How to Run Correctly

I recently got into running.

Distance running in particular is easy for most people to pick up, and has remarkable effects on the mind and body.

For an example of how running affects the mind, see the image below. The image was made by scanning the brains of a group of people before and after twenty minutes of exercise. The heat map shows the change in brain activity before and after they participated in exercise.

Brain scans before and after exercise

As you can tell from the image, the increase in brain activity after only 20 minutes or so of exercise is remarkable.

Scientists think this increase is related to blood circulation. An increase in blood pressure caused by cardiovascular activity pushes oxygenated blood into the brain. This might also explain the heightened sense of cognitive ability after running, and post-run bliss.

Running Properly is Important

There still seem's to be some controversy surrounding the question of how much form matters for being a good runner, with the debate centred around how the leading foot should strike the ground.

Three different ways to strike the ground.
If possible, landing on the ball of the foot is better than striking on the heel or the toes.

The idea is that, because tendon is comprised of mostly elastin and collagen, it is better to put stress on tendon (landing front or mid foot) instead of hammering the bone (landing on the back of the foot). This is better because tendon will absorb impact energy much like a car's suspension. In bone the stress will travel up the tibia and be absorbed by the knee joint.

Example of a heel strike
When striking heel first, stress will travel up the bone and into the knee joint.

Somewhere between 50% – 80% of runners incur some kind of running related injury every year. The most common injury by far is known as patellofemoral pain syndrome (or "Runners Knee"), which occurs because of a combination of low quad strength and, as you may have guessed, landing on the heel of the foot.

Injury caused by landing on the front or middle of the foot is less common. With the main suspect being injury to the achilles tendon. The achilles tendon is attached to the heel at one end and the calf muscle at the other, and burdens the majority of the stress when landing on the front or mid foot.

The goal of running properly should allow the runner to perform at their peak while lowering the chance of injury.

The Running Method

I don't recommend being too zealous in changing up your form because that's another effective way to injure yourself. Instead, change things over time, and be conscious of how much you have to fight your bio-engineering to make changes. If your body is resistant to changing form, I recommend finding a coach who can observe you run and offer guidance.

Below is a slow motion analysis of Haile Gebrselassie's running form. Haile's genetics combined with an intuition for form affords him the pleasure of holding 10 Olympic gold medals for endurance running. He might have the best running form in the world.

Do not micro manage

I've spent countless hours trying to perfect my running form, and the method I find to be most effective is to think less. Let me explain...

Your subconscious and nervous system is artful at playing back memorised routines with little error. It has to be for us to be able to move around while thinking about other things. But that artful grace falls apart the second the conscious mind starts to get involved. Try doing something you do every day with no thought while thinking about it, and mark my words, you will make more mistakes.

By thinking less, you let intuition take over and become receptive to what feels right and what feels wrong.

Run light on your feet

Runners like to talk about 'ideal cadence' as a hard an fast rule, but cadence doesn't quite work that way (cadence is the rate at which the feet strike the ground and is measured in BPM) because it's more about the runner's height, speed and lightness.

When I run at 14kmph my cadence should be higher than when I run at 10kmph. This is because, for me to be light on my feet, I'll have to move my legs at a faster rate when moving quickly than when I'm moving slowly.

There are a lot of assertions from journalists that ~180bpm is the ideal cadence. This is useful to know as a guide, but to force a constant cadence regardless of speed feels more like stumbling than being light on your feet.

There is an intuitive sense that occurs when the ideal cadence is achieved. The feeling is much like the feeling that comes with singing in harmony. It's difficult to put into words. But the feeling of ideal cadence is one of harmony between speed and momentum, and there is a distinct awareness that you are running with almost no effort. It's an amazing feeling.

Run tall

Runners often find themselves encumbered with lower back problems because standing up straight, exhausted, while running for 60mins is not always easy.

The simple solution for this is to push your chest up high and keep your shoulders back. Looking ahead with the chin slightly raised is favourable because it keeps the airway fully open, making it easier to keep your breath.

Get Out And Experiment

The reason running is so prevalent is because its so easy to do. At a moments notice, rain or shine, put on your running shoes and away you go. Twenty minutes later you feel like you're one step closer to being a superhero.

Ideal form might not make you faster, but it sure will make you feel better, and you'll be less injured too.