Are you Running Wrong?

How to Run Better Without Running More

By: Tessa Thomas

 Runner | Photo by  Tikkho Maciel

Runner | Photo by Tikkho Maciel

If you are an avid runner, or even just enjoy running a few kilometres each week during the summer, this article is for you. What if I told you that you could improve your 5km or 10km time, or even just feel more light and free, without increasing your weekly kilometres – running better without running more. How is this possible? Most runners only train to improve their cardiovascular systems, or oxygen uptake, with little focus on running technique. Physical fitness definitely plays a role in how good a runner you are, but what can have an equally great impact on your running is your running economy. You want to be able to go as fast as possible while using as little energy and consuming as little oxygen in the process by having an efficient running stride.1

The good news is that similar to improving your level of fitness, it is also possible to use technical training to improve your running economy. Realistically, running is a skill, and with every skill there is potential for improvement when we begin to pay attention to technique and form. 

According to Christopher McDougall’s best selling book, we were Born to Run. As the human body evolved and changed we adopted the key features of running animals, becoming the world’s greatest marathoners and in turn, the world’s greatest hunters.2 We have the capability to run down any animal to the point of exhaustion due to our unique ability to take multiple strides per breath – this is known as persistence hunting. As McDougall states, “If you can run six miles on a summer day then you, my friend, are a lethal weapon in the animal kingdom.” The Bushmen3 of the Kalahari Desert are the only known persistence hunting specialists remaining in the world.

 Runners in Central Park | Photo by  Chanan Greenblatt

Runners in Central Park | Photo by Chanan Greenblatt

Similar to the Kalahari Bushmen, the Tarahumara of Mexico’s Copper Canyons, and Kenyan athletes, are also considered to be masterful runners, and it’s not because they have an unusually high oxygen uptake, but instead because they have very efficient running strides allowing them to run just as fast as other runners, but with lower oxygen consumption – critical for endurance.4

Unfortunately, only a fraction of all North American runners run naturally and efficiently for two main reasons: quite simply, we sit too much, causing stiffness and tightness in the hips. We also often wear overly-cushioned shoes that restrict the foot’s natural movement, preventing better running form. The masterful running peoples mentioned above have in common the use of barely-there shoes or even running barefoot throughout their youth.5 The ideal shoe is thin, firm, and light with a wide toe box as it allows for maximum foot function and protection.6

The perfect stride, and subsequently good running economy, is characterized by having an upright posture, with a forefoot landing directly underneath your body, your knee pointing forward on the forward leg swing, and as minimal up and down movement as possible.7 Other than becoming a faster runner, bettering your stride efficiency also aids in injury prevention by improving stability and increasing mobility.

From a base improvement in your running economy we can then focus on a few key mobility exercises to reduce restriction in the hips and ankles, and a few drills to aid in producing a more natural and efficient stride. See the video below for a guided tutorial of these exercises and drills.

One of the easiest ways to find your natural running stride is to try barefoot running. Barefoot running is excellent training for those who want to learn better landing technique and at the same time get stronger feet and calves. With barefoot running you will immediately feel the effects of landing on your heel with a stride length that places your foot ahead of your body, or “heel-striking.” It will be painful and indicate that you are absorbing the majority of the landing shock with your joints instead of your muscles. A recent study has shown that runners who land in this position get twice as many injuries compared to runners who land on their forefoot.8 If you are interested in trying barefoot running here are a few tips for getting started:

  • Start on grass
  • Go slow, focusing on form
  • Try only 10 minutes to start with
  • Listen to your body, if your feet or tendons get sore stop for the day
  • When your feet and tendons no longer get sore, increase to 2-3 times per week for 10 minutes9
 Marathon Runners | Photo by  Martins Zemlickis

Marathon Runners | Photo by Martins Zemlickis

Although we may never reach the stride efficiency level of a Kenyan Olympic distance athlete, small adjustments to technique combined with a few exercises done for a few minutes a day can make your next 5km, 10km or Sunday evening run that much more enjoyable. It’s one thing to be told that you were born to run, it’s another thing to feel it – the only way to get there is to give your running form the attention it deserves as a learned skill.

1 Reckmann, Thomas, The Perfect Stride: A Runner’s Guide to Healthier Technique, Performance and Speed. 19. 2013. Skyhorse Publishing
2McDougall, Christopher, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. 276 (e-book). 2011
3 “Some find the term Bushmen offensive but this group say that is what they prefer to be called.” “Botswana Bushmen: Modern life is destroying us.” 24821867
4The Perfect Stride, 27
5The Perfect Stride, 28
6Dicharry, Jay, Anatomy for Runners: Unlocking Your Athletic Potential for Health, Speed, and Injury Prevention. 136. 2012. Skyhorse Publishing
7The Perfect Stride, 19-20
8Daoud, Al, et al. “Foot strike and injury rates in endurance runners: a retrospective study.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2012 Jul;44(7):1325-34.
9The Perfect Stride, 87

Disclaimer: Good Read Magazine and its contributors are not responsible in any manner for any injuries that may occur through following the instructions contained in this material; this article is solely for information and educational purposes and does not constitute medical advice. Please consult a medical or health professional before beginning any exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.