Assessing and correcting running and sprinting techniques

Assessing and correcting running and sprinting techniques

It’s January and a lot of us are hitting the pavements or the hills, but have you ever considered what you look like or feel like when you run?

Since running is a natural movement that is essentially an extension of simply walking, we assume that we are able to just run and without thinking about it. Yet we’ve all seen countless runners running around looking like Phoebe from ‘Friends’ with flailing arms like chickens and legs akimbo.

So have you ever assessed your own style? If not here’s why you should consider it:

Running requires proper technique just like any other sport or physical activity. Without it you will be prone to injury, imbalances and pain but also less efficient. This means that improving your technique will not only reduce your chance of chronic (potentially serious) injury and significant amounts of pain which many runners consider to be a part of the sport, it may well improve your times.

Now before we go on, we need to add in a disclaimer:

Firstly there’s the toe vs heel strike argument which has raged on for decades, but which doesn’t really have a conclusive answer. Sure, we could postulate that if you don’t give a child shoes they will toe strike for their entire life, and that we are bio-mechanically ‘designed’ to toe strike, but the WAY which we run now is very different to the persistence hunting style we once used (run/walk/run/walk). We run at a steady state, on a hard surface, for extremely long distances having spent a significant amount of time sitting down – this changes things.

The first thing we need to think about is this: Have you been running for years, injury free? If so, there is very little reason to consider significantly changing your running gait. One of the main things which must be considered when running is evenly distributing load over your joints and if this has been achieved with a ‘suboptimal’ running gait, then altering it dramatically to reduce injury risk, could take a long time to adjust to, resulting in a greater injury risk! Because of this factor it’s important to say that, if you are considering changing your gait, you reduce running volume and allow your joints and connective tissue to become accustomed to a new loading pattern.

You may be able to run 20k with a toe strike, but your Achilles may not.

In fact, altering your running gait (as you will soon see) may not require a technical intervention at all. One reason that people will run with a poor gait is due to muscular imbalances or a lack of stability through joints caused by certain key weaknesses. As a runner, correcting these weaknesses by loading movements (not just isolated muscles on machines) in a gym can, over time, see your running pattern shift without ever intentionally doing it!

So with that said… Where do you start?

Firstly have videos taken of you running on a treadmill from the back and side on if possible. Run at a good comfortable speed working up to a sprint.

Next sit down and assess your videos.

What exactly should you be looking for?

Here are the 5 most important things to consider:

You may be able to run 20k with a toe strike, but your Achilles may not.

Foot strike

How does the foot land?

Fore foot first? Heel first? This is, as mentioned, a huge debate within the running community and something which I’m not going to cover extensively today. Yes, if we all ran barefoot, we would toe strike, but the fact is that we run longer distances continuously than we ever have done and we now have shoes which are designed to facilitate this different environmental stress.

This could possibly be altered to improve performance if you feel that a toe striking pattern would benefit you, but it should be done so carefully – if you want to try altering your striking pattern remember that it’s a bio-mechanical process and will therefore take time in order to reduce injury risk.

Of course the speed you are running will largely dictate the preferred striking pattern, a sprinter would be more effective with a toe striking pattern as this utilises the strength of the gastrocnemius and soleus as well as allowing the glutes and hamstrings to truly forcefully drive through the floor, but a longer distance runner may indeed benefit from an efficient heel striking pattern which conserves energy. If you are a heel striker, there is one important thing to consider, though:

How much does the heel lift when the weight is being passed through the foot? The weight should roll through the foot, heel to toe, nicely with the heel coming off the ground naturally. If this does not happen, you may have an incorrect stride…

Stride

Are you over striding?

This is most likely due to impaired or simply reduced activation of glutes and hamstrings due to imbalance or poor movement patterns. This is the situation highlighted above with a heel striker who lands heel first with an extended knee way out in front of them, effectively applying a break.

Solution- Aside from simply being aware of the issue, posterior chain strength work and glute activation exercises such as band walks and clamshells will help to improve the overall balance of your lower body musculature. Alongside basic movements like squats and full deadlifts, a combination of compound accessory movements such as Romanian or Trap Bar Deadlifts, Sumo deadlifts and glute bridges combined with more isolated exercises such as hamstring curl variations and isolated glute exercises can help enormously to strengthen and support you here.

Not only will this improve your times by allowing you to create more power with each stride, a strong set of hamstrings and glutes will dramatically reduce your chances of knee injuries (both chronic and acute).

Are you under striding?

This could be due to lack of quad strength. Solution- strengthening all quad muscles in using a squat variation which suits your individual makeup (generally a front squat will hit the quads much more effectively than back) and leg extensions to isolate the VMO, which is responsible for stabilising the knee to a large degree, a lot easier.

By correcting stride length you will enable your foot to land correctly underneath yourself thus decrease the contact time on the floor. If you foot were to land in front of you, you are effectively applying a break, but it will also create a huge jarring pressure. Regardless of your striking pattern (heel or toe), this is a vital point.

Hip placement

Are your hips level or dropping on one side more than the other?

A hip drop may be the result of weakness in one glute. Again glute strengthening work will help here but also doing single leg glute work such as single leg hip thrusts and cable kick backs as well as lunge variations and single leg presses to ensure that the stronger side doesn’t compensate for the weaker.

Arm drive

Are your arms driving forward?

Ideally you want the cycle of your arms to be coming from the back where your hand is in line with your hip then driving forwards and upwards until it is about shoulder height. Your elbows should stay close to your body.

Lack of arm drive will cause shoulders to rotate and in turn be counterbalanced through the pelvis and foot landing - wasting energy and slowing you down.

Correcting arm biomechanics- this decreases upper body rotation making your upper body more functional and saving energy. You should always be thinking of driving your arms but keeping the shoulders relaxed. The speed of the arms determine how quickly your legs move.

On a related note, your head position should remain neutral at all times. Every extra inch your head is placed forward is said to increase the pressure on your neck by 100% - which can over time cause serious neck and upper back discomfort.

Leg cycle and Cadence

What does the cycle of your leg look like from the side?

Your ideal cycle is to have the heel almost coming up to touch the glute behind you then driving forward with a high knee before the foot strikes the ground.Think of your leg like a pendulum – if you bring your foot up close to the glute as your leg swings back, you reduce the length of the pendulum and therefore require less force to be applied through your hip flexors to subsequently swing your leg forward again. This reduces the amount of energy it takes to take the next step, over time adding up to a LOT of preserved energy.

Also consider adapting the cycle of your legs to speed at which you are running. If you are only jogging you do not need to cycle your legs right up behind you as this wastes energy, too, it’s all relative to the speed you require. Sprinting will require higher heel lift behind and a higher knee as you bring your knee through.

Finally your cadence must be considered. As a general rule of thumb, if two runners with the same biomechanics are moving at the same speed, the one who is taking more steps is actually using less energy. A great analogy is that bench pressing 50kg 4 times is much easier than bench pressing 200kg once, though the overall tonnage is the same. Reducing your step distance and increasing your cadence can make a huge difference to your running ability and give you a great chance of reducing your times.

All the points above are things to look out for when assessing your video, but it’s always best to get a friend or qualified coach to help you spot these, too.

In order to put this into practise I suggest picking one area at a time and practising as often as possible. It takes 12 months or more to learn to walk and even longer to learn to run. You may have to ‘unlearn’ some poor motor skills and re-learn some new ones, and that’s not going to happen over night.

So for example; if you see that you are not bringing you back foot through nice and high in your leg cycle then practise this for a few weeks in intervals on the treadmill, always selecting a good sprinting speed that’s fast enough so you can feel what you are doing but not too fast that you can’t correct it. Combine this with a variety of strengthening exercises for your weak areas and try to refrain from any extreme distance running during this period as this makes it easier to learn new things (if you run to fatigue, your body will revert to what it knows best) but also because there may be some tissue adaptations which must occur before you are able to run injury free…

Apart from the 5 points above, making sure you have correctly fitting trainers and good core strength are vitally important to remain injury free and enjoy a long running career.

Most of all though – this is a beautiful country, go out and enjoy it!

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