Check These Running Cues to Improve Your Run Time

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U.S. soldiers from the 114th Signal Battalion participate during a battalion run around Fort Meade, Maryland.
U.S. soldiers from the 114th Signal Battalion participate during a battalion run around Fort Meade, Maryland. (Spc. Paul R. Watts Jr./U.S. Army photo)

With any cardio event, improvement starts with technique and ends with conditioning. However, the way you run is even more important, so you must focus when creating running workouts and figuring out how many miles to run per week.

You can apply these running efficiency cues to any style of running and make specific changes to your workouts, depending on the type of running you plan to do.

Cues to Fix Your Running Form

Breathing

Many people find themselves out of breath during a run. This is partially due to conditioning, but lack of a breathing rhythm is also a major cause. Like breathing every few strokes while swimming, think of inhaling every 2-3 steps and exhaling 2-3 steps. Find a rhythm that works for you. Personally, I prefer three steps inhale (through nose) and two steps exhale (mouth).

Arm swing

"Hip to lip" is a common phrase describing an arm swing during a running stride. Though that may be a bit exaggerated, the basic idea is still a good way to make sure you are swinging your arms and have a relaxed hand, wrist, elbow and shoulders. Arm swings across the body will cause some stride inefficiencies, so think like you are running on a railroad track with arms staying in a forward and backward plane. A clenched fist can ruin the entire arm swing, so start relaxing the hands during running.

Stride

Finding an efficient stride is also a personal preference. Many like a shorter stride that looks more like a shuffle, especially when running slowly. You can then pick up the pace with higher cadence when needed. Some will overstride and hit hard on the heel, causing a forceful impact to the foot and shins that acts like a brake and causes them to slow down each step, so that is not recommended. Find what works best for you, as it will be somewhere between the short-stride shuffle and the overstriding heel strike.

Head and Shoulders

"Run tall" is a common suggestion for runners. The idea is best understood when you imagine you have a string on your head that is pulling upward as if you were getting measured for height. Make sure you relax the neck and shoulder muscles but maintain a tall running posture.

Knees and Hips

You may have noticed how elite runners employ a high kick where their heels almost touch their buttocks during a fast stride. This is a speed response. The faster you are running, the more power is generated from the ground with your feet, hips and hamstring to bring the back leg out front with a high knee to create your stride length.

When pushing off the ground with the back leg of the stride, the hard push will start with the push off the ground with the foot and calf at the same time as the hip flexes forward and the hamstring brings the foot higher during faster runs. Depending on your running speed, the heel kick should be higher when faster and you can drop a bit when just jogging. Here is a good breakdown of running styles.

Foot Strike

The way your foot impacts the ground will depend both on the speed you are running and your stride. There is a debate about whether you should do a forefoot, midfoot or heel strike. Frankly, the answer depends on you, the running terrain and your speed. A hill workout will have you running uphill with a high knee lift and forefoot strike, but downhill will likely be a lower knee lift and heel strike, with a shorter stride for more control. Sprints, goal-paced running, and long and slow distance running may also vary the way your foot strikes the ground with a combination of the three options.

If you look at the mechanics of the three options, forefoot running works well for shorter, faster paces but strains the calves and Achilles' tendons. The heel strike does just the opposite and flexes the shin muscles, produces a slower stride and speed, and likely causes an overstriding inefficiency. However, the midfoot strike seems to be a more logical option, especially for medium distances of military timed running events.

Forward Lean of the Torso

When running fast, a forward lean improves efficiency, but also requires significant core strength. You should feel like you are "falling forward," and you should feel it more in your ankles and soleus and calf muscles while not bending at the hips and waist. Sprinters lean forward nearly 45 degrees when starting out of the blocks. A good way to practice this lean is to run hills or higher inclines on a treadmill and during a sprint or fast run day a few runs a week.

You will find that a forward lean is a bit natural when you have good running form. Check your form by filming yourself running at different paces and see whether you have a natural lean to your running. If you do, it is likely that you have proper and efficient running form. Instead of practicing a forward lean, practice all of the above. The result should be a natural forward lean.

Depending on your athletic history and future goals, how you create workouts can vary a dozen ways. Don't forget that technique and running efficiency stays constant. Sure, sprinting is different from a goal-paced timed run or long, slow distance running, but military fitness tests will require more goal-paced efforts combined with shorter and faster shuttle runs or obstacle course events. Applying these cues can help you figure out a form of running that works best for you.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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