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Running Form Errors: Facts & Fallacies

Woman with running form errors

“How you run is how you run, there is no point in changing it”

“Heel striking is terrible”

“All runners should take 180 steps per minute”

“You should land with your foot directly under your body”

These are all statements I hear from runners on a regular basis. And all of them are wrong!

Let’s start with the first one: While it’s true that physical differences in strength, mobility, body size and proportions will prevent everyone from using the same form and there is no mythical “perfect” running form, there are 3 general running form errors to avoid. These form errors can increase injury risk while offering no benefit to running performance.

Overstriding

Overstriding means landing with your foot too far out in front of your center of mass. Often times that first point of contact is the heel, which is where the association that heel striking is bad likely stems from. If you have ever heard that you should land with your foot directly under your body, this is also incorrect and actually impossible unless you are accelerating. You want your foot slightly in front of your body, but the initial contact point can be your heel, your mid-foot or your forefoot. Research does not support a higher risk of injury with any particular foot strike pattern. Over 70% of distance runners heel strike. At the end of a marathon, almost all runners are making initial contact with their heel.

Overstriding running form error

The problem with overstriding is that it increases the amount of force your body has to absorb by up to 30% per step. That’s a lot of extra force on your daily run and over the course of a training cycle! Overstriders often land with the knee almost straight, which is a poor position for shock absorption and can contribute to knee pain. The lower leg is often angled several degrees off vertical, which puts extra force on the anterior shin (think shin splints and stress fractures). Overstriding also impairs efficiency because there is a braking impulse that occurs as you hit the ground. This means your body slows down momentarily—which is not what you want if you are running for a goal time.

Bounce

Vertical bounce refers to how high your center of mass comes off the ground with each step. You don’t want this to be zero as you would be creeping along close to the ground, but you also don’t want this value to be too high as it directly correlates with higher vertical ground reaction forces. Similar to overstriding, requiring the body to handle higher loads can increase the risk of injury. Bouncing with running is also not very efficient. You want to use that energy to propel yourself forward down the road, not up toward the sky!

Compliance

Compliance, also called collapsing, refers to how well your body absorbs the energy and force from initial contact with the ground. Runners who sink into the ground at their ankles, knees, hips, or pelvis are demonstrating excessive compliance. They are not very efficient and are putting extra load on their joints. Sometimes excessive compliance is related to a lack of lower extremity strength, but often it is also related to overstriding. Landing too far in front of your body puts you in a poor position to absorb these forces well.

What To Do: Consider a 3D Gait Analysis

So how do you know if you exhibit any of these running form errors? Take a look at your Garmin, Coros or other wearable device. While there is nothing magic about a cadence of 180 steps per minutes, runners with a cadence below 168 are often overstriding. However, runners with higher cadences can still overstride, bounce or collapse.

You should also consider getting a running gait analysis. Gait analysis is an essential component of any physical therapy exam, especially if you have a history of running injuries, but it can also be invaluable if you are interested in performance. 3D gait analysis with reflective physical markers placed on the body at key joints is the current gold standard. This type of analysis is available in the Twin Cities here: http://instridemnpt.com/.

3D Gait Analysis image

To be most effective, the results of any gait analysis should be combined with information about your training history, past or current injuries, and running-specific strength and mobility to design a treatment plan that focuses on your unique needs as a runner. Small changes in form can add up to big decreases in the forces applied to your body while running. Addressing deficits in strength and mobility can increase your running capacity. Often a bit of both is needed. The result is optimizing YOU as a runner who is more injury resilient, running more efficiently and ready to reach your running goals!

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