You’re a promising basketball player going into sophomore year of high school (this is an imagination prompt, rather than a weird command). The summer will include camps with other prospects, the annual cotillion of the basketball world. You can shoot the roof off of the gym, but there is one small problem … your own relative smallness. You’re still a kid, and you shoot like a kid—from the chest, gathering up the energy to launch threes with a scrawny frame.
What do you do?
Fortunately for history, the kid that faced this dilemma had a big imagination and a big-name dad to help out. “If you want to play in college,” his dad said, “You’re going to have to bring [the ball] up and get it above your head.” The kid resisted at first, but eventually saw the truth. Yeah, his form might have seemed like it worked as he dominated the local competition. But what was his true potential? There was only one way to find out.
And the process of finding out led to the most painful summer of his life.
The kid broke down his form to the basics. “I really couldn’t shoot outside the paint for like the first three weeks,” the kid said later. “All summer when I was at camps people were like, ‘Who are you, why are you playing basketball?’ I was really that bad for a month and a half [before] I finally figured it out.”
Eventually, though, the new form clicked. The kid developed a lightning-quick release that opened up doors to a potential that seemed impossible at the time. That kid is Steph Curry, the dad is former NBA player Dell Curry, and the shot would revolutionize the future of basketball.
I love that story so much.
One, I’m a sucker for a good father-son sports tale. My dad used to throw me curveballs for hours, and I never heard him complain as he massaged his aching, surgically repaired shoulder at night. The only reason I didn’t revolutionize the future of baseball is the whole mediocre-hand-eye-coordination thing.
Two, and more relevant for this article, I think Steph Curry’s tough journey through remaking his shooting form is a good analogy for changing running form. As outlined in this 2016 review article in Sports Medicine, there is a general theory of stride optimization, where runners often self-select the most economical form over time as they gain experience. Deviations from that optimized stride are usually not positive for running economy.
As outlined in this 2016 review article in Sports Medicine, there is a general theory of stride optimization, where runners often self-select the most economical form over time as they gain experience. Deviations from that optimized stride are usually not positive for running economy.
That makes intuitive sense I think—changing up patterns that your body has reinforced through millions of steps is unlikely to result in immediate success. But what happens with a longer-term commitment to form changes? Think of Steph Curry in his driveway, breaking down something that had worked into something that made it difficult to even get the ball to the basket. A six-week case study would indicate that his shooting economy plummeted. Thankfully for fans of basketball and nationally televised mouthguard-chewing, he was thinking six years down the line instead.
That’s not to say the studies on stride optimization are wrong. Instead, I just want to emphasize that it’s immensely difficult to capture long-term benefits given the constraints of controlled studies. And there is evidence that changing form can lead to persistent benefits.
“Gait retraining” looks at altering form using visual or auditory cues. For example, a 2011 study in the journal Clinical Biomechanics connected six female runners and four male runners to accelerometers that gave them real-time feedback on force through their tibias while running. After the retraining based on those visual cues, the runners reduced tibial acceleration by 50% and force loading by 30%, and the benefits stuck around a month later during retesting. Those metrics are connected to lower-extremity injuries like stress fractures, so there would likely be long-term benefits to reducing loading.
Those findings were validated by a much larger 2017 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. A gait retraining group of 166 runners underwent two weeks of real-time visual feedback to reduce loading, while a control group of 154 runners just ran on a treadmill without the fancy instruments. After a year, the retraining group had a 62% reduced occurrence of injury.
The question remains whether gait retraining can improve running economy long-term (see this 2020 study in the Strength and Conditioning Journal on that question). However, I think that question goes a bit beyond what is relevant for most runners.
This article is not for all runners across the board—all the studies on biomechanics and human physiology demonstrate that uniform overhauls of running form are not needed (and can be counterproductive). This article is for people like me, whose natural form is like Phoebe in Friends.
When I quit football to start running, I had big changes to make.
It wasn’t like Steph Curry changing a great shot into a historic shot. I just had to go from Phoebe-style gyrations to literally anything else. It took me four painful years to gradually re-learn how to run (including tons of injuries), with incremental gains that would have likely been missed by any study. All I know for sure is I went from being a new runner with crappy form to a more experienced runner with acceptable form. That slow transformation required tons of little changes to the heavy-footed, wild-armed assault-on-biomechanics that seemed natural for me.
The counterargument would be I am proving the hypothesis that increased experience and lifetime mileage leads to optimization. And that’s why I try to avoid too many academic kerfuffles. I think every runner needs to find what works for them, but finding what works is way easier if you have a clue what you might be doing wrong in the first place.
My wife/co-coach, Megan, and I have distilled what we have learned into 5 form tips. Some of the tips come from studies and biomechanics, others from coaching experience. None of these tips are meant to lead to massive overhauls of what an athlete does. Instead, they’re designed to provide gentle hints that could lead to small changes that stack up into individual stride optimization over time, particularly for athletes with a history of injury or inefficiency like me.
Over time, my wife/co-coach, Megan, and I have distilled what we have learned into 5 form tips. Some of the tips come from studies and biomechanics, others from coaching experience. None of these tips are meant to lead to massive overhauls of what an athlete does. Instead, they’re designed to provide gentle hints that could lead to small changes that stack up into individual stride optimization over time, particularly for athletes with a history of injury or inefficiency like me. Combine the tips with strength work like the 8-Minute Speed Legs routine if wanted. Please consult with a biomechanical expert like Joe Uhan (website here) for formal, individual-specific advice. And here is a great iRunFar article on Uhan’s stride cues.
Disclaimers: I am not a biomechanics expert. Everyone is different. These tips could help your individual issues, or they could be an active hindrance. These tips for technical running are key too. We are all unique butterflies floating on the winds of chaos theory. You get the idea. Let’s do this.
One: Run tall and relaxed through the hips
Many runners have a tendency to sink down into their stride, particularly at easier paces, through a combination of excessively low cadence and/or higher ground-contact time. While I do not suggest specific cadences, it’s rare to see athletes stay healthy and get faster long-term without a focus on quickness in their strides. Whether that leads to 160 or 170 or 180 strides per minute is likely related to individual-specific variables. That slightly quicker stride may reduce ground contact time, which most studies indicate is good for speed and injury rates. I personally sunk all the way to the mantle of the Earth before I learned to focus on running tall and quick.
A helpful drill for some athletes is high knees, like in this Wake-Up Legs warm-up routine. Then when running, think about gentle knee drive and lift.
Two: Practice a slight forward lean from the ground up
Aiming for a footfall under your center of gravity is a valiant mission, but to me at least, it often felt like the movie Armageddon where Bruce Willis was told to nuke an asteroid. You want me to what with the what?! The slight forward lean can keep your center of gravity forward and contribute to a better footfall too, and there are some theories like Chi Running that rely on this element.
Don’t bend over at the waist like you’re making your knees touch your elbows. Think instead of your entire body as a slight forward vector. This cue is especially important on uphills, when I suggest that athletes lean into the hill as if they’re mimicking the grade.
Three: Be light on your feet
I was a sprinter growing up, and I see a lot of people that played other sports have problems with this cue. Sprinters often bound from foot to foot, ready to unleash maximum power. But distance running is more like water dancing, with quick strides that minimize impact and optimize economic power transfer over longer distances.
That cue often helps with optimal footfall too, since it’s hard to run light if you’re clomping like a brontosaurus with plantar fasciitis. Plantar fasciitis is actually what caused the dinosaurs to go extinct.
Even now, every few minutes during easy runs I try to remind myself to run lighter, which could reinforce reduced ground contact time. That cue often helps with optimal footfall too, since it’s hard to run light if you’re clomping like a brontosaurus with plantar fasciitis. Plantar fasciitis is actually what caused the dinosaurs to go extinct.
Four: Arms loose and with a shorter fulcrum
The team Megan and I coach has a T-Rex logo that started as a recommendation on this point. I generally want athletes to have arms like the dinosaur, held relatively high and loose, making it hard to reach the top shelf but easy to swing them without using excess energy.
When I started long-distance running, I read an article like this one where a pro runner said to have your palms touch your hips on each swing. It took me five years to unlearn that advice. I was gently told by a helpful running partner that the legs follow the arms, and that by having an arm swing like I was trying out for the US Olympic Softball team, I was slowing down the whole process. I made the change and my cadence naturally increased to more sustainable levels.
Five: Keep lower legs loose
The final big point is about releasing as much tension as possible. Every step comes with impact. The body can learn to protect against the downsides of bad form by bracing for the impact in unique ways. Megan likes to engage her foot so that her toes point up. I like to have my hips tight to compensate for a lower, heavier cadence. But looking at the gait retraining studies, one of the primary things athletes learn to do is relax and stop these compensatory processes that likely have long-term drawbacks for injury and growth.
So relax. Start with the lower legs and feet, since tightness there will mess you up fast. Then go up through your legs and hips, all the way to your arms and face, like you’re doing a meditation session. The idea is to learn to flow—losing as little energy as possible with each stride while improving long-term health.
Just be patient and loving with yourself as you make any small changes. Like Steph Curry shooting in the driveway, it might take some time. But it’ll be worth it.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.