How To Improve Your Running From Head To Toe

04/27/2015 08:13 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015
Maridav via Getty Images

By Mallory Creveling for Life by DailyBurn

If you want to feel good while running faster and longer -- and who doesn't? -- it's all about making the most of every movement. Whether you're prepping for a 5K or 26.2 miles, stomping out the distance requires dedication, training and a basic understanding of mechanics. To get you off on the right foot, we've turned to Janet Hamilton, an exercise physiologist, running coach and owner of Running Strong, for some essential stride advice. Keep in mind: "There's no one right way to run," she explains. "Even for each individual, gait pattern will evolve as running skills do." But hitting your perfect stride could eventually mean shaving seconds -- or even minutes -- off your race time.

Building strength, getting flexible and gradually increasing distance and speed will all improve fitness level and help you hit your ideal race pace without injury. "It's best to avoid over-thinking your form," says Hamilton. This could throw your natural reflexes out of whack, which actually makes you less efficient.

Next time you pound the pavement, casually take notice of your body position and channel these tips from Hamilton once you've found your groove. By the time you're cruising toward the finish line, you'll be breathing easy and standing strong.

Proper Running Form, Head To Toe

1. Look ahead.
Scan your surroundings. If you're on the trails it may be better to look closer in front of you so you don't trip on rocks or branches. But on the open road, you want to look farther ahead and watch out for traffic or other people. "Just keep your head up, as if you were walking in an interesting location and want to take in all the sights," says Hamilton. "Your head weighs approximately seven to nine pounds so if you have it forward and down, it's going to pull your torso forward and down."

2. Relax your shrug.
When it comes to the waist up, let your upper body move freely with your hips. If you feel your shoulders tense up toward your ears, try to relax them again so your body is loose and all in sync. Roll them back and shake it out quick.

3. Keep swinging.
"Arms are not driving this bus -- the glutes are -- so let them respond naturally," says Hamilton. If you're getting speedy on your feet, you can pump your arms to help propel you forward, but if you're looking at a long distance, just casually swing them back and forth. Keep your hands and fingers relaxed too (no tight fists), and aim for a 90- to 100-degree bend at the elbows.

While swaying your arms back and forth, your hands should create an invisible arch-type shape out front, meaning they move side-to-side just slightly. Also, they shouldn't cross your vertical midline -- if they do, it may signal an asymmetrical issue or a problem in your hips or legs.

4. Cut to the core.
While there's no specific placement for your core, a strong midsection is necessary for "running tall" and giving you the stability and force you need to propel forward. To test your power, Hamilton suggests the single leg sit-to-stand test. Sit in a chair, hold one leg off the ground and without using the arm rests, and stand using just the other leg. Then sit back down with that same leg. (And repeat on the other side.) If you can't get up or sit down without falling off balance, it's time to do more core exercises, like these.

5. Get glutes in gear.
Again, this area isn't about position, but rather strength and ability to fire when you need them most. (Hills, we're looking at you!) "Glutes are the one area of the body that I push my athletes to work on building up," says Hamilton. "Many running injuries, including IT band syndrome and plantar fasciitis come from weakness here." If you're having problems or just know you need to firm up your rear, work more squats, bridges and clam shells into your regular workout routine. Or try this glute workout to help build strength.

6. Alleviate impact.
The movement of the knee generally goes like this: It's slightly flexed on initial contact, bends a little more as weight fully transfers to that leg to absorb shock. Then it stabilizes and extends when you push off and flexes again as the weight moves off that leg and your foot swings forward. If your have an extra wide stride, this may put your knee far behind your foot and you'll benefit from picking up your cadence (see how below).

If you're naturally fairly straight in alignment (meaning you're toes don't point inward or outward), but when you run, your knees tend to cave in, work on lateral hip and glute strength or check your shoes for excessive wear. If you have a naturally straight posture but your knees bow outward when you run, your footwear may be to blame. It could be keeping your usual pronation from taking place.

This may sound like a lot, but you don't have to worry so much about the angle of your knee -- its position will happen naturally, Hamilton emphasizes. Just focus on running in a comfortable position.

7. Stay springy.
Like your glutes and core, the calves don't necessarily need to be aligned in a specific way, but they do need to be flexible. That way, they'll support your knees and ankles and according to Hamilton you'll avoid overuse injuries that come from a tight muscle, like Achilles tendonitis, which is one of the most common problems for runners. Hamilton's favorite flexibility move: the runner's stretch with your hands against a wall. Step one foot forward into a lunge, with the front leg bent and the back leg extended straight, hands flat on the wall in front of you. Keeping your weight on the outer edge of the back foot (lift the big toe to reach the muscle more) stretch through your calf. Walk your feet closer if necessary and repeat on the other side.

8. Focus on footwork.
If there's one movement that varies greatly from one person to the next, it's foot placement during a run. Whether you're a fore, mid or heel striker, "each initial contact position has its unique stress on the body," explains Hamilton. "Therefore since your mass is the same no matter whether you're contacting heel first or forefoot first, the force will simply be redistributed to a different area of your body when you change from one gait pattern to another. You can't reduce the overall forces -- but you can move them around." Hamilton doesn't promote one type of foot strike over another. "Changing from one's naturally adopted gait pattern to another gait pattern has not been shown consistently to result in a reduced injury rate -- simply a change in the location of the injury," says Hamilton. "Those who changed from heel striking to midfoot may find a reduction in knee injuries but an increase in lower leg injuries like shin splints or Achilles issues, and foot injuries such as plantar fasciitis, forefoot pain and stress fractures."

So while gait change might not be ideal for all runners, a universal and achievable goal is having your center of gravity directly over the foot as it strikes the ground. Cadence (or rhythm) helps with this, plus it takes pressure off the knees.

To test yours, Hamilton recommends grabbing a gym buddy and hitting the treadmill. While running at your typical relaxed pace, have your partner count how many times your left or right foot hits the mill in one minute. You should reach 90 per foot or 180 for both feet. Only reaching about 70 or 75 per foot? "The slower the cadence, the more likely you are to over-stride or to have your foot hit the ground too far in front of you," Hamilton explains. This can lead to injury. A quick fix: Download jams with a slightly faster BPM (beats per minute) than your usual 156 or 160 to gradually work your way into a faster rhythm (166 to 180). "Think light, quick feet," says Hamilton.

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