legs of a runnerGood running form can be an important part of preventing injuries and extending the life of your running shoes. Recently, I was asked by somebody if the wear on the outside edge of their heel was normal as he had just recently begun running in more minimal shoes than he was used to. His question was whether he should try to land farther forward on his foot or if the heel wear was to be expected.

Learning to run with better running form will always pay off in the long run, but in the short term it’s probably not worth worrying about where you land on your feet if it isn’t painful. Changes to your gait should be gradual and you should expect an adjustment period when you change your shoes from one style (such as a motion control shoe with a large heel lift) to another style (such as a minimal shoe that is relatively flat and has a minimal heel lift.)

Improve your running form with this four step process to get your muscles and body used to it:

Step 1 is to improve where you land by ignoring what part of your foot hits the ground first.

good running postureTo do this, work on quick leg turn over and landing with your feet below your center of gravity instead of trying to control where on your feet you land, which is a recipe for a quick injury. You’ll naturally begin to land in a more appropriate spot for your body type and shoe without hurting yourself.

It’s not uncommon for somebody new to low-heel-drop shoes to wear out on the heels in the first pair or two – you’re still used to over-striding and it can take a few months to a year to get used to running in your new shoes.

One way that people can learn to run more efficiently and over their center of gravity is to try to run with a higher cadence, or leg turnover.

The average jogger runs with a cadence of about 140 to 160 strides per minute. The often used “optimum” number that you should be running (based on research by Jack Daniels) is 180 strides per minute, or 90 steps with each leg.

If you use an artificial aid, such as a sound file on your mp3 player with either 90 or 180 beats per minute, then on every beat lift your foot off of the ground. Most people try to learn a higher turnover by striking the ground with your foot on each beat.

You’ll accomplish the same thing by lifting your foot instead except that psychologically you’ll be concentrating on running lightly rather than pounding your foot into the ground. As I said above, you want to lift your feet and let your forward lean from the ankle handle most of your forward momentum so that you don’t need to use as much energy pushing yourself along.

This Winter, a woman joined my training group who was seeing a physical therapist for knee problems. He had her using a metronome app on her phone to learn to run with a faster stride rate but it wasn’t helping very much. On that first night I told her to experiment with lifting her foot each beat rather than hitting the ground each beat and after the workout she told me that was the first pain free run that she’s had in months.

Don’t try to control where on your foot your land. If you just suddenly switch to landing on the balls of your feet all the time (at least when you’re thinking of it) then you’re going to wind up getting a stress fracture.

Your foot has hundreds of muscle movements that happen in fractions of a second to help stabilize you as you run, so trying to control those reactions will usually be to your detriment. Using your heel isn’t necessarily a bad thing; even barefoot runners will usually use their heel while they are running. For most people, you just want to avoid landing on the back of your heel which is made easier with cushioned shoes with a huge heel to toe differential.

Step 2 is to ease into better running form by improving your posture.

good running formIf you aren’t getting hurt, it isn’t painful, and it’s working okay for you, then don’t worry about making sudden and drastic changes.

Here a few tips that you can follow so that it becomes more natural in your everyday runs.

First, try to keep a relatively straight back on your runs. You shouldn’t have much of a curve from foot to posterior to shoulders to head. Lean forward from the ankles and not from the hips. Don’t let your head flop around.

Did you know the average human head weighs between 8 and 12 pounds? Letting your head flop isn’t so good for your back or spine…think of putting a bowling ball on a stick. Holding it straight up and down is not so bad. Lean it to any side, and your wrist is going to notice in a hurry!

The same is true with your head. If your body is in alignment, it’s easy to carry your head and use it as a counterbalance to pull your momentum forward. If you lean forward at the waist, then your back has to support your head and you’ll get tired and sore in short order.

Step 3 is to start adding form drills to the end of your workouts.

bare feetFind a flat stretch of grass such as the infield of a soccer or football field and kick off your shoes.

Drills will help with leg turnover which will help your body get used to running over your center of balance and will also help stretch out your legs so that you don’t feel as sore after your workout.

Strides are best, with high knees and butt kicks also being great form work. Bounds aren’t as good for running form, but if you are spending the time anyway I’d add them as I find they help loosen me up after a workout better than the others.

You should practice the drills by gently accelerating for about 20 to 30 yards, holding that pace for 60-70 yards, and then gently decelerating for the final 20 to 30 yards. You aren’t sprinting, just picking up the pace and working on your running form!

Step 4 is to practice downhill running.

running downhillRunning uphill will more naturally lead to better running form, and for most people running downhill encourages “bad” running form. By learning to run downhill, your running form will also improve for the rest of your runs when you aren’t going downhill.

Here’s my favorite workout that will help you learn good running form, especially if you do this workout regularly throughout a season. First, find a trail without many obstacles and a gentle downhill grade if you can.

Here in Portland, there’s a 1k loop in the woods in the middle of town that I have my folks do 800m repeats on to learn good running form. It’s about 550m downhill, 50m flat at the bottom, and 200m uphill.

The reason that I like using a dirt trail rather than a road is that it helps you learn good form without hurting you like pavement would if you are doing it wrong. You want to practice your form as I described above, with the added benefit of having a downhill grade that will let you work on really fast leg turnover without using a lot of extra energy.

When you are running downhill, you do want to actively avoid hitting the ground heel first, because the trick is to get going just fast enough to start to feel out of control…until that feels normal and is no longer near that out of control feeling. If you heel strike while running downhill, it’s obvious because you’ll be braking and sending shockwaves up your legs through your back.

What I really like about Baxter Woods here in town is that the uphill finish reminds you that you’re working out and also reinforces good running form away from the downhill stretch, since it’s much easier to run with good form when the ground rises to meet you. You can more easily maintain good posture and not let your head flop as long as you don’t lean really far forward from the waist.

Once you get good at running downhill with good form, it’s easier to carry that forward when you are running on the flats. You’ll also find that running fast downhill on pavement is much easier and less painful.

Gradually work through all 4 of those steps throughout the course of a season, and you’ll find that your running form is more comfortable, you can run faster with less energy than before, and you may also find that your shoes last longer before needing to be replaced.