A Step-By-Step Guide on How to Improve Your Running Form

Two runners run on a bridge.

Watch any marathon and you'll see a variety of runners with different body types pumping their arms, picking up their feet, gasping and huffing as much air as possible to–hopefully–get across the finish line.

At first glance, everyone moves differently. While some runners may have long, loping strides, others have short, quick steps. Some run with audible foot slaps and scuffs while others float silently on by.

When it comes to running form, you may have been told that everyone runs their own way and you don't have to worry about being taught to run. But you've also seen the encouragement of run drills and form exercises, and you keep hearing the word “cadence” being thrown around (more on that below).

So what gives? Do you need to learn to run or just move as your body intended? And where and why do drills even fit in? That's what we'll get into below. We'll give you specific advice on when to respect your body's natural movements and when to nudge yourself back to a universal standard that's beneficial for all runners. We'll provide a breakdown of run form as a whole, including specific drills and how to perform them.

Here are three basic elements of good running form that will help you run more efficiently:

  1. Posture
  2. Arm Swing
  3. Cadence

1. Posture

Coach Nate demonstrates a posture drill for runners.

What is posture?

Good posture means having the ability to maintain the most anatomically aligned position possible. While standing, it means drawing a straight line from your ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles.

Quick test, check your posture quickly as you’re reading this sentence. Are you sitting or standing tall and aligned? Is your head neutral over your shoulders? Or are you slumped forward, core turned off, neck craning? Did we catch you? It’s okay if we did. Remember, practice makes permanent, not perfect. However you sit, stand and move today is how you’re telling your body to sit, stand and move on the run.

Posture while running can look a little different, but the principles are the same. While you still want to stay aligned from your ears, shoulders and hips, your spine is going to flex, extend and rotate a bit more. Your legs are going to extend back behind you with each stride. Each leg will land with a bent knee and ankle, ideally hitting the ground underneath your hips as you land.

Important takeaway: Posture isn’t about being stiff and inflexible and “perfect.” It’s about maintaining the essential positions that allow you to move in the most efficient way possible.

Second takeaway: everyone’s bodies are shaped slightly differently, so everyone’s posture (and running) is going to look slightly different as a result. However, the principles of alignment in the body remain the same.

Two runners with excellent posture.

Why is posture important?

Good posture helps your body evenly distribute load, your joints move optimally and your muscles fire efficiently.

If your head isn’t kept neutral over your shoulders, it leads to inefficient movement through your spine. Too much or too little spine rotation will have you working harder than you need to with every step. If your core isn’t engaged, your pelvis isn’t stable which can lead to a collapse in your stride and poor hip extension. In short, good posture is the building block for great running form.

How to practice good running posture

The most simple mantra is: “Run tall and lead with your hips.” Just thinking about running tall is a quick visual cue to get your body back into alignment. Leading with your hips not only helps shift your weight forward in a productive manner, it helps engage your core and your glutes. Engaging your core and glutes leads to a more efficient hip extension, helping you avoid overstriding which, in turn, reduces the load on your body. Simply put, improving your posture can help improve your running efficiency as a whole.

This posture and leaning drill, which we include in our training programs, helps you understand how shifting your hips can create forward momentum.

Try This Posture & Lean Drill

Remember, it’s not a matter of if but when your posture breaks down, because we all do it as we fatigue. Fortunately, you can build the strength and endurance needed to hold the proper posture during your run workouts and in your everyday life.

Adding strength training into your regimen will also benefit your running form because it helps you maintain better posture for longer periods of time.

2. Arm Swing

A man runs through New York City.

What should your arm swing look like?

Your arms and the way you swing them make a big impact on your run form and balance. If you trip, they’ll shoot out to brace your fall. If you have to jump up or over something, they’ll swing farther If you sprint, your arms pump more dramatically. If you’re navigating tricky terrain on the trail, your arms assume a life of their own, shooting out in all different directions to keep you upright. They just might shoot up high in the air when you cross that finish line.

As we mentioned above, your spine can flex, extend, bend side to side, and most importantly, rotate. In fact, every time your leg swings back behind you it adds a rotational force on the spine that, when resisted, helps bring your leg back forward through the gait cycle.

The faster you run, the more your arms swing in opposition to resist that rotation and channel it into forward movement. Your upper torso should remain straight as you do this and your shoulders should remain level with your chest pointed straight ahead. Your elbows should drive straight back behind you, while the size of your arm swing will be based on your speed and the rotational demands that come with it.

Simply put, there should be “just enough” arm swing to keep your upper body still and facing forward. For most running speeds, this will involve:

  • A bent elbow at a 90 degree angle
  • Wrists and hands that are neither loose and floppy nor overly stiff and balled up
  • Hands that do not cross over the centerline of your body

Why is arm swing important?

A smooth arm swing helps you run as efficiently as possible, meaning you’re not adding any extra movement or wasting extra energy as you run.

Remember when we said posture is the building block for great running form? If your posture slumps and your shoulders stiffen up, you’ve also stiffened up and contracted your arm swing. Your body then has no other option than to work harder in your core and/or limit your stride length, both of which slow you down. Conversely, you can run with too much rotation which is also equally inefficient. This usually happens when your shoulders twist too much and your arms swing diagonally across your body. Instead, focus on keeping a balanced level of tension in your body with your elbows driving straight back behind you.

How to practice good arm swing

We have an incredible drill developed by the Pose Method that really demonstrates this point. Check out this Stable Arm Drill to practice an efficient arm swing.

Try This Stable Arm Drill

3. Cadence

A man runs on the bridge.

What is cadence?

Cadence is the number of steps you take measured by counting both feet, or one foot, in a one-minute period. Cadence was first discovered by observing higher performing runners in the 1980s. “Better” runners seemed to run with a cadence of 90 steps per minute on one foot, or 180 if you’re counting both. However, most experts agree there is no magic number for everyone, but they do agree on a range. Specifically, 170 to 180 steps per minute (or 85 to 90 steps on one leg) is a good goal to aim for.

The reason why a range is helpful? Because of our varying body types. Your legs act as pendulums, and some of us have longer pendulums than others. Long legs tend to have a slightly lower cadence and take bigger steps. And, you guessed it, shorter-statured runners with shorter legs more easily adopt a higher cadence and shorter steps. Being aware of your own cadence is a valuable tool. Do you run with a cadence that’s too low all the time? Do you start high and then drop as you fatigue? Do you run with low cadence when running slow but pick it up when running faster? But first, do you even know how to find your cadence?

Cadence quick test: count the number of steps you take for one minute on one foot during your next run to determine your base cadence. Do this once in the beginning, once in the middle and once at the end of your run. Counting may seem tedious, but it will help you pay attention, which as you may be picking up is a huge part of improving your run form in general.

An even quicker cadence test: Most smart watches automatically measure your cadence on the run. If you have a smart watch, check the mobile app to see what your ranges are and look for patterns when you vary. To bring it back to posture (sitting up still?), the truth in your mechanics lies in what happens when you’re not thinking about it.

Why and what can you do about it? More on that in the next section.

A man runs on the bridge.

Why is cadence important?

Here are three main benefits to a higher cadence of 170-180 steps per minute on one foot.

  • It’s easier to tap into the natural elasticity of your arches, achilles, knees and hips, absorbing and rebounding with every quick impact. This is often referred to as “load and explode.”
  • Increasing cadence by 7% can decrease the force on your body, according to a 2021 study. Alternatively, a lower cadence leads to more chances for your hip, knee and ankle to collapse with every footfall, leading to greater ground impact and potential for lower leg injuries.
  • Your foot lands underneath your hips upon impact, which minimizes the braking forces that happen when your foot lands too far in front of your body. This can most easily be seen in the phenomena known as heel striking.

How to increase your cadence

You can get a physical metronome to clip to your shorts or you can download a free metronome app, either of which will audibly beep whatever rhythm you’re trying to run to. You can also listen to a playlist of songs with beats that fall within the 170 to 180 bpm range.

Speaking of which, remember that your body can handle big changes but only for short doses. Your body does much better when it can adapt to incremental changes introduced gradually and consistently over time. For example, let’s say you’ve tested your cadence at 130 and you want to jump to the 170 to 180 range. You can try jumping to that range for 30 to 60 seconds at a time during your next run.

Try this base & cadence interval workout

Increasing your cadence isn’t just about practicing a faster rhythm all the time, you need to understand the mechanics of how to pick your feet up faster.

Many runners just think about pushing off the ground. What happens when you only push is that your leg swings low and slow through the gait cycle (i.e. low cadence), and this pattern gets worse with fatigue. The pulling drill teaches you how to pull your feet up off the ground and reinforces taller posture, a more engaged core and an aligned pelvis.

Try this pulling drill

Start small

While we don’t recommend making massive changes as you build up towards a big race, you can start to pay more attention to how you run and to how your form changes as you fatigue. Does your head tilt back and shake side to side? Do your arms stiffen up? Do your feet start to scuff as your cadence drops? Note all of this down in your training log (if you’re keeping one). Sometimes drawing awareness is all you need to get yourself back on track.

While this may seem like a lot to remember, the simple act of focusing on just one aspect of your run form for a few minutes per run can help you make incremental improvements. Any time you change anything about your running, whether it be your form, your shoes, the distance or your pace, it’s important to give your body time to adjust.

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