Beginning runners and veteran runners actually have something in common: they both agonize over running form. Particularly among longtime runners is the feeling that if they worked more on their form, perhaps under the supervision of a good coach, they might be able to nibble a few seconds—maybe even more—off their personal records.
Running guru and best-selling author Hal Higdon, a Runner's World contributing editor, admits that he is inclined to tell beginning runners to just go out and run and not worry about whether or not they look good as runners. But he agrees with the veteran runners and believes based on his own experiences and those of Coach Roy Benson that there are eight areas to consider when it comes to good running form, as outlined in his book, Hal Higdon's Half Marathon Training:
1. Maintain a heads-up attitude. Keep your head up, focused on the road 10 to 20 meters ahead of you. Don't let your chin drop so you are looking down at your feet, because this is a sign of defeat. “Admittedly, it is tough to stay focused, particularly in the closing miles of a half marathon, particularly slogging up steep hills,” Higdon concedes. “Assuming a heads-up attitude will help you maintain both running form and speed. Don't let your form deteriorate in the closing miles; it will slow you down.”
2. Hold arms midbody. Don't carry your arms too high or too low. Your arms should bend 90 degrees at the elbow, and when you swing your arms you do not want your elbows pinned too tightly against your sides. Instead, let them swing back and forth along your sides to the front of your ribs while being aware of excessive arm swing. You can control this by not allowing your hands to cross your body's midline (chin to navel).
3. Swing away. Everyone has a unique arm swing. Higdon says he swings his arms near his waist almost as though he is scratching his belly. “Relax and see what works for you, particularly at the end of a hard workout,” he recommends. Relax your hands but don't clinch your fists, which will tighten your entire body. Sometimes runners will lower their arms and shake their hands at the wrist to aid relaxation, which is not a bad fix for tightness as long as you are not forced to do it too often.
4. Stay close to vertical. Runners in motion sometimes look like they're leaning forward, but Higdon says this is not true for runners who have good form. Straight up remains the best posture for half marathoners, even going up steep hills—maybe especially going up steep hills. Ignore anyone on the sidelines who tells you to lean into it. They mean well, but they're flat-out wrong. Staying close to vertical will help you maintain both running form and speed.
5. Do not overstride. Having a long stride should seemingly allow you to cover more ground more efficiently, but this is not necessarily true. For many runners, a short but quick stride often is more economical. Higdon and Benson guarantee that improving economy will help you run faster. Scientists identify 180 strides per minute as the most economical pace, but until you have been running a while, Hal says you shouldn't get hung up in counting cadence or changing pace to achieve a magic 180.
6. Run in a straight line. “This advice seems almost too obvious,” Higdon comments, “but I sometimes find myself behind runners who wander back and forth across the road, not realizing that they are adding extra yards to their journey.” You can teach yourself to run in a straight line by running down the painted line in the middle of a low-traffic road. Even better is to practice straight-line running at a track with clearly marked lanes. In races, Higdon recommends looking far down the road to determine whether the course will turn left or right. Cutting a straight-line tangent to the inside curb may allow you to cut a few tenths of a second off your finishing time, which adds up over a 13.1-mile race.
7. Don't overthink foot placement. It's difficult to determine the exact point at which the foot strikes the ground. Most fast runners probably land midfoot, settle onto the heel, then push off from the ball of the foot. But at 180 steps a minute, even the sharpest scientists and coaches probably need a slo-mo camera to analyze foot strike. Higdon says that at some point in your running career you may want to step onto a treadmill and have a knowledgeable coach tell you exactly what is happening from the ankle down. Otherwise, you shouldn't even worry about it.
8. Observe good form in other runners. Finally, Higdon thinks you should tune in to televised track and field meets or road races and watch how the fastest of the fastest look and then mimic them. You should also have someone film you running so you can determine your own efficiency. And, if you can afford it, seek the advice of a coach, who may be able to fine-tune your form.
Hal Higdon's Half Marathon Training offers everything you need to know about running the half marathon, including where to begin, what to focus on, how to pace yourself, how to avoid injury, how to track your progress, how to stay the course, and how to improve. It includes customizable programs ranging from novice to advanced.