Improve Your Running Form and Mechanics With These Running Drills
By Rick Morris
Do you want to improve your running form? I love a good debate. There’s nothing like engaging your fellow runners in a lively but intelligent discussion about current controversies in the field of running. One of those controversial subjects sure to get a nice heated discussion going is running form. Some coaches and athletes are convinced that running form and mechanics is something you should constantly be aware of and adjust. Others think that you fall into your proper running form naturally; that you shouldn’t try to artificially change your running mechanics.
It’s hard to say who’s correct. Truth be told there probably isn’t one correct answer. Some runners will almost certainly be able to improve their running form, mechanics and race performance by working on and adjusting their running stride. Other runners may run into problems when they try to change their stride. I personally believe that nearly any runner can improve their running performance by consciously improving their running mechanics.
Is there a middle ground here? Is there a way you can improve your running form and mechanics without making major changes in your mechanics or constantly thinking about your running form? Yep – there sure is. There are a number of running drills you can do that will increase your stride efficiency by improving the things that matter most in your running form – stride length, stride rate and ground contact time.
Those three running form components are what determines your stride efficiency, running economy and running performance. You want to maximize your stride length, or most specifically your air time, without over striding, maintain a consistently high stride rate and minimize your ground contact time. Do those three things and you will improve your stride efficiency, running economy and running performance.
Here are some drills that will improve the power and elasticity of your muscles, maximize your stride length, maximize your stride rate and minimize your ground contact time. Best of all these drills allow you to improve your running form without even thinking about it. The changes take place at both a peripheral level within your muscles and a central level by conditioning your neuromuscular system. It’s like training your running form to work on remote control.
Do these drills once or twice per week throughout your training and running season.
Running drills and strength exercises are similar to any other exercise. You need to start with basic strengthening before you advance to more intense and highly functional exercises. If you’re new to running drills these are some good ones to get you started
- Bench Step Ups – This is a very important strength exercise for runners that build your hip extension strength. Stand facing a bench or step. Place your right foot flat on the bench and keep your left foot on the ground. Now push off with your right foot and bring your left foot up so that you are standing on the bench. Slowly return to the starting position. Repeat for a total of 20 repetitions using your right leg then switch leg positions and do 20 with your left leg.
- Lunge – Take a long, exaggerated step forward with your right leg. Drive your knee high and reach out as far as possible. Slowly flex your right knee until your thigh is parallel to the ground. At the same time lower the knee of your left leg toward the ground. Do not allow the knee of your right leg to extend in front of your foot. The knee of your left leg should stop approximately 2 inches above the ground, not touch the ground. Your upper body should remain in a vertical position. Forcefully push off with your right leg and step back into a standing position. Repeat for a total of 20 repetitions. Then switch legs and do 20 on your left leg.
- Squats – Begin in a standing position with your feet about shoulder width apart. Slowly lower your body by dropping your hips. Maintain an erect body position. Keep the weight over the your heel and the middle of your foot. Do not allow your knees to extend in front of your feet at any time. Lower your body until your thighs are nearly parallel to the ground. Slowly raise your body back up by extending your knees and hips. Maintain an erect body position. Stay smooth and controlled throughout the exercise.
- High Knees – Using a short stride and bouncing on your toes, take a step with an exaggerated high stride. Keep your stride very short – about 18 inches. Drive your knee as high as possible on each stride. As you drive your knee high bounce up on the toes of your opposite foot. Keep cycling your legs through this motion so that you are moving slowly forward over the ground with the exaggerated high knee motion and bouncing on your opposite foot. Keep your foot in a dorsi-flexed position (toes up) throughout this drill. Your foot should land in a flat footed position – not heel first. Keep moving for about 20 meters.
- Heel Kicks – Begin by performing a slow jog. Using a short stride of about 18 inches a dorsi-flexed foot position, kick your heels up heels as high as possible behind your body. Attempt to bounce your heels off your buttocks. Most of the movement should be with your lower leg. Concentrate on raising your heels as high as possible and maintaining a very quick light stride. You foot touchdown should be flat footed with your foot maintained in a dorsi-flexed position. Keep moving forward for about 20 meters.
- Moderate Hill Running – Run up a hill of moderate incline or on a treadmill elevated to about 5%. Run at about 5K race pace or a pace that feels hard. For your first attempt run uphill for about 30 seconds. Jog downhill to recovery and repeat 3 more times. As you become fitter increase your number of repetitions.
Once you’ve progressed past the basic level drills or if you are already in a high state of fitness you’re ready to move on to these intermediate level running form drills.
- Bench Stride Ups – These are performed using the same technique as the bench step ups except that you drive your left knee up into a high knee position instead of placing it on the bench. You then lower your left foot to the ground and repeat for 20 repetitions. Then switch legs and do 20 on your right leg.
- Walking Lunge – Take a long, exaggerated step forward with one leg. Drive your knee high and reach out as far as possible. Slowly flex your forward knee until your thigh is parallel to the ground. At the same time lower the knee of your trailing leg toward the ground. Do not allow the knee of your forward leg to extend in front of your foot. The knee of your trailing leg should stop approximately 2 inches above the ground, not touch the ground. Your upper body should remain in a vertical position. Forcefully push off with our forward leg, keeping most of your weight over your forward heel. At the same time cycle your trailing leg through and perform the same motion as described above. Keep performing these cycling motions so that you are moving forward with a walking lunge. Keep going for about 20 meters.
- Bounding – Begin by performing a slow jog. Push off explosively with your left leg and drive your right knee up and out. Emphasize a high knee lift strive for maximum height on each bound. Upon landing on the right foot, push off explosively with the right foot, driving the left knee up and out. Repeat this sequence throughout the drill. This is like a highly exaggerated running stride. Repeat for 50 to 100 meters.
- One Leg Squats – Stand in an upright position. Contract your abdominal muscles to stabilize your trunk and spine. Place one foot (rear foot) behind you on a bench that is 6 to 12 inches high. Your other foot (forward foot) should be flat on the floor and directly under you. Bend your forward knee and drop your hip until your knee is flexed at about a 90-degree angle. Do not let your knee extend in front of your foot. Slowly straighten your forward leg and return to the starting position. Repeat for 20 repetitions. Repeat this exercise using the other leg as the lead leg.
- High Knees – See Description Above
- Heel Kicks – See Description Above
- Steep Hill Sprints – Find a steep hill or use a treadmill inclined between 8 and 12 percent. Run up the hill at sprint pace. For your first attempt do 6 repeats of about 15 seconds. As you gain in strength and fitness increase your number of repeats.
These running drills are very running specific and high intensity. Make sure you are comfortable with the intermediate drills before graduating to this advanced level.
- Bench Power Ups – This is the third and most difficult drill in the bench step up arsenal. To do this drill you perform the same technique as the bench stride ups with one very critical difference. Instead of simply stepping up you are going to power your entire body off the bench. As you push off with your right leg drive your left knee up you should actually power your body entirely off the bench so that your right leg (jumping leg) leaves the surface of the bench by about 6 inches. Then land back on the bench with your right foot and lower your left foot back to the ground under full control. Repeat for a total of 20 repetitions. Then switch legs and repeat using your left leg as the power leg.
- Power Skips – To perform this drill begin skipping forward with short skipping strides of about 18 inches. Keep your foot dorsi-flexed (toes up) with the bottom of your foot parallel to the ground. Move forward with a powerful skipping motion. Try to drive your body as high as possible with each skip. Try for height rather than distance in this drill. Keep your foot action very quick and light but skip with as much power as possible. Keep going for about 25 to 30 meters.
- One Leg Unassisted Squat to Stride Up – This running form drill is similar to the one leg squats with two exceptions. First – you don’t use a bench to support your rear leg. Second after your perform a one leg squat you then drive your rear leg and foot up into a high knee position before returning back to an unassisted one leg squat position. Repeat 20 times on each leg.
- High Knees – See Description Above
- Heel Kicks – See Description Above
- One Leg Hill Hops – This is a highly advanced plyometric drill that is great for improving the power and elasticity of your hip flexors, hip extensors and calf muscles. Find a moderately steep hill of around 5 to 8% incline. Now hop on one leg up the hill. Focus on keeping your foot strike directly under your center of gravity. For your first attempt hop for about 20 meters up the hill. Jog back down and repeat 4 more times. As you become stronger you can increase both the distance and the number of repeats.
- Downhill Running – Downhill running is one of the best drills you can perform for improving your running economy. The trick to successful downhill running is to maintain a proper foot strike under your center of gravity and avoid the tendency to over stride. Try to find a hill with a moderate to steep decline of around 8 percent. Run down the hill at a fast pace but maintain control at all times. Be sure to focus on proper foot strike under your center of gravity and use quick, light running strides.
- Steep Hill Sprints – See Description Above