Physiotherapist and GB international runner Sarah Tunstall debunks the ‘perfect’ running form myth.

For anyone who has seen how I run, it may seem a little odd to for me to be talking about the ‘perfect’ running form.

With anteverted hips, an anterior tilted pelvis and knock-knees I’ve been told: “your legs were put on backwards,” but thankfully as a physiotherapist and international runner I know that doesn’t mean I have ‘bad’ running form.

Many articles that offer advice to improve running form say; hold the head up high, engage the glutes and swing the arms. These are all valid cues to improve form, however, in the process of thinking whilst running, style can become more rigid and people lose their fluidity of movement.

I understand that these generalisations around simple cues that target the mass audience can address some common biomechanical issues. However, runners can be a neurotic bunch and whilst you can improve our running form, to strive for perfection, in my opinion, is an impossible task.

If you watch any race, whether it be a road race, cross country or track you see that everybody runs differently. Some famous examples include Kenyan marathon runner Priscah Jeptoo and her knock-knees and Haile Gebrselassie with his over-pronating feet.

Also making the list is Paula Radcliffe and her nodding head and the countless Ethiopian female athletes, including Tirunesh Dibaba, with anterior tilted pelvis positions and increased curvature in the lower back. Maybe imperfections in running form are not the end of the world!

Every runner is different

I can’t stress that enough, every runner is different. You can have world champions with less than perfect styles and you can have four-hour marathon runners with seemingly beautiful looking biomechanics.

There are many factors that come into the equation and it would be too extensive to write about in one article. However, it is vital for any runner to be aware of their own weaknesses and imbalances with the main aim to minimise injury risk.

If you can work alongside a physiotherapist, sports therapist or massage therapist you can identify root problems for your individual style. This can be invaluable to help prevent injury, instead of relying on Dr Google.

For example, sometimes a muscle is tight because it is actually in a lengthened position, so if you get it massaged, stretched or you spend hours rolling it on a foam roller you may end up exacerbating the problem.

The gluteal muscles can present like this, and although they seem tight they can actually already be in a lengthened state and not require further stretching. So, if you read an article on foam rolling the glutes, you can in some cases be reducing your own hip control and be swinging an already existing imbalance back towards the more dominant hip flexors.

While self-treatment is a vital tool in maintaining an injury free training schedule, I want to emphasise that there is no “one size fits all” approach to running form and injury prevention.

Injury free or injured

If you are not injured one of the best techniques for improving running form is actually adding strides. For example, adding 4 x 80 metres or 6 x 8 second hill sprints to the end of some of your runs.

These short, high-intensity additions can also work the whole body in a very functional way that can directly benefit your running performance. If you tag them on to the end of your run when you are tired it can also help translate to better form when you are fatigued at the end of a race.

Drills are also a great way to gradually integrate better movement patterns and adding a few into your routine will, over time, help improve running form without having to think about individual components. In a previous article, I outlined a few basic drills all runners should do.

RELATED: What are the benefits of strides?

If you are struggling with an injury and have been told you need to work on your style – this does not mean you need to make a complete overhaul. Working on one weakness can influence the whole chain.

So you don’t need to run thinking about everything – how you are striking your foot, how wide your running stance is, is your pelvis level or if your head is held high.

To determine any specific weakness(es) you should seek professional advice first. Then as pain diminishes and you have been given the okay you can add drills, strides or hill sprints into your rehab to help the transition back to pain-free running and make running form improvements.

However, if you are set on self-diagnosis, you can try standing on one leg in front of a mirror and look at how each leg looks and feels simply balancing.

Add a knee bend and see how that affects you? Is it easier or harder on one leg? Does your knee spin inwards on the injured side? If so this is a good place to start but it does not replace seeking professional advice.

Your knee may have collapsed inwards all of your life so I believe the primary goal should be pain-free running and getting strong enough to control this collapse that could be causing pain. Trying to implement completely new movement patterns can be alien to how your body is used to moving and if “corrected” it can cause disruption elsewhere in the chain because your body has always moved like this.

The big picture

In the end, everyone can improve elements of their own specific running style. However, if many top athletes had worried about how their running form ‘looked’ they would never have stepped out of the door – never mind winning world or Olympic medals.

And while some would say that an athlete’s biomechanical imperfections should be corrected, it could also be argued that correcting Paula Radcliffe’s nod may have had a knock-on effect elsewhere. Who knows whether she may have lost some efficiency as this idiosyncrasy was part of how she moved.

Running form is undoubtedly important but you need to consider your individual style and be strong in the areas applicable to you.

If you can identify these, ideally with the help of a professional, I don’t believe it matters what it looks like when you run. As long as you are strong and injury free that is the most important thing rather than trying to match the photos in a textbook – that most of us are unlikely to ever replicate.

About the Author
Sarah Tunstall is a Chartered Physiotherapist and British international runner.