Proper form can keep you safe from pain.

How and Why to Work on Your Running Form

If there’s one thing I stress when talking to runners in my physical therapy practice, it’s running form and body mechanics. Proper gait helps you run faster, longer, and more efficiently, and it’s key to injury prevention.

When I first started running, I was like many people and thought it was just something you go out and do – easy, right? But running is like any other sport, it involves enormous coordination. You wouldn’t just start swimming or playing basketball without learning how, and running is no different.

Many people find this out the hard way, by getting injured. And as I discovered for myself, getting sidelined and losing all the fitness and stamina you’ve built up is no fun. It gave me a new appreciation for the limitations of my body and the importance of taking care of it, but I’d prefer it if my patients didn’t have that happen.

Learn About Form

Most of us here in the Kaiser Permanente Physical Therapy department recommend Chi running, which emphasizes form and alignment.  You can learn more about it in the book Chi Running, which our Physical Therapy Department recommends to all runners. It’s an older book, but still one of the best. Written by ultra-marathon runner Danny Dreyer, it’s a practical guide to analyzing and improving your gait.

Chi running teaches you to land with your foot flat, putting most of the weight on the balls of your feet. This prevents the impact of each step from radiating upwards and causing knee, hip, and back pain. There’s more information on the Chi Running website, which offers learning materials, DVDs, a newsletter, and more.

Focus on Feet

Working on your running form can prevent a lot of problems down the line. But be careful of generalizations. For example, many people think pronation is a bad word, but it’s not that simple. If you watch people walk, you’ll notice that most people pronate as they push off. You don’t want to do it too much, but it’s part of your natural gait. How to tell?  Look at the soles of your shoes; if they are worn out on the outside of the heel and the inside of the big toe, you’re pronating.

Another clue is to look at your footprint as you step out of the shower. If you see most of your foot outlined and you don’t have much arch, then your propensity to over-pronate is greater. If your arch is high, you’re less likely to over-pronate and may even under-pronate.

If you have either of these tendencies, you want to know about it and try to compensate or you can develop foot, knee, hip, or back pain. Or you may acquire an ongoing problem like shin splints or plantar fasciitis. At the same time, pronation is part of your natural gait, so you want to focus on the whole thing, and not just that.

Choosing the correct shoes can help; for example, stiffer shoes are often recommended for over-pronation. If you purchase your shoes from a running store, the sales staff will test you for alignment issues and recommend the right shoes. But if you’re relying on shoes to compensate for gait issues, you’re not really correcting the actual problem. And you’re not going to be wearing your running shoes all the time, but you’re always over-pronating.

Instead, try this tip – point your toes forward. Look down at regular intervals throughout the day and make sure your legs are aligned straight with your toes pointing directly forward, rather than turned in or out. Do this not just when you’re running, but when walking and standing as well.

Think you’ll have trouble remembering? At least initially, set a timer while you work, walk or run to let you it’s time for the straight-toe check. Eventually it will become a habit.

Brian Soo is a senior physical therapist at the Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center who works inpatient, outpatient, and in sports medicine.  A recreational runner for many years, Brian also bicycles, plays racquetball, and most importantly, paddles on a 20-person Dragon Boat team that competes internationally and practices three times a week. He also enjoys active video games and believes they can be an excellent complement to an overall fitness regime.