Running is the most natural athletic endeavour. Perhaps this is why most people start running and pursue race goals without any coaching. But performance and longevity require good technique. In my physiotherapy practice, I see the same mistakes time and again. To stay healthy, get healthy or improve your performance, consider practising the following techniques.
1. Know your best toe-out angle
Toe out angle is the degree to which your foot turns out relative to the direction you're heading. It's partly a function of your anatomy and partly learned. About seven degrees is considered normal, but the correct number for an individual should depend on the foot position that gives them the best alignment from hip to knee to foot. This can be difficult to determine without professional help. An example of a relevant and common anatomical variation observed in the clinic is an outward twist in your lower leg bone called lateral tibial torsion. If you have some lateral tibial torsion, your best knee alignment will be achieved with a greater toe-out out angle. This might be at the expense of your foot and you might benefit from more footwear support or orthotics.
Most recreational runners employ too much toe-out angle, sometimes upwards of 40 degrees. Exaggerated toe-out angle causes excessive pronation (flattening the foot arch), increasing stress on the plantar fascia, foot musculature, knees, etc. When the feet are kept straighter, the arches are more stable and better positioned for absorbing the load of your body with control.
2. Keep a narrow base of support
Along with straighter feet, it's important to narrow your foot placement, bringing the feet toward midline. What you lose in balance, you gain in alignment. There should be about four centimetres of space between your feet. Combined with straighter feet, a narrower base of support improves knee alignment over the centre of the foot and helps prevent over-pronation.
3. Avoid knock knees
Knock knees, or genu valgum, is one of the key signs that your alignment needs work, and is the primary cause of several injuries including runner's knee (patellofemoral syndrome) – pain behind the kneecap. Ideally, the kneecap shouldn't fall inward of the second toe, regardless of the foot position. That means wherever you choose to place your feet there is a corresponding best knee position. When squatting and lunging, the technique focus is to keep the knees apart adequately. This is hard to control when you're running, unless you follow the first two points mentioned above. With the feet straight and a foot placement narrower than the pelvis width, the knees should align over the middle of the foot. This alignment is important for all activities.
4. Practise a midfoot strike
If you're still landing on your heels, consider trying a midfoot strike, it's the best way to employ the natural shock absorption of your foot and improve speed and endurance with less effort.
Running is essentially the act of leaning forward and repetitively catching yourself from falling. Lean forward at the ankles, keeping the rest of your body straight. As you step forward repeatedly to avoid falling, your feet should be placed under the hip, just under or behind your centre of gravity. Make sure not to lean forward at the waist. When the foot comes down, it shouldn't stop or even slow your forward progression the way a heel strike does. Just keep that forward lean and catch yourself one foot after the other.
5. Don't shuffle
During the swing phase of gait where the leg is returning forward, the knee should bend. Professional runners bend their knees so much that their heels almost touch their bum. This gives your hip flexors a mechanical advantage by shortening the lever arm – the length of leg swinging forward – making it easier to swing the leg forward. Ultimately, this will make you faster and improve endurance.
Elite triathlete Sean Bechtel says finishing your stride is key. As the foot finishes driving backward, your hip flexors should start to pull the knee forward. There shouldn't be a lot of effort in the hamstrings to lift the foot. Instead, the rearward movement of the foot and well-timed hip-flexor action bend the knee with minimal effort. Think about your legs cycling around rather than swinging back and forth.
6. Increase your cadence
This means smaller faster steps rather than large bounding steps. The best runners keep cadence top of mind, achieving about 180 steps per minute. This is optimal to maximize speed and endurance. Practise running on the spot with the desired cadence and then lean forward until you start to move. This drill also helps eliminate heel strike.
Remember that just like any sport, running requires good technique and practice. There are many great running groups that provide some instruction, training plans, motivation and camaraderie. To get the most out of your training this summer, find a professional with a good knowledge of running to help you improve your technique.
Justin Vanderleest is a Toronto-based physiotherapist at Athlete's Care and LiveActive Sport Medicine. An elite squash player and former national champion sprint canoeist, he has developed special interests in training programs and injury prevention. You can follow him @JDvanderLeest