I thought this was pertinent given the focus on running mechanics and barefoot running.  It’s an article I wrote for Running Times online a couple years back.  It’s a simple and practical look at how to run properly.

Running seems to come naturally, so why should we worry about our technique or form? Ask many coaches and they will tell you that distance runners should not worry about how they run. On the other hand there are books on running technique popping up everywhere. So what is the truth?

The truth can be found by studying the best distance runners in the world. If you look at frame by frame shots of world class runners, the majority of them run “correctly”. Distance runners neglect working on their form it is difficult to change the way one runs. Recently, I sat down with two highly successful coaches and spent four nights watching 800m and 1500m Olympic or championship races. The similarities between almost all of the top runners were astounding.

Knowing how to run is the most difficult part. In the discussion below I will stick with what can be seen through analyzing elite runners and biomechanical knowledge. The following is based on the ideas of world renowned biomechanics expert and sprint coach Tom Tellez and I am much indebted for the information he provided.

The Drive Phase

The running stride can be divided into two phases, the recovery phase, and the support/drive phase. The drive phase causes the propulsion needed to get you moving and starts with when foot contact is made. Once foot contact is made you allow the foot to load up and extend the hip downwards and slightly back to create the force. The extension of the hip is where your power comes from. It is helpful to think of it as a crank device which you crank from the hip.

When coming off the ground you are trying to optimize the vertical and horizontal components of the stride. With too much horizontal movement you will flatten out and not come off the ground, thus losing air time and stride length. Too much vertical movement will leave you high up in the air for too long and you’ll bounce along with a very short stride length. Thus, it is important to optimize the angle and extend your hip so that you have a slight bounce in your stride. A good cue for this is to look at the horizon. If it stays flat, you are too horizontal. If it bounces a lot, you are too vertical. An analogy is to think back to your high school physics class and remember how to get the greatest distance when firing a cannon ball. The angle has to be optimized.

When the hip is extended correctly it will result in the working of a stretch/reflex mechanism. This is best thought of as a sling shot where you stretch it back and then let it go and it will shoot back to its original position. When you extend the hip you are putting it in a stretch position. Once the hip has extended, it is important not to try to do anything unnatural with your feet or toes. A common mistake is to try to push off at the end of this phase with your toes. This will likely result in too much horizontal momentum.

The Recovery Phase

With this mechanism, the recovery cycle of the leg will happen automatically. The lower leg will lift off the ground and fold so that it comes close to your buttocks (how close depends on the speed you are running) then pass under your hips with the knee leading. Once the knee has led through the lower leg will unfold and should touch down right underneath you.

Trying to actively move the leg through the recovery phase is a common mistake and will only result in more wasted energy. The leg won’t cycle through as quickly as it would if you allowed the stretch/reflex mechanism to work. A common mistake is to try to lift the knee at the end of the recovery cycle. The knee will lift enough if you stretch the hip sufficiently.

The knee should be allowed to cycle through and lift, but it should not be forced. The best example of this can be seen in assisted walking experiments with spinal cord injury patients. Since the spinal cord has been damaged, these people do not have use of their lower body. However, if they are put on a treadmill and someone actively pushes their leg back, extending the hip to initiate the stretch/reflex, the injured patient’s leg will cycle through the recovery part of walking without assistance! In addition it has been shown that the recovery phase of running constitutes less than 15% of the total energy used during running, further supporting the idea that most of the work is automatic because of the stretch/reflex. Trying to actively lift the knee or pull the leg through is a waste of time and energy.

Once the knee has cycled through, the lower leg should drop to the ground so that it makes contact close to under your center of gravity or your hips. When foot contact is made, it should be made when the lower leg is perpendicular to the ground. The leg does not extend outwards like is seen in many joggers and there should be no reaching for the ground. The leg should simply unfold and drop underneath the runner.

Initial foot contact is made on the outside of the foot, but you can not really feel this. For practical purposes, in distance running the foot should make contact flat footed, or on the forefoot with the heel touching the ground afterwards. Slamming the heel into the ground first is a braking action that also causes a high impact peak. By hitting forefoot/midfoot the braking action does not occur and the impact peak that shoe companies spend lots of money trying to eliminate does not occur. In addition to this, the Achilles tendon acts like a spring as it stores some of the energy that comes from the ground contact and releases it when the contact is broken.

If you remain up on your toes and never let the heel touch the ground or are too quick with the foot/ground contact, you lose this free energy because you don’t allow the foot and Achilles to properly store and then release the energy. This mechanism happens because of the elastic properties of the muscles and tendons. Once foot contact occurs, you allow the foot to load up, then extend the hip and start the cycle all over again.

Your arms are another integral part of the picture. They should work with you and be coordinated so that they swing in opposition with your legs and from the shoulder so that your shoulders do not turn or sway. When your left leg is forward, your right arm should be forward. On the upswing the arm angle should be slightly less than 90 degrees with the hands in a relaxed fist. In addition to this the arms should not swing across your body on the upswing. On the backswing they should swing back to just above and behind your hip joint.

Learning how to run properly is a very important aspect in maximizing your performance. It will make you much more efficient, meaning less energy is wasted during your race. Also, a major benefit is that it will decrease your likelihood of injuries. While these are good reasons to perfect your running, the best reason is that the majority of the world’s best run correctly and it is no coincidence that they seem to be able to race faster and train at very high volumes of work with very few injuries.

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    1. David Csonka on March 3, 2010 at 2:41 am

      Steve, this is a great article considering all of the talk going on about barefoot running and such lately. Do you have some good videos or animations that would illustrate the conceptions you are talking about here?

      As a novice runner, I'm interested in refining my form, but a visual cue would be helpful for me to understand what you are describing.


    2. stevemagness on March 5, 2010 at 3:53 pm

      I'll post some still pictures of some of the concepts I'm talking about soon. When I get some time I'll try and film some form stuff for further clarification.

    3. RICK'S RUNNING on March 8, 2010 at 4:41 pm

      Interesting article, but it should be remembered that most elite runners do a lot of running drills to improve form.
      Most average runners run with pendulum legs and the 'recovery cycle' does not come natural to them.
      looking at top Kenyan runners you will see a very strong knee drive as well as high heel recovery.
      a result of many drill sessions.

    4. stevemagness on March 8, 2010 at 4:52 pm

      Just because elite runners do drills doesn't mean they are improving mechanics.

      We'll have to disagree on this one. Knee lift and heel recovery should not be actively done. They're a result of other things, mainly what goes on while you are applying force.

      Some of the better known/top elite sprint coaches say that drills aren't done to improve form. Off the top of my head, Tom Tellez, Vern Gambetta, and Mike Young have all mentioned that.

      The recovery cycle comes naturally IF what happens on the ground is done correctly. Most average runners don't recover like elites because they don't extend the hip as well.

      Heel recovery is dependent on a lot of factors and drills isn't going to be one of them. Heel recovery, once again is dependent on extension of the hip/push off the ground. Also, lean will impact this.

      I'm sorry but lifting the knees is probably the worst cue you can give.

      The body is complex, just because someone has high knee lift or a high backkick doesn't mean they are actively doing that. You don't want to just copy the motion. There is a difference between something happening on its own or as a result of another process, and you actively doing something.

    5. RICK'S RUNNING on March 8, 2010 at 8:27 pm

      i did not say knee lift!
      I said knee drive, that is driving the knee forward as soon as the foot leaves the ground, the lift of the knee happens through momentum and speed!
      yes to say lift your knees op pnly makes you bounce upwards.
      Knee drive increases stride length and leg speed.
      one needs to work on all parts of the stride!

    6. RICK'S RUNNING on March 8, 2010 at 9:14 pm

      I always like to keep an open mind when it comes to new ideas.
      So I would be interested to see slow motion video of what you talk about.
      cheers Rick

    7. stevemagness on March 8, 2010 at 10:53 pm

      My mistake Rick, sorry.

      THe point still remains though. If you look at biomechanics, the recovery leg swings through mainly due to a stretch reflex on the hip. Trying to pull it through or drive the recovery knee through is a waste and it doesn't bring the knee through any faster.

      Now with the "knee drive" you do have to worry about people cutting off knee drive early.

    8. RICK'S RUNNING on March 9, 2010 at 7:57 am

      thanks for reply, is this the sort of thing your talking about;

    9. stevemagness on March 9, 2010 at 12:35 pm

      Not at all.

      If you watch that video, the runner's doing a lot of things wrong. First off, the heel has to come down after footstrike at those speeds. If the heel is held off the ground you do not get the full stretch shortening cycle/elastic contribution effect on the calf/achilles complex.

      Secondly you can tell the guy is picking up his heel towards the middle of the video. That's the exact opposite of what I'm suggesting.

      Just my opinion, but that video is a good example of some bad running form.

    10. RICK'S RUNNING on March 9, 2010 at 6:38 pm

      Thanks for reply.
      Seb coe wrote that to increase stride length one should dorsi flex the ankle more''' is this what your aiming at?

      Seb Coe article

      The requirements of the ankle exemplify the basic requirements of all athletic endeavour: strength with flexibility. The ankle is at the receiving end of heavy loads with shock, tension and bending combined. The ankle must be strong to cope with uneven ground, with slipping or with any other accident, but in the context of style our main concern is with flexibility, because of the effect it has on stride length.
      When the foot hits the ground the ideal foot-strike is the one that makes contact with the ball of the foot but allows the heel to lower and kiss the ground immediately after the touchdown, when the leg is then in the supporting phase, slightly bent at the knee. Meanwhile the body is continuing to move forward so that the runner with the greatest range of movement in the ankle will be the one who can leave the foot in flat contact with the ground the longest.
      This delays toe-off to the very last moment and extends the duration of the driving phase in which the very powerful calf muscles can contract and contribute to forward propulsion rather than pushing the body upwards.
      The fault of over-striding has been emphasised. It is in the driving phase where stride length is effectively increased.


      By this we mean that as the heel begins to lift it should be driven by the forceful contraction of the calf muscles, rather than just being a foot lifted off the ground. The drive should be continued right through to the toes, which should maintain driving contact until the very last moment. Place the foot flat on the ground and note the position of the ankle bone by placing it in line with the leg of a chair or table. Then still leaving this foot flat on the ground take a stride forward. See how far you can stride with the stationary heel still in contact with the ground.
      As soon as you feel the tightness in front of the ankle or in the calf you will realise that with more flexibility the stride could be longer. Now slowly raise the heel from the ground and the ankle bone will lift and move forward. Continue this movement until the ball of the foot is off the ground and only the toes are in contact. The distance the ankle has moved horizontally from the chair leg is the distance you have added to your stride. Since this also depends upon the range of movement allowed by your ankle it is easy to see the contribution to your stride that ankle flexibility provides.

      Seen from the front the knees should not describe a circle, but should move in an arc parallel to the sagittal plane. In an all-out drive in flat-out running, or when attacking a hill, the knees should allow the leg to straighten fully in the driving phase. A good knee-lift is an economical way of preserving stride length. It increases the flinging effect of the loose-hanging lower leg so that it flicks forward easily but not too far at the end of the recovery phase. If the leg is fully straightened, at this stage it throws a stress on the knee joint as the leg snaps out straight, and the runner over-strides. Over-striding places the foot strike too far in front of the centre of gravity of the body. This has a retarding effect, tends to promote a heavy heel strike and unnecessarily jars the body.
      Knees should also allow for a high heel lift of the swinging leg – the faster one runs, the higher the heels. When the heel is tucked up close to the buttocks the leg is folded into half its length and this brings the centre of gravity of the leg closer to the pivot point, which is the hip joint. Now the leg is a much shorter lever, and the effort required to swing the leg forward to take up the supporting phase is much reduced. Further, when the heel is dropped it falls freely under gravity and being free to swing is easily flung forward without effort. Remember, good style promotes efficiency.

    11. RICK'S RUNNING on March 10, 2010 at 4:32 pm

      Hi steve,
      i took the time to read through your site and watch your video's.
      And I'm very glad i did.
      I've tried running following your recommendations on form and wow the hip stretch reflex really does work :]
      Can I ask when running into a headwind or uphill does one need to change from the form your recommend when running on the flat?
      cheers, thanks again Rick

    12. Anonymous on March 14, 2010 at 8:44 pm

      Heres an article on marathon training and the effects on arteries. Basically they say long distance running is not good. What are your thoughts??

      It was on yahoos homepage


    13. stevemagness on March 16, 2010 at 6:18 pm

      Thanks! Glad that you tried it. That's the best way to learn what works, personal experimentation.

      Running uphill and downhill will change how you run slightly. mostly with the body lean.

      I think you have to look at the study. It says "marathoners". Well that means a whole lot of different things. We have 5-6hr marathoners who are still overweight and we have rail thin 2:15 marathoners.

      It's also just one study. Generally, one study means absolutely nothing. There's got to be several corroborating studies for stuff to be truly meaningful. This is where the popular press really messes up with reporting research. It's the reason why you get stories about how certain foods are good one week and horrible for you the next.

      There is an enormous amount of literature on the health effects of running. I wouldn't put too much in this one study just yet.

    14. Kevin3310 on March 27, 2010 at 7:25 pm

      steve quick question about stretch reflex.

      even on distance runs is your leg extended back to the point you actually feel the stretch, during each stride. i feel it gets really tiring on the hip flexors (right anatomy?). are there any exercises to help improve that or am i extending too far during say an 8 mile run.

    15. stevemagness on March 30, 2010 at 4:32 pm

      The degree of hip extension depends on the pace. Just like most people go too little with hip extension, you can go too much.

      Use hip extension to help control pace. Extend the hip more forcefully the quicker you want to go.

      As far as how to get used to the change in running style:
      1. Do leg swings to keep the hip extensors/flexors loose.
      2. Start with some body weight exercises that focus on strengthening/using that area. To begin with I'd start with lunges (forward/backward/to the sides), and step ups.

    16. Anonymous on April 22, 2010 at 7:08 am

      People talk of a bad aspect of running form, "shuffling". Can you explain what shuffling is exactly compared to correct running form?

    17. Post Paint Boy on June 17, 2010 at 2:40 am

      I have returned to this post a number of times, it has been very helpful to me. Thanks!

    18. Anonymous on July 13, 2010 at 5:16 pm

      Hi Steve, I read your post and it is very helpful. I was wondering basically what you are saying is that when you are running/sprinting you only have to worry about extending the hip and letting the knee cycle through naturally and put the foot down? thanks

    19. stevemagness on July 14, 2010 at 4:02 pm

      Exactly. Those are the two most important things to focus on.

    20. Anonymous on July 14, 2010 at 5:17 pm

      thanks for the reply Steve. I remember Tom Tellez said something like when the foot comes off the ground after the hip extends, lead with the knee. I'm not too sure what he meant by leading with the knee. Is he implying you should actively lead/drive with the knee or the knee just leads naturally without the runner worrying about it?

    21. Anonymous on November 16, 2012 at 7:14 pm

      I want to thank you very much for writing this article. Before I read this I considered myself pretty fast. But now I feel on another level thanks to your tips. I never realized that sprinting could be so simple as 2 basics things. Hip extension and putting your foot down. Before I made the common mistake of actively trying to get me knees up and do other things related to that in the recovery phase. Now that I let the recovery phase happen naturally and just simply focus on getting my foot down fast and fulling extending my hip with as much force as I can. I not only see a drastic improvement in my speed but I FEEL it! After my first few sprints doing this I couldn't help but smile because I am now reaching speeds now that I never knew I could. Thank you very much Steve and if you have any other articles that you think could help me I would appreciate it if you would let me know. Thank you again!

    22. Sebamus on April 12, 2013 at 8:42 am

      Hello Steve! Thank you very much for this article. I'm just shifting from heel-strike to midfoot-strike and slowly trying to run it minimal, and even though I've studied quite some literature and video material on the web, I still had a few questions unanswered. Your site and your posts proved to have those answers, so thank you very much. Especially helpful is the explication of the whole passive-active thing in running: I've been wasting much to much energy just for the things that should and could happen almost by themselves 😉 I'll read on and try to master the technique you present. All the best!

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