Give It a Brake: Form Fundamentals for Healthy, Efficient Running

Eureka, I’ve done it!

After 18 years of competitive running, two USATF coaching certifications, a doctorate degree in Physical Therapy, and three-plus years of clinical experience.

…I finally know how to run.

No, really.

Okay, more specifically: I finally know the fundamental concepts of an efficient, healthy running stride:

  1. Leaning forward.
  2. Flexing and extending the extremities.

Too simple? Maybe, but the primary issue with teaching and learning running mechanics is that we – as runners, coaches, and sports med folks – make it enormously complicated: innumerable drills, stretches, strengtheners, and cues. As a result, most of us are neurotically averse to the mere mention of changing our strides.

A sport that is so blissfully simple deserves an equally simple mechanical concept. And it really is that simple, but allow me to elaborate further on efficient running:

  1. Leaning forward with a neutral-aligned trunk – head to tailbone – such that the foot lands precisely beneath it.
  2. Flexing and extending the extremities in synergistic neuromuscular movement patterns – where the end result is more powerful and efficient than the sum of its moving parts.

In essence, running is a controlled fall – forward momentum of the trunk propelled along with flexing and extending of the limbs.

But what happens if you quit “falling?”

The Role of Trunk Alignment in the Running Stride

This month’s column will discuss the concept of trunk alignment (stayed tuned for Part II next month on the extremities). Since the object of running is to move the trunk using the arms and legs, shape and direction of the trunk is the most important element of the running stride.

Without proper trunk alignment, your fall becomes a bounce, or a brake-and-push. Without proper trunk alignment, it does not matter what your legs do – when the trunk is behind the foot, you will run slower and more painfully.

The Concept of Braking

Most runners have an idea about braking: It’s when you land on your heel in front of you.

That’s half right. Braking occurs any time any part of the foot strikes the ground ahead of the center of mass, as defined as the central point where the average mass lies – normally found in the central trunk of a runner.

That said, a mid- or forefoot striker can also brake if they land in front of their body. The part of the foot that strikes first simply helps determine what will hurt. Conversely, there’s nothing wrong with a heel strike, so long as the heel (and the rest of the foot) lands directly beneath the center of mass.

That said, foot strike ultimately doesn’t matter. Where the foot lands with respect to your body, does. Ultimately, if your trunk is not going forward, it does not matter what your legs will do: if your trunk is going back, your foot will land out front.

Trunk Alignment and Running

Trunk neutral is defined as a “plumb-line” straight alignment from ear to tailbone (allowing for the natural curvatures of the thoracic and lumbar spine). In essence, are all the “blocks” of the trunk stacked on top of one another?

The author, demonstrating a (pretty good) neutral standing posture.

This neutral stacking results in predictable, consistent forward engagement in the run stride. Using information from the eyes and inner ear, our brain – assuming the trunk is a straight-aligned block – can determine a consistent forward position.

More importantly, emerging research is beginning to demonstrate that when the spinal segments are in a relaxed, neutral position, the deepest core stabilizers will automatically fire in support of that position. All we have to do is get there!

Common Postural Dysfunctions in Runners

There are several causes or justifications of losing ideal, neutral trunk posture when we run:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Weakness: e.g., running beyond our ability to maintain ideal neutral
  • Structural limitation: being too stiff to assume a neutral position
  • Poor non-running posture: work, school, sleeping, etc.
  • Lack of awareness: who knows what good posture is, anyway?

Whatever the reason, these common dysfunctions frequently result in braking issues:

“The Sit Back”

This is a common run posture for ultramarathoners: we get tired in the trunk and hips, so we sit back. Moreover, the constant ups and downs of a trail race can put us in this posture, and the relatively slow pace of a long ultra makes it easy to stay here.

A slightly exaggerated backward “sitting” trunk. Note that in standing, the center of the trunk lies behind the hip-knee-foot.

With the center of mass so far behind the legs, braking is almost a given.

The Solution: Shift forward, relax downward. The “Sit Back” runner needs to do two things: shift their trunk forward until it is over the feet, then relax the sternum downward. I will commonly cue runners to put their hand on their sternum, take a big inhale, then feel their sternum sink downward. For many, the new position will feel like nearly falling forward.

“Too Tall”

This is the most common posture I see in the clinic – with both runners and non – who present with spine or leg pain. Most people have the idea that good posture is being really tall with an arched back. As a result, they go too far, resulting in a backward-arched alignment.

“Too Tall” alignment. Note the sharp angle between the low back and ribs. Although the author shows forward lean through the leg, the trunk momentum continues to go backward, making a sustained forward engagement difficult.

Maintaining a forward engagement with the upper trunk trending so far back is very difficult with fatigue, and typically results in a full-body backward lean and bouncing inefficiency. Additionally, these folks have a hard time with maximal efforts, as the thoracic spine is locked into extension, making full lung inflation more difficult.

The Solution: Relax the sternum down! This is an easy, but very awkward, adjustment to normalize alignment and promote forward engagement. Too Tall folks are so used to having a backward-pointing thorax that, when corrected, the head, neck and shoulder blades are now significantly forward.

The second correction, then, is to “get tall through the head”: imagine having a pony-tail, or a string attached to the crown of your head, then pulling it straight up in the air. The result is a tall head, oriented directly over the trunk, with a level chin.

“The Old Guy Curve”

This is a rough one, and among the more common postures seen in long ultras. Heck, even I’ve sported it far more often than I care to admit (including at the end of the 2012 Western States).

 

“The Old Guy Curve”, demonstrated with a flexed spine, back-tilted pelvis, and forward head.

Extreme fatigue and the demand of steep up and down hills is a primary cause of the “Old Guy Curve.” Steep uphills warp our positional sense; they also make a strong forward engagement difficult, because it is more taxing on the hips and quads. Downhills also promote this position, as a back-sitting trunk aids in controlled descent, especially when the legs are fatigued.

For many younger runners, this is a fatigue or habit position (in both running and life). However, for many true older runners, this fatigue position can become a structural deformity, where one simply cannot run (or stand) fully upright.

The Solution: Be tall, open up the hips and pelvis. Be tall: think of the pony-tail/string idea. Moreover, “Old Guy” runners also need to allow their hips and pelvis to open or extend backward. Their sensation of new normal might include feeling more forward, with more stretch to the anterior trunk and hips.

Forward Engagement = Neutral Trunk + Forward Lean

The ultimate goal with running is to take the neutral trunk alignment and…lean forward!

To lean is different than to bend. Leaning simply implies forward momentum, a trend in forward direction. In standing true forward engagement occurs with an ankle bend, but in the act of running no such distinction needs to be made – just lean forward and go!

Neutral trunk and forward engagement (via ankles in standing, slightly compensated with hip extension in this depiction) desired for running.

How much lean? The degree of engagement depends on running speed: the more you engage, the faster you run.

The Art of Maintenance and Self-Check

Now that neutral and ideal have been identified, how do you successfully achieve and maintain it?

To achieve, use a mirror, and practice finding neutral, then practice that forward position in standing: simple take one step forward, and put your chest-over-knee-over foot. Hold the position for up to a minute, and monitor ear-to-tail neutral. To self-check on the run, utilize any mirror or window reflection you can find!

To help maintain, take any static core stability exercise – namely the prone plank – and be sure that you are truly in spinal neutral, including the chin.

* * * * *

Posture counts! And as I tell my patients, the best way to practice running all day is to stand and walk well! Sit and stand with posture excellence and make it a part of your best stride!

Joe Uhan: is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

View Comments (35)

  • Thanks Joe. Very nice summary. Your foot strike comments are absolutely correct, at least that is what my 50 years of running experience has taught me.

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  • Great article Joe! Thank you!

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  • Excuse me for stating the obvious but is this not what 'pose' running is all about? Not that I do it or anything....unfortunately I'm the ultimate old guy curve,I just wondered what the difference was.

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    • Yes, it is! Sort of...

      There are, indeed, "many paths to the summit" (with our without switchback-cutting), and Pose does expouse this same concept: forward engagement + flexion/extension.

      Chi Running does the same thing: "falling forward" with the trunk and "running with the hips".

      However, both schools fall a bit short on a couple fundamentals, which will be discussed in further detail next column. Some nuggets, for now:

      - Pose running fails to take into account the mobility of the trunk and pelvis, instead relying solely on limb motion - thus missing out on a significant element of both stability and propulsion.

      - Chi running (I feel) fails to solidly reinforce the notion of the "synergy patterns" in flexion and extension, instead relying predominantly on being forward + relaxed hip motions.

      Again, both concepts very good, but not always getting everything under the umbrella...

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      • "Again, both concepts very good, but not always getting everything under the umbrella…"

        Are you implying that your method presents a complete picture of running form?

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        • *A* complete picture of efficient gait mechanics must consider the contributions of the upper trunk (+scapulae) and arms, a lower trunk (+pelvis) on the legs.

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          • REPOST: *A* complete picture of efficient gait mechanics must consider the contributions of the upper trunk (+scapulae) ON the arms, and the lower trunk (+pelvis) on the legs.

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          • Just curious...do you feel your current understanding represents a complete picture of efficient gait mechanics or do you feel you still have things to learn?

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      • Great article Joe!

        I'm looking forward to part 2.

        My understanding of Chi Running also includes properly executed and coordinated arm movements which help to propel us forward. Is this part of the synergy patterns of flexion and extension?

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  • Thanks for the article. I was wondering if you could post a link to, or simply the titles of, some of the research articles that discuss running form as it pertains to braking forces and trunk alignment. They would be very interesting to read. Thanks!

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  • This is part of what is taught in Chi Running. There's more.

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  • A great article, and it's nice to hear a more simplified version from you. Can you elaborate (better yet demonstrate somehow) on what you mean exactly by "opening" the hips/pelvis? I've heard this term - and used it - many times in soccer and in running, but want to be sure I understand your meaning correctly. Thanks for the great instruction!

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  • Very timely and totally relevant. I appreciate the comments on foot-strike, as I'm on my forefoot, but the foot keeps landing in front of my body. I tried implementing the relaxed sternum on my run today. The reposnse was favorable. (Faster and less painful than previously).

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  • Nice article covering lots of good points but the foot doesn't have to land under the centre of mass. In fact many elite marathon runners land with their foot forward. At the position of landing the contact point of their foot is behind their knee but forward of their centre of mass. Because their leg is extending rapidly there is no braking force.

    This happens more with heel strikers as the extra time it takes to land on the mid foot allows the leg to swing back to under COG. Slow motion video of elite marathoners confirms this.

    The biggest thing to avoid is foot forward of knee as then there is no possible way to avoid the braking force.

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    • There's the Kara's (heel strikers) and the Hall's (midfoot strikers). Both are successful despite going about it in different ways. Given enough drop and responsiveness in a shoe, elite heel striking runners utilize the braking force to load up potential energy in compression of the shoe and use it to push themselves forward and save on the use of impact muscles flexion. It's not the fastest turnover, and does eventually cause joint pain, but it's part of an equation that each runner must work out to find their fastest times. Ryan Hall has shown that a midfoot strike with a high turnover rate is also highly successful at helping him run at a world class level.

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    • Andy,

      Thanks for the post.

      I agree...with reservation. Yes, you can still get a powerful propulsion with the foot slightly in front of the COM (via what's called the "pawback mechanism", where the glut max and hamstrings are pre-stretched in swing phase to powerfully pull the leg beneath/behind upon contact).

      But I will argue that landing beneath is preferential. You're simply not wasting any energy.

      A comment below on "elite runners" and stride.

      Thanks again!

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  • I "ran" across this video randomly of Scott Jurek demonstrating a technique that I believe to be very similar to what your acticle is about. So I thought I would share it:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yiG95bgl4-w

    Thanks for the great fundamental form lesson!

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  • I enjoyed the article and the pictures were helpful.

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    • Thanks all for the posts - I'm responding as much as a full clinic schedule can allow!

      A caution against examining form of any "elite runner".

      Just because they're extremely fast or successful runners, does not mean they are absent of serious form dysfunctions. We all know that fast running is a complicated, multi-faceted ability encompassing aerobic strength, anaerobic power, strong tissues, mental toughness, and guts.

      I suggest that only the absolute very fastest - world record holders - should be held as the standard-bearers for gait analysis. And even then, that must be taken with a grain of salt.

      For example, while many elite marathoners may heel strike, what the *very best* (e.g. Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele) frequently do is stike BEHIND their center of mass...

      Because Kara Goucher and Ryan/Sara Hall are not considered to be absolute world class, I take great reservation in holding them up as standard-bearers for truly ideal mechanics...

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      • I would have to disagree that an elite marathon runner (for example) would show serious from dysfunctions. If they had serious form dysfunctions they wouldn't be able to run sub 2.06 . They may have some form dysfunctions according to an ideal but every body is different and their form may be the most effective way for their body to run.

        Is their a true standard to which all runners should be measured against? I would argue not - I think there is a concept of what a great running technique should look like but this should applied to an individual and adjust for each individual.

        Some of history's best runners had non conventional running technique according to the text books - Michael Johnson is a good example. You could argue that they could have been even better if they could have changed their technique to the ideal ( whatever that is ), but people like Johnson were already a class above everybody else , do we really think that with an improved running technique they could be even better ? Maybe their technique was the most efficient and effective way for them to run.

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  • Jason-

    Copious articles exist on foot strike and running; however, there are scant article on trunk positioning, which is both incredulous and frustrating. If any iRF readers come across any where trunk position/COM and foot strike/BOS are examined, please post!

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  • Matt-

    Yeah, tough one - my apologies for opaque descriptions. "Opening" refers to the notion of an anterior pelvic tilt (e.g. where the top/front of the pelvis trends forward"). This allows the leg action to be predominantly beneath/behind (another Chi running concept: "opening the stride out the back"), which is also critical in avoiding braking. This will be discussed in great detail next column.

    However, an "open pelvis" without addressing the upper trunk (e.g. thorax) will only result in the "Too tall" posture...

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  • I sure would consider Ryan Hall to be world class

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  • OOJ,

    Thanks for the knowledge dude, if you have time could you explain more about: "emerging research is beginning to demonstrate that when the spinal segments are in a relaxed, neutral position, the deepest core stabilizers will automatically fire in support of that position." What are these stabilizers doing when in the wrong position?

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    • Steve-

      Great question! What is found is that, when out of alignment, core muscle activation is either delayed or absent! And, conversely, when in true neutral, they fire automatically without any conscious control.

      There is substantial work being put into this concept by the folks at the Institute of Physical Art: http://www.instituteofphysicalart.com/founding-di...

      Indeed, there are clinical tests that can demonstrate this to runners, the results of which are quite pronounced.

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      • The spine does not remain in neutral when we run or walk . It is almost physically impossible for it to do so. I don't disagree with Joes summary of a neutral spine in running - but he is talking about a sideways view of the whole spine. If we look at the spine on a joint by joint basis you will see that every joint is moving in three planes of motion as we run.

        I can't stress this enough , we cannot run with a fixed spine , it's impossible , the spine is designed to move. The core muscles will be switched on subconsciously through movement. If the spine is immobile then there is no stimulus for the core to fire .

        If we are talking about an excess kyphosis in the Tx or lordosis in the Lx then yes that is a problem but the concept that the spine must remain stable is fundamentally flawed. It has to move , the problems occur when it either moves too much or not enough.

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  • Andy-

    Can you point out where I stated the spine should remain fixed or stable? There is a difference between fixed, stable or rigid and *neutral-aligned*.

    Indeed, the spine is designed to move - with mild sidebending and rotational motions - during walk and run gait. However, in the sagittal plan (sideways), no flexion or extension should occur, nor should there be a net flexed or extended curvature (outside the normal double-curve of the spine).

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  • I'll be tuned in for part II.

    Thanks Joe

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  • I always take issue with describing running as a "controlled fall." It tends to bring up the idea that, by leaning forward, you get assistance from gravity. This simply isn't the case unless you are running down hill. From a physics perspective, what I see is that the lean forward allows the leg to more efficiently push the center of mass forwards, rather than upwards.

    I guess the ideal would be for the upwards component of the force your leg provides to perfectly counteract the force of gravity, with the remainder providing forward propulsion.

    It's a matter of semantics, maybe, but I believe it's important. The controlled fall only truly comes into play when you start running downhill.

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  • It is impossible for no Flexion or extension of the spine to occur . Studies have proven this. You wouldn't be able to get the range of hip extension you see without an increased lumbar lordosis that occurs with every stride. The important thing is that these movements occur around the nuetral position that Joe describes above . So the lower back will mover either side of nuetral during running.

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  • Applying some of these concepts (and Joe's help!) has helped take my running to another level. Also, Joe was down here in the Auburn-area visiting over Labor Day weekend and helped my wife - who had a nagging inury - with simple tweaks of her trunk and form and now she is back to running pain-free and super thankful for how Joe helped her. Good stuff man.

    -BGD

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    • Sara would be a good case study (as would you) for the importance of neutral + engaged trunk - and how that relates to foot strike, running economy, and symptoms: as all three improved significantly and immediately when those changes were made.

      The next column will hopefully include videos to highlight these concepts more sharply. Don't think Sara would want her vids posted on the net, though! :)

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