What Is the Proper Running Form, Anyway?

Whether you're a beginner or just need a refresher, here's what you should know about optimizing for proper running form.

Running Form
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There's more to mastering proper running form than meets the eye. That's why every perfectionist who's taken up running knows a certain type of inner monologue: "Should I be leaning more? Am I breathing deeply enough? How much arm swing is too much?"

Whether you're an occasional runner or a race addict, it pays to seek answers to those types of questions. Not only can learning proper running form lower your risk for injury, but it might also lead to a personal record. "The overarching goal, especially with long-distance running is to run in an efficient manner," says Christopher Hoffman, a certified running coach. "You're trying to expend as little energy as possible, and any sort of extraneous arm and body movements or breathing can tire out your body."

Additionally, running with proper form will relieve any pain you might associate with the cardio exercise. "If you're...running with bad form, it's not going to feel good," says Erin Beck, NASM-certified personal trainer and director of training and experience for STRIDE Fitness. "You'll be straining, you might feel a pinch in the back of your neck, and you're definitely not going to want to keep running. But when you find proper running form, your body will feel better, and running won't be such a pain."

No need to creep on your area joggers to suss out exactly how you should be moving. Here, experts share five major elements of proper running form.

Graphic explaining proper running form

Posture

When it comes to your overall posture, it helps to think about "running tall," says Vikash Sharma, D.P.T., a physical therapist at Perfect Stride Physical Therapy. "This will help keep you from slouching forward and suffering from a breakdown in running and breathing mechanics," he says. "You want to think about keeping your ears over your shoulders." Aim your gaze about 15-20 feet straight ahead. Try to avoid a forward head posture (aka jutting your chin forward). It can put a strain on your neck, back, and shoulder muscles, says Sharma.

That said, maintaining the right running posture involves a slight forward lean. "Ideally, you should feel a little bit like you're falling forward as you run (and your legs are moving to catch you)," says Beck. "So lean in, just a little." Think of bending at your ankles rather than your hips, leaning forward about 10 degrees. All the more reason to take ankle strength and mobility seriously.

Stride Length

The average runner won't need to concern themselves with actually measuring out their stride length, but for proper running form, it is important to find a stride that's not too long and not too short. Your stride length [places] your foot underneath your body when it contacts that ground, notes Beck — not out in front of your body, as some people might assume is necessary for fast running.

A lot of people tend to overstride, says Sharma. If your stride is bouncy, that's a giveaway. "When you're overstriding, that leads to a more vertical displacement (aka bouncing) and that's going to promote more contact time with your foot on the ground, which is going to cause your muscles to have to work harder," he says. Rather than leaping forward, think about directing force into the ground and behind you once your foot lands.

Having too short of a stride is a much less common mistake, but if you suspect your stride is too short, one way to find out is to film yourself running and count your steps per minute. "Generally speaking, for distance runners, faster and more efficient runners are averaging around 180 or more steps per minute," says Hoffmann. "Slower runners average around 160 steps per minute." So if you're taking far more than that, you might want to lengthen your stride.

It's not always easy to self-correct your running form, particularly when it comes to stride length. Getting a gait analysis at a running clinic can give you an outside perspective on which aspects of your running form you could improve upon. "I think the biggest thing to get used to over time — even for myself — is working on that stride length," says Hoffman. "Modifying your stride at first will feel unnatural because it's not how you've been running all your life."

Foot Strike

Research isn't conclusive on exactly how your foot should be hitting the ground for proper running technique. While some schools of thought favor striking the ground with the midfoot or front of the foot rather than the heel, the authors of a 2021 systematic review of existing studies published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine argued that it hasn't been proven to offer advantages when it comes to running efficiently or avoiding injuries. Even elite athletes aren't necessarily adjusting their footstrike pattern to favor the front or middle of the foot. A study on marathon runners at the 2017 IAAF World Championships found that most runners favored a rearfoot (heel) strike pattern, including the top four finishing men.

All that is to say, you do you. "There are a lot of people out there talking about foot strike pattern — forefoot, midfoot, heel strike," says Sharma. "However, when I'm working with someone, I'm more concerned about whether there are any issues with the current pattern. Is the running efficient, are you getting injured, etc. If so, that's when you might want to consider making a change."

Arm Swing

Your stride will impact your arm swing since your arm movements should naturally mirror your legs (and vice versa), so it's a surprisingly important part of proper running form.

"Strive to keep your elbows around a 90-degree bend, swinging alongside your ribcage," advises Beck. "When you're trying to run faster, think about actively pulling your elbows backward with each stride." That's because as one arm swings backward with purpose, the opposite leg will swing forward with just as much force. And that potato chip cue your high school track coach used to guide good running form still holds true: To avoid excess tension, loosely cup your hands and pretend you're holding a chip between your thumb and forefinger that you don't want to break, suggests Sharma.

And resist the urge to overswing. "When you're running, imagine there's a wall maybe a few inches in front of you and you want to keep your arm swing behind that wall," says Sharma. "Once you start swinging your arms more aggressively forward, that promotes over-striding, which you want to avoid." Remember to keep your shoulders down and swing your arms forward and back, not across your body. You want to have your wrists and hands brush against your hips as you run.

Breath

Your body uses oxygen as fuel while you're running, says Beck. "Longer, slower, deeper breaths will help you fuel up with oxygen, without sending your body into panic mode," she advises.

However, there's no exact science to breathing for proper running form. "Everybody's a little bit different when it comes to breathing," says Hoffman. "For some people, it's an inhalation for two seconds and an exhalation for two seconds, other people are different. The idea is to relax and breathe in an efficient manner." That might be a deeper breath than you're used to — if you notice hyperventilation-like breaths, that's a sign that you're not getting enough air and should slow down your breath.

"In through the nose, out through the mouth" is a traditional rule of thumb, but again, it's not a one-size-fits-all deal. For more specifics, learn how to breathe while running.

While maintaining proper running form can feel like a million things to remember all at once, trust, it'll pay off in the long run. With upright posture, an intentional stride length, a strong arm swing, and mindful breathing, you'll enjoy the benefits of good running form for miles to come.

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