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Running 101: The Gait Cycle and Running Form

Running 101 - Form

One of my readers asked if I could put out a post on running form.  As simple as this question is, I think that the answer is very complex.  Not because running form is complex but, because the research on running form is conflicting.  Also, when answering the question of is my running form “good,” the next question usually is how do I improve as a runner (meaning how do I run farther and faster).  In this three part series, we are going to look at running economy which is a broad measure of running efficiency and form.  Once we have a basic understanding of the factors that go into running economy we can discuss different strategies to improve as a runner.  Today, let’s start with the gait cycle and running form.

The Gait Cycle

When studying running, it is important to have an understanding of the gait cycle.  The gait cycle can be divided into two phases: the stance phase and the swing phase.  Each cycle starts when the foot strikes the ground and ends when that same foot strikes the ground again.

Stance Phase:

  1. Foot Strike:  As you guessed it, foot strike describes the initial contact between your foot and the ground.  The foot strike can be described as a heel strike, midfoot strike or a forefoot strike depending on what part of the foot touches first.  As the foot contacts the ground, the foot creates a force against the ground while the ground creates an equal and opposite force against the foot.  This force exhibited against the foot is called the ground reaction force.
    • Heel strike is most commonly seen in recreational distance runners while forefoot strike is most commonly seen in sprinters.  There is much debate around this topic in the running community.  Many researchers and coaches believe that a mid- or forefoot strike is best because it minimizes “breaking” of the gait cycle which helps to increase efficiency and better distribute ground reaction forces.
  2. Mid-Stance:  During the mid-stance phase, the foot flattens.  This leg is the sole source of support for your body weight as your other leg is in the swing phase.  Because of this phase, a runner needs to possess strength in their stabilizing muscles.
  3. Propulsion/Toe-off:  During the propulsion phase, your body weight is moving forward over the toes of your standing leg while your hip is extending.  As your toe comes up off the ground you enter the flight phase where both legs are in the air.

Swing Phase:

  1. Initial Swing:  During this phase, the knee flexes as the heel continues to come up off the ground.  This happens passively as a result of the hip extending.
  2. Mid Swing:  The knee comes under the body in preparation for driving forward.
  3. Terminal Swing:  As the knee drives forward, the lower leg extends before contacting the ground again.  At the end of the terminal swing, the foot should be back under the body’s center of gravity by the time that the foot contacts the ground in order to prevent over-striding.

Track Running

What is Proper Running Form?

If you research “proper running form” on google, you will find a range of information, training methods, and research. I’m going to explore this with you in two parts: the basics and the details.  From my perspective if you are following the basics and do not have recurring injuries you probably do not need to focus on big form changes. Each person has unique anatomy and what may work for one person may not work for another.  I think this is especially important in regards to foot strike.  If you do plan on changing your form in regards to your gait cycle or foot strike, I recommend that you work with a running coach or a physical therapist to create a proper plan which will prevent injuries.  You can easily focus on small changes that will make you more efficient and in turn faster.  If you are working with a coach, they will be able to provide feedback and cues until the form changes become engrained in your natural running pattern.

The Basics: My three basic pillars of running form

  • Stand tall – This will help you to keep your focus forward. Your slight forward lean will come naturally from your ankles.
  • Minimize twisting motions – Your shoulders, torso, and hips should minimally rotate side to side and your arms should swing straight forward and back with a relaxed motion.
  • Keep your feet under you – Your foot should always land under your hips. This will keep you from over-striding.

The Details

  • Head – You should always look forward and keep your chin parallel to the ground
  • Shoulders – Should be relaxed and pulled down; away from your ears
  • Arms- Should be held at about a 90 degree angle (at the elbow) with relaxed hands.  Arms should be driven forward and backward in a straight line so that your elbow does not move far away from the body on the back swing (think chicken wing) and your hand does not cross midline on your chest during the forward swing.
  • Torso – You should stand tall and your core should be engaged to stabilize your body
  • Hips – Should be squared forward with minimal rotation. Your glutes should be engaged to stabilize and propel you forward.  Do not bend forward from the hips.
  • Ankles – Your forward lean will come naturally from the motion in your ankle during the gait cycle.
  • Feet – Should always land underneath your center of gravity to prevent over-striding
  • Cadence – Should be about 180 foot strikes per minute
  • Foot strike – As we discussed at the beginning of this article, foot strike can be described as heel striking, mid-foot strike, or fore-foot strike.


Next post – Running 101: Running Efficiency.  I’ll be breaking down running economy in to its 3 different efficiency components.


What are your thoughts on running form?


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