Ask Stew: Addressing Issues with Running Form and Technique

A soldier runs a two-mile route during an Army physical fitness test.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jared Casey, assigned to the 409th Contracting Support Brigade, runs a two-mile route during the Army physical fitness test portion of the 2017 Army Materiel Command's Best Warrior Competition, July 16, 2017, at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. (Sgt. 1st Class Teddy Wade/U.S. Army photo)

From beginning as a runner in sports to transitioning to military running and beyond, you will find that injuries come and go. I have found that these injuries usually occur when I make changes of some sort. If your technique or form is poor, you sometimes have to alter it so you can run without pain or go faster.  However, some changes can cause injury or result in slower times. 

Here is a great email question that covers many areas where people work to get better, and sometimes, they succeed; sometimes, they do not: 

Mr. Smith,

I would like to hear your advice regarding an issue I am having with running pace. Around two years ago, I injured my left foot (broken fifth metatarsal). Back then, I was a heel-strike runner and normally completed the 1.5-mile run in 10:30-11 minutes with no problems. 

Usually heel striking is a result of overstriding. Shortening your stride a few inches typically can cure this technique issue.

On the advice of Fort Belvoir physical therapists, I made a transition to a midfoot/forefoot strike. Since that time, my run pace has decreased significantly. After another injury, I am getting back into running since December and have not run faster than a 13:48 mile-and-a-half. My lowest passable time for the 30-39 age bracket is 13:14. My last test before my most recent foot injury was a scary 13:13. 

I understand needing to change at this point. See this related article on the Evolution of Running, as we all tend to have a certain style we either learned naturally or were taught. There is even a bit of a difference between a hard heel striker and an impact roller. If you are not a hard heel striker but a mid- to rear- to midfoot strike and roller, you may be fine with proper shoes (not minimalist shoes). See the link to explain fully the various running styles and find the one that works best for you -- both for no pain and faster.

I'm in week 4 of your plan right now and have until April for my next PT test. The speed just isn't there. I've worked with a certified USATF coach to improve my form and increase my cadence. Unfortunately, increasing to 170-180 bpm has shortened my stride, and I've lost more of my advantage of being 6'3". 

I hate to go against another coach's advice, but when I have played around with a "proper" way to run or the "latest method of running," I always injured myself. Nothing major, just typically nagging injuries, such as ITB (iliotibial band) syndrome, plantar fasciitis, and knee and hip aches. 

So I lean toward what stride works best for me, not what marathoners or elite runners do. I am, neither, so why train like them? Sure, you can learn efficiency from them and watch them in slow-motion running.

I am always able to hit my pace goals (2 minute for quarter-miles) on your training plan for the first 3 laps, but then I fall off greatly (2:20-2:45). Breathing is something I key on to maintain a 3:2 or 4:3 ratio, but it feels like my legs lose all spring and forward propulsion

Once I learned how to breathe, I became a much better runner. This happened for me after SEAL training, as I tended to just gut-check the runs in training. But getting a regular breathing cycle, such as a 3:3 or 3:2, has worked for me very well, as it drops the heart rate during that activity and allows me to go faster and longer.

Should I go back to heel strike and long strides?

I do not recommend doing a true heel strike or even calling them heel strikes. These days, if you use the word heel strike, it means hard overstriding, where the heel takes the impact of the ground.

What speed improvement drills/exercises have you found to work best for your clients?

I would go with run and leg PT:

Try doing the workouts with the intervals paced at your goal pace. So if you want to run 1.5 miles in 12 minutes or less, you need to hit all quarter-miles at two minutes, all half-mile intervals at four minutes and so on. But mix in some squats and lunges to help you build some leg endurance (no weight needed).

A sample workout would look like this:

Warmup with an easy mile run or 10-minute bike/elliptical/light stretch

Repeat eight times.

  • Quarter-mile at goal pace (two minutes): No faster or no slower. Learn to muscle-memory this pace.
  • Squats 10-20 (maybe start off with 10 reps and build up to 15 or 20 in a few weeks)
  • Lunges 5-10 reps/leg 
  • Cooldown with a one-mile easy run or 10-minute bike/elliptical/light stretch

I hope this helps. We are natural at walking and running. My advice is to start off with what feels natural and do not overthink it. If you are doing something wrong to the eye of the video camera (film yourself) or a coach, maybe make minor changes but do not stray too far from your strengths -- long legs. You just need to perfect the stride so it works for you at a faster rate with no pain.

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

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