Does form really matter when you’re running?

In running circles, proper form is a major point of discussion. Everyone talks about the right way to run, the proper stride technique, how your foot is supposed to land, etc. There’s enough to write a book…or two. I think form is extremely important too, and I think there is definitely value to honing your form for any sport, but there’s an issue with trying to follow someone’s prescription for proper form.

Try as you might mentally, you may not be able to physically achieve the form! Why? Because your muscles don’t know how to do it, and you may end up over compensating and hurting something. A perfect example is being told to stand up straight. If your mom tells you “stand up straight,” how long are you able to do it? About 30 seconds? If I tell you to stand up straight AND run, what do you think the odds are that you’ll be able to do a half marathon that way? Pretty slim.

I recently started working with a runner from Highland near the San Bernadino Mountains. She loves trail running (as well as biking, hiking, and ultramarathons), but she’d her running form had seriously deteriorated following some surgeries to repair tendon tears in her ankle back in 2009. Pain and tightness in various parts of her body did not respond to orthotics or any of a number of other interventions.  She came down to San Diego to see if Upright Health could help.  After about three weeks of doing stretches and exercises designed for her, she sent this email (reposted with permission):

This morning’s run was amazing!  It’s a hilly 6 mile loop that I also ran twice last week.  This was the first time I have been able to run this loop since last August when I sprained and dislocated my right foot.  I used to run it pretty frequently in around 50-51 minutes, with my best time ever just under 48 minutes – that was before all these injuries and breathing problems started in 2008.  Last Monday I ran it in 55:37, which is about 9:15 per mile.  It still felt weird and kind of labored, but things have been getting smoother and easier-feeling since then.  Wednesday I ran it in 54:31 (which is about 9:05 per mile), and it felt like a little less effort than Monday’s run.  This morning I just focused on the right glute and quads (because the left quad has been getting tired at the end of my runs, which tells me the right leg is still lazy) and kept a comfortable effort level.  I expected to hit around the 54 minute mark, but waited til this afternoon to even look at my watch so I wouldn’t be upset if it was slower than last week.  It was 51:06!!!

I’m shocked.  I’m stunned. That’s 8:30 per mile.  That’s a HUGE improvement in a week! Too big to be a matter of fitness.  All this time I’ve been thinking my fitness must be in the tank.  Except that my cycling has been strong (except for the back issue).  If these muscles that are just now “awakening” have been hibernating (or something) all this time, wouldn’t they be weak?  What is going on?  Maybe my fitness is fine, and I just had lost connection with the proper muscles for running/walking because of a couple years of limping and being scared to use my foot.  Are we creating better connection between the muscles and the brain?  Is it just going to get me back to where I was before the injuries/limping/losing connection?  Or is it going to go past that as I continue to learn how to recruit the correct muscles at the correct time, thus improving my form and efficiency?

I’d sure like to know what is happening, but in the meantime I have to  thank you.  I can’t even begin to count the number of different doctors and therapists I have been to in the last four years, and not one of them had any kind of massive improvement like this.  I’m just about speechless.  Wow.  I just needed to let you know what is happening.  Time to do my exercises 🙂


LK’s email is full of questions because she’s not had to consciously try to retrain her form. During her sessions at Upright Health, we’ve uncovered some issues with the function of her right leg and hip, and as the muscles of her right leg and hip are learning to function better, she’s noticing huge gains in efficiency — which translates into better performance. Form is really important, but before those muscles started to be activated, it was literally impossible for her to find a symmetrical, even, efficient stride. With the stretches and exercises she’s doing on a daily basis, proper muscle balance is being restored, and now it’s becoming possible for her to focus on making corrections to her form.

So if your body doesn’t seem able to do the chi method or pose method, know that it probably isn’t because you aren’t trying hard enough. It’s that your body isn’t quite ready to do it yet!


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.