Given that we were built to run, it's curious how complicated we've made the business of going for a jog. Let's keep it simple: Running properly has nothing to do with what you put (or don't put) on your feet or what surface you run on and everything to do with maintaining perfect form.
Where and how your feet hit the ground is crucial. Most of us land on our heels, which creates a shock of up to three times our body weight, increasing the likelihood of repetitive-stress injuries. Daniel E. Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, discovered that runners who landed on the front part of their feet, barefoot or not, suffered less than half the injuries heel strikers did. "It's about how your body moves, not what's on your feet," he says. "Good swimming requires you to learn good form—people don't throw you in the pool and expect you to swim properly. But for some reason we have this idea that everyone has their own natural running form."
Christopher McDougall's 2009 best seller, Born to Run, inspired a barefoot-running craze with its depictions of the Tarahumara Indians, who can run 150 miles without rest. "I went most of my adult life without ever hearing anything about technique," says McDougall, who transformed his own running capabilities by studying the Tarahumara. "Once you focus on mechanics, you're not in pain, you can go farther, faster. It's about posture, breathing, connection between mind, muscle, and ground contact. It's freeing."
Terrence Mahon, the founder of Mammoth Track Club in Mammoth Lakes, California, which trains Olympic runners and beginners, says learning proper technique is simple: "Most kids have ideal form. They land mid-foot, they don't lean from the hips, and they have shorter strides. You need to get back to that." What follows is Mahon's cheat sheet to perfecting your gait ("8 Steps to Perfect Running Form"). Go slow and experiment with the new form until it feels comfortable.
8 Steps to Perfect Running Form
1. The Stride
The length of it dictates where your foot lands. If you come down on your heel, shorten your stride. If you land on just your toes, lengthen your stride.
2. The Strike
When you land, engage the whole front part of your foot, known as the forefoot. This prevents a body-punishing heel hit and ensures you get maximum liftoff. Note: When runners are told to land on their forefoot, many land on their toes or on the ball under the big toe. Think about landing smack in the middle of your foot.
3. The Step-Down
As your foot touches down, imagine driving it three inches into the ground—it won't hurt. The harder you step down, the faster you'll push off the ground, and the higher you will instinctively, and effortlessly, lift up your opposite knee.
4. The Takeoff
After you land your leading foot, do not think about raising your same-side knee. Instead, engage your glutes, calves, and quads, which are all designed to push back, not lift up. Imagine gripping the ground and driving your foot behind you, like you're scraping mud off your toes. Do this and your knee will automatically lift back up.
5. The Triple Extension
At the point of takeoff (when your trailing foot leaves the ground), you want what is called triple extension: One leg is bent in front, the other is straight behind; if you snapped a picture of your profile, you'd be able to draw a straight line connecting your shoulder, hip, and ankle.
6. The Posture
Lead with your chest, as if being pulled by a rope connected to your sternum. Avoid leaning forward from the hips. When you do have to lean (on hills, fast tempo), be sure your body is in alignment. Your shoulders should be back but comfortable; your back, straight. In other words, whether going uphill or downhill, lean with your whole body.
7. The Arms
Keep elbows close to your sides. Pump your arms by pushing down and back behind you. At trotting speed, your hand should come up to the level of your belly button and down to the bottom of where your front pocket would be. As your speed increases, so, too, will that swing arc.
8. The Hands
Run with your fists closed, thumbs on top, and palms facing each other. Maintain an easy, loose grip.
The Right Way to Warm Up
Warms up: Hip flexors, leg muscles
Step forward with one leg and bring your other knee up until your thigh is parallel to the ground. Gently step down and repeat with the other leg. Continue until you get used to the motion, then sprint the movement for 10 seconds. Rest for 10 seconds; repeat.
Warms up: Ankles, shins, foot muscles, tendons
Walk with straight knees and hips—no bending. Step down on the heel, then roll up to the toe and take the next step. Take 20 steps. Repeat for 2 sets.
Front Leg Swings
Warms up: Lower back, hips
Stand sideways next to a wall. Place a hand on the wall for balance. Bring up a leg in front of you as high as you can, keeping it straight. Then bring it back down and behind you as far as you can, while keeping your back straight. Your knee will bend naturally on the back swing. Do 10 swings on one leg, then 10 on the other. Rest for 10 seconds; repeat once more.
Side Leg Swings
Warms up: Hips, lower back, groin
After your front leg swings, face the wall, two feet away. Lean and place both hands on the wall. Imagine there's a line on the ground six inches in front of the big toe of your left foot that runs parallel to the wall. Step your right foot forward onto that line. Keeping it straight, swing your right leg up and out to the right, then back down and up and out to the left, staying above that imaginary line. Do 10 swings, then 10 with the left leg. Rest for 10 seconds; repeat once more.
Which Running Shoes Are Best for You?
At 7.7 ounces, this ultralight shoe fits like a sock while offering protection from pebbles and glass shards.
Lighter than it looks, thanks to a mesh upper, but has a substantial arch support and a cushioned sole.
Light enough for speed but stable enough for intense training. The flat sole helps engage your entire front foot with each step.
Because its sole is designed to encourage forefoot landing, this is perfect for those who are ready to cut out the heel strikes.
Offers nearly the same support as a trail shoe but is a featherweight 6.7 ounces. Best for urban runners who have to negotiate busy streets.
5 Workouts to Try
Following the same route at the same pace day in, day out works great for trains, planes, and the Postal Service van, but not for human beings trying to become faster and stronger runners. Hitting a plateau. In a rut. Running on automatic pilot. Call it what you will—it means your fitness level and fat-burning capacity have flatlined. "Automatic pilot isn't just bad for training and fat loss—it dulls your body awareness, and that can lead to injury," says Jenny Hadfield, a running coach and the coauthor of Running for Mortals. Work these rut-breaking regimens into your program, whether you're an occasional runner or a fanatical one. "Sprinkle in one or two of these," Hadfield says, "and if you run regularly, you'll lose weight faster, boost overall power and speed, and never get bored."
What it is: Not a sprint, but a pace that will leave you breathing/sweating hard.
What it does: Burns calories at a high rate, increases stamina.
How to do it: Warm up for 5 minutes, run at tempo for 20, end with a 5-minute warm-down.
The tip: "Turn down the music and focus on your breath," Hadfield says. "Also, fast runs don't mean longer strides. Try to keep stride normal."
What it is: A workout that's half incline, half regular. If you usually run 3 miles, do 1.5 on inclines. The pace is moderate.
What it does: Makes you focus on stride and body alignment; hits more muscles.
How to do it: Try to maintain the same level of effort. That means slowing down and shortening stride on the way up, and lengthening stride and speeding up (but staying in control) on the way down.
The tip: "Your eyes may need to look down, but keep the head up," Hadfield says, "or your form falls apart."
What it is: A 60-to-70 minute run after a warm-up. If you normally run 3 miles, you need to rack up 5 or 6. The pace is easy.
What it does: Burns fat and builds endurance.
How to do it: Start slower than normal.
The tip: "If you get a pang of pain somewhere, it's likely your form has eroded," Hadfield says. "Work to fix it as you continue. Never sacrifice technique for speed."
What it is: The shortest, most intense running regimen.
What it does: Delivers a killer fat-burning workout.
How to do it: Warm up, sprint (near top speed) for a minute, walk for a minute. Repeat up to 8 times. Warm down. Keep a consistent pace.
The tip: "You'd think jogging during recovery would be better," Hadfield says. "It's not. Walk. You need to recover so you can spike your heart rate on the sprint."