enhance their performance by improving their running economy, movement efficiency, or decreasing injury. While these are possible results of altering running form, we discuss the right and wrong ways of achieving these goals.
Exploring the Reasons
A common reason for potentially changing your running form is to prevent injuries. There is evidence that runners prone to achilles injuries may benefit from a heel strike and runners prone to knee or hip injuries may benefit from a mid foot strike (we’ll explore our stance and strategy on this later). From my own research, we discovered higher ground reaction and braking forces when the foot landed significantly in front of the center of mass, regardless of heel, mid foot, or forefoot strike. Of course, stride discrepancies include more than just where or how your foot lands, they include anything from action at the pelvis to your torso and even arms.
Reasons for form changes also include improving performance. Running economyis a measure of the amount of oxygen consumed running at different speeds. The less oxygen you need to consume in order to produce a specific running pace, the better. Movement efficiencyis a way of describing the translation of forces generated to produce an outcome. In the case of running, it is the ability to produce the forces required to propel us forward. Better movement efficiency, better propulsion forward with the same force production.
The Wrong Approach: Conscious Change
This is the most common tactic that runners employ to change their running form. Runners implement a myriad of strategies to try to make their form “look” better; however, trying to make your form look better isn’t the goal, and we’ll share why.
Don’t Overthink it: Reason #1
One of the goals for changing our stride is to improve running economy. Unfortunately, there is a mass of evidence (two examples here and here) against consciously changing your stride due to the negative impact on your running economy. One group of researchers, Schucker et. al. (2009), concluded:
“In line with research on motor control, endurance sport also shows that an external focus of attention is better than an internal focus in terms of the physiological performance measure of oxygen consumption.”
This means that thinking about changes in your form actually makes you use more oxygen, have a higher heart rate for a given intensity, and could ultimately be making you train and race slower.
Don’t Overthink it: Reason #2
The mechanism may be related to the cognitive, associative, and autonomous stages of learning. When we think about our form we revert back to thinking about how we should move. This has cognitive stage implications. The problem is that athletes should aim to operate in the autonomous stage as they become more accustomed to their sport. In fact, small children often function more in the autonomous stage than we do when it comes to running.
In “How Bad Do You Want It?” by Matt Fitzgerald, the importance of operating in a form of the autonomous stage he calls “flow” is further described:
“Well-trained athletes have an easier time achieving flow because they are less physically self-conscious.”
This echoes the previous statement that an internal focus does more to truncate our ability than to amplify it.
Fitzgerald further describes research on the “flow” state:
“Neuroscientists have observed that several changes in brain function tend to accompany the flow state. The brain’s electrical activity always unfolds in wave patterns. Normal consciousness is associated with a high-frequency beta wave pattern. In the flow state, brain rhythms drop down to the borderline between low-frequency beta and theta waves. Flow is tied also to sharply reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that gives rise to a sense of self and that includes the aforementioned dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—the brain’s internal critic.”
When we overthink the way we “should look” while we run, the brain is more active in recruiting new motor units. These new motor patterns require significantly more energy and oxygen to fuel the brain’s efferent signal and the muscles recruited.
Don’t Overthink it: Reason #3
Even after potential changes to running form are made, there is no guarantee that the changes made were for the better. Thomas Michaud, DC further explains:
“The research on running form consistently shows that if your goal is to have a running patient become fast and efficient, be cautious about making significant changes in form because runners intuitively pick the running style that works best for them.”
The reason being that we all are designed differently. There are as many unique running gaits as there are body types. Watch any major marathon or track race and you will not see one specific form that dominates the lead pack. Some elite runners continue to win major races despite the “wrong” form. Desisa Lelisa, who has amazing running economy, has large bilateral discrepancies in his two legs causing an unorthodox running form. Some would say that an athlete like Lelisa continues to compete well despite issues with form, but the evidence to corroborate such a thought just isn’t there. In fact, both Almaz Ayana and Usain Bolt (gold medalists in endurance and sprint events, respectively) have large bilateral discrepancies in their running form.
Michaud again explains:
“The bottom line is that excluding a few obvious examples, such as excessive inward rotation of the knee and/or excessive frontal plane motion at the pelvis, the runner is almost always the best judge at choosing the running form that is right for them.”
It is important to note that this means choosing the running form that is right for their body type without conscious intervention of what they think is correct running form. “Choosing” in this sense is an autonomous adaptation of your body to gravity and the environment.
The Right Approach
The right approach to improving your form involves, predominantly, supplemental exercise alternative to running. Whereas the wrong approach creates a semblance of improved running form, the approach I will explain accomplishes real and effective changes that you won’t have to think about while you run.
Strategy #1: Identify Weaknesses
Whether discovered with a physical assessment, slow motion video, or the naked eye: correctly identifying and addressing weaknesses is an important strategy to make effective changes. Inherent weaknesses are part of the reason runners have form discrepancies in the first place. Under the conscious change model (wrong method), if an athlete changes part of their form, they may do so for a short time but will inevitably return to their habitual patterns as they fatigue and/or get tired of maintaining an artificial demand.
Here are 2 simple examples of appropriate change:
1. An athlete rotates excessively at the torso as they alternate legs during their stride (aka “the washing machine”) – This is a fairly simple fix, instead of asking the athlete to stop swaying or rotating at the torso, have them build a stronger core.
2. An athlete has excessive dorsiflexion through their gait but especially pronounced just prior to landing – This could have one or two reasons. The athlete may need to foam roll the anterior tibialis to alleviate anterior tension. The other, more common reason, is that the athlete needs to strengthen and/or lengthen the posterior muscles of the lower leg. The dorsiflexion in this sense is a protection of the posterior muscles, so strengthening and/or lengthening the posterior muscles will allow a reduction in the dorsiflexion.
Strategy #2: Increase cadence
While I am predominantly against actively changing components of your stride as you run, if cadence is too low an increase is generally something I advise. What is considered too low depends on the height and running pace of the athlete. In most, but not all circumstances, I consider <170 steps/minute too low. From my own research (and corroborated by many other studies), it was found that an increase in stride rate (cadence) significantly reduced ground reaction forces. Further, we found runners would more effectively land their feet under their center of mass with the higher cadence. This favorable change in landing pattern can lead to reduced forces up the kinetic chain. This fits with one of the primary goals of form change: injury reduction.
Dr. Jack Daniels describes an appropriate running cadence as “running across the ground, not into it.” Cadence is highly dependent on the fitness of the muscles surrounding the hips, both their strength and fatiguability. Cadence remains one of my only conscious-change exceptions because you can train the fitness and motor pattern of the hip muscles quite well during a normal run; however, I wouldn’t necessarily advise to attempt changes every run or even the whole duration of a run. Note, you can also train the strength and endurance of the hip muscles in the gym or at home with body weight and bands.
Lastly, the mathematics of running speed involves 2 things: stride length and cadence. Of the two, an incremental change in cadence has a much larger effect on overall running speed. Note that as your fitness improves your cadence may also naturally improve.
Strategy #3: Make Necessary Changes where Form Discrepancies are Injurious
My last strategy involves making changes at all costs due to the injurious nature of the movement pattern. Usually Strategy #1 can absolve a runner of having to employ Strategy #3; however, a runner can exhibit a certain motor pattern caused by tightness or prior injury that may require them to go into rehabilitation or to consciously change their stride.
Not all runners need to change their form, but if they do, they should primarily focus on addressing their weaknesses and autonomously implementing those new strengths during their runs.