Growing up in rural Indiana I was a basketball player before I was ever a runner, and there was nobody I wanted to be more than Reggie Miller, the face of the Indiana Pacers in the 1990’s. As a young basketball player I did everything I could to emulate Reggie, including his unconventional shooting form (and excluding his world-class trash talking). Despite being one of the best shooters of all time, Reggie’s shot had an awkward release where his wrists would clang together, both hands flung open toward the basket. This is not the way young players, myself included, are taught to shoot, but in my infinite wisdom I assumed Reggie knew best and I religiously practiced his unique style.
It is a dangerous thing to emulate someone just because they happen to be good at what they do, and while that is one in a long list of reasons my NBA dreams went unfulfilled, it rings true for running technique as well. Everyone is put together differently and while most of the best runners look fluid and smooth, it’s more important that you find the correct technique for you rather than try to emulate someone else’s.
There is a lot said about foot strike, and like many things in the running world it can be difficult to sift through all the information available. Thinking about that question a little differently is the best way to clear up the issue. Rather than thinking about how your foot is striking the ground think about where your foot is striking the ground. Jim Ryun, former world record holder in the mile, was a prominent heel striker, but he did a good job of landing with his foot close to his body and under his center of gravity.
While it’s true heel strikers are more likely to over stride, it’s the over striding we want to avoid not necessarily the heel striking. The two are correlated but they don’t have a cause-effect relationship. Think about your feet landing under your hips and the foot strike issue becomes moot. If your foot is landing well out in front of you then you are increasing stress on your knees and hips and decreasing running efficiency. Bringing that foot under your center of gravity and directly under your hips decreases the impact stress on your joints and improves your efficiency of movement.
One corrective measure for over striding is increasing your cadence, or how frequently your feet strike the ground. You should aim for roughly 180 foot strikes per minute (90 on each foot) and if you are over striding your cadence will typically be significantly lower than that. There are other possible causes of lowcadence; including excessive vertical movement, but targeting 180 foot strikes per minute will improve your efficiency, regardless of the cause.
The Bill Rodgers Example
Bill Rodgers is undoubtedly one of the best marathoners the US has ever seen and went his entire running career without being injured, a rarity among all runners, elite or otherwise. If you watch Bill run his arm swing is asymmetrical with a unique lateral motion. If Bill would have forced himself out of that arm motion it’s quite possible Bill may never have stayed healthy enough to win 4 Boston Marathons and 4 New York City Marathons.
Bill has a significant leg length discrepancy and his arm motion was his body’s natural way of compensating for that discrepancy. By in large, your arms are counter balances to your legs and motion in your hips. You want to keep your shoulders and arms relaxed and drive them well up hills and at the end of races for added power and momentum, but forcing them out of their natural plane of motion is likely to create more problems than solutions. Focus on keeping your arms and shoulders relaxed and your elbow angle at roughly 90 degrees, but leave the rest of the corrections to hip strength and posture.
If your arms cross your body’s centerline while running your issue is most likely lack of hip stability as opposed to bad arm motion. The arms are merely a symptom of what’s happening below the waist. To fix the root cause your focus should be on strengthening your hips. Primarily, this includes the gluteus muscles, internal and external rotators, and your hip flexors. The most common of all running related maladies is lack of hip stabilization, and it is the culprit of a whole host of running injuries including knee pain, IT band syndrome, hip pain and even sciatic nerve pain among many others. If you are struggling with an overuse injury the chances are high the root cause is in your hips.
Posture plays an important role in the way your hip muscles, primarily the gluteus muscles, engage, and poor posture compromises your glutes’ ability to stabilize your hips properly. Think about keeping the spine long and relaxed, as if you are trying to create space between the vertebrae. This will keep you from leaning too far forward, pushing your hips behind your center of gravity, and rotating your hips too far forward.
If you’ve ever had low back pain or tightness after a run that is a good sign your hips are rotated too far forward, meaning the front of your hips sits below the back of your hips. That rotation limits your ability to stabilize your hips properly and can lead to a variety of future problems. In addition to lengthening your spine while you’re running, focus on both strengthening and lengthening your hip flexors. The hip flexors are critical in keeping your hips in a more balanced front-to-back position.
There are some universal principles of proper running technique, but they look slightly differently on all of us. Whether you’re shooting like Reggie Miller or Michael Jordan, use these principles as a guide to a healthier and faster you.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the June 2016 Issue of Running Journal