One of the best parts about running is that you’re constantly able to improve — whether it be your form, your speed, or your personal goals (or all of the above).
However, because there’s always room for improvement, that inevitably suggests that there’s always room for error, too. (Which doesn’t sound particularly appealing, but at least it means that all runners will have their fair share of errors and adjustments.)
Plus, there’s another silver lining: with so many runners experiencing the same types of form deficiencies, there’s plenty of research and science to back up the causes, prevention, and solutions for each error.
And that’s what this blog is all about: addressing some of the most common running form errors that leave you vulnerable to injury risk or worsened performance. Just because they’re common in many runners doesn’t mean you have to experience them (or stay susceptible to them).
So let’s dive into the top four form errors that runners face — over-stride, pelvic drop, limited triple extension, and insufficient trunk lean. If you haven’t heard of these terms before, buckle up; you’re in for a wild and educational ride.
Form Error 1: Over-Stride
One of the most common errors is over-stride, which is…exactly what it sounds like.
Based on the name alone, you can infer that it involves your running stride being too long — but that’s not based on an arbitrary observation. When experts evaluate stride length, they aren’t necessarily referring to the specific measurement of your stride; rather, they’re looking at how far in front of you your foot lands.
In the case of over-stride, it means your foot is hitting the ground much further out than it needs to. It might sound far-fetched, but over-stride often occurs as a result of running with a low cadence.
Think of it this way: If two people are running a 7 minute mile, and one person runs at 170 steps per minute and another has 155 steps per minute, then the first person is using 1,190 steps to cover the mile while the second is using 1,085 to cover the same distance.
As a result, many runners end up compensating for this lack of efficiency by taking longer strides. Which theoretically sounds like it makes sense: our brains tend to associate the idea of longer strides with more ground coverage.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Although it doesn’t seem like a huge deal, overstriding is the culprit of several risk factors that either increase your chances of injury or decrease your running efficiency — so it’s well worth the time to read about it.
Why It Matters: Increased Injury Risk and Decreased Efficiency
Let’s start by reviewing its impact on injury risk, since that’s what you’re probably most concerned about.
The main reason why overstriding increases your injury risk is because it creates extra braking forces that add significant stress on your lower extremities. Research has shown that this added stress is what connects over-stride with an increased risk of sustaining tibial stress fractures. (And when you think about it, that makes sense — every mile you run consists of approximately 2,000 steps, so any amount of extra stress per step will add up super quickly.)
Additionally, overstriding will increase your vertical oscillation. More simply put, this term indicates that your body spends a lot of time “bouncing” while you’re running. The more you move up and down, the more energy you’re wasting on movements that don’t carry you forward, leading to an inefficient use of power and energy.
Plus, this vertical movement only adds to the risk of injury; the higher up you are between every step, the more shock your legs have to absorb every time your foot hits the ground again. This only worsens the volume and intensity of forces your body has to sustain over the course of your runs.
But don’t let that scare you. Thankfully, over-stride isn’t particularly difficult to fix, and addressing the issue will ultimately improve your performance results.
How to Fix It: Increase Your Cadence
That’s right — fixing over-stride is as simple as increasing your cadence (which makes sense when you know that’s what causes it).
If you’re not already familiar with the term, your cadence is the number of steps you take per minute while running. (There’s a little more nuance to it than that, but that’s the basic idea.) So, increasing your cadence is all about increasing your step count, which will naturally correct your pattern for overstriding.
As you train for a higher cadence, your body will accommodate all the extra steps by decreasing the length of your strides. This will allow your feet to land as close to your center of mass as possible (directly underneath you is actually the best), making it an easy fix for over-stride and decreasing overall landing shock for the rest of your body.
Increasing cadence comes with a few other benefits, as well. When you run at an ideal cadence (which experts say is between 170 and 180 steps per minute), experts have also observed lower braking forces, decreased knee collapse inwards, and less vertical oscillation.
Just remember, when you’re increasing your cadence, don’t shoot for the stars all at once. Carefully and systematically up your step count by 2-4 steps per minute each week. You can cue your cadence using a metronome app or music in a specific beat per minute range.
Depending on how much you like finding new music styles, this might be the most enjoyable running fix yet!
Form Error 2: Pelvic Drop
Up next, we have pelvic drop, more commonly known as “hip drop.” When left unchecked, this form error can have some pretty serious repercussions for your performance — and injury risk.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Here’s the basic idea: pelvic drop occurs when your body can’t provide enough hip stability while being supported by only one leg. This position occurs during the stance phase of your running gait, when only one leg is bearing your entire bodyweight. If your hips don’t have enough stability, one side of your pelvis will drop on the non-weight bearing side — and, thankfully, it’s relatively easy to catch this form error if you watch someone running from behind.
Usually, your gluteus medius muscles (as well as some of your core and low back muscles) are the primary source of stability for your hip. If you experience hip drop during your running gait, it can be indicative of insufficient neuromuscular strength and control in these areas.
So what does this all mean, you ask? Let’s read on.
Why It Matters: Increased Stress and Injury Risk
Alright, now it’s time to review the less fun part: the threat of impaired performance and increased injury risk. This slight drop in one side of the hip can lead to a wide array of possible injuries, ranging from the knee, back, foot or ankle, or the hip itself.
That’s a lot for just one form error, huh?
It all comes down to the lack of support in the hip region. Your pelvis has to be capable of stabilizing the bodyweight above it, otherwise your spine and lower extremities will have to take on a lot of additional stress (which is never a good thing).
Depending on how your body compensates for this form deficiency, your resulting injuries can vary in location and severity. Many athletes have experienced a handful of common injuries correlated with the issue: low back pain, ITB syndrome, FAI, groin strains, proximal hamstring tendonitis, meniscus injuries, runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, and many, many more.
Granted, hip drop doesn’t guarantee that you’ll sustain these injuries, but they often come hand-in-hand as a result of that shaky hip stability. Without sufficient support, your body demands other joints or muscles to compensate for any consequent biomechanical deficiencies.
How to Fix It: Glute and Hip Stability Exercises
The key to eliminating your hip drop is — you guessed it — all about keeping that hip up.
More specifically, eliminating pelvic drop requires a hefty amount of training for your gluteal muscles for sufficient stability and strength; you’ll need to practice dynamic single-leg stability while also working to increase your glutes’ activation, strength, rate of contraction, and fatigue resistance.
But don’t be overwhelmed by how much work goes into proper glute strengthening. The best way to improve pelvic drop is through a gradual, set progression of muscle activation, exercises, and control before applying it all to your running form.
That’s actually the biggest pitfall that most rehab programs have — they don’t practice proper muscle activation before diving into additional training. So, while they may be on the right track with exercises, there’s only so much benefit you’ll get out of it if your muscles aren’t fully activated or you’re lacking proper alignment.
Once your muscles have mastered their functionality, then you can start leaning into strength training, followed by dynamic control exercises. As you progress through these different phases, you’ll eventually hit a point where you can start applying all the pieces of the puzzle into your running form. (After all, the best way to improve is to practice. The right way.)
And luckily, some of that practice can work for more than one form error. As you’re strengthening and activating muscle to combat pelvic drop, you’re also building a strong foundation for tackling triple extension.
Form Error 3: Limited Triple Extension
In its simplest definition, triple extension refers to the point at which all three major joints of your lower extremities — the hip, knee, and ankle — are simultaneously and fully extended. This occurs at the end of your stride, when your back leg is pushing off the ground. When you achieve triple extension, you’re maximizing the amount of energy that travels through your lower extremities.
That’s how it should be, at least, but that often isn’t the case.
Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t actually achieving true triple extension while they run. Yes, they may be extending all three joints, but it’s extremely common that they don’t attain full extension. It’s not ideal, but it sort of makes sense when you think about it. How often do you do exercises that utilize full extension of all three joints at the same time??
For a movement that’s so imperative in sports (not just in running, but any sport that also requires vertical jumping), there’s a surprising lack of emphasis on improving triple extension.
But that’s what we’re here for — let’s take a look at just exactly why it’s imperative that you work on your triple extension, as well as how to do it.
Why It Matters: Power Generation with Every Step
Okay, so here’s the thing with triple extension: it’s namesake focuses on the extension in your hips, knees, and ankles, but it’s not just about the joints.
Full triple extension is actually a huge component of generating enough power with every step you take. In fact, it’s one of the biggest sources of power for forward motion, and it all comes down to muscle contraction and power transfer.
Your ability to achieve triple extension is controlled by several muscle groups: the gluteus maximus, quadriceps, calves, and to a lesser degree, the hamstrings. When you first contract your gluteus maximus and extend your hip, you gain energy that is then transferred to the other muscles in your leg all the way through to your foot pushing off the ground.
If you don’t have proper extension through your lower extremities, you’ll ultimately face lower running speeds and running economy — meaning you won’t be able to hit the times you need for speed workouts or for beating your PR.
But that’s not all there is…
Like most form errors, poor triple extension can also increase injury risk (gasp). Ending your stride without fully extending, you’re not allowing the quad to release, which leaves the muscles loaded through the next stride.
Without maximizing the power transfer in your hips and legs, your body has to overcompensate to generate enough energy. Most often, this will lead to overuse of your quadricep muscles and cause an earlier onset of fatigue. Many athletes have also experienced issues with lower back pain, achilles tendonitis, and patellar / quadricep tendonitis as a result of poor triple extension.
So, you can imagine why it might be a smidge important to master.
How to Fix It: Practice Full, Simultaneous Extension
You may have already guessed it, but the most logical approach to insufficient triple extension is to just start practicing it more regularly. (It’s predictable, but who said that was a bad thing?)
The key is to make sure that your glutes, quads, and calves are all activated and familiar with the triple extension position. Experts will most often suggest that you progress from double- to single-leg exercises, that way you can first introduce your lower extremities to the position and then gradually start practicing full extension with proper, single-leg alignment and balance. The more you work your muscles in this specific position, the more capable you’ll be of applying it to your running form.
The primary exercises used to train triple extension are resisted running (see previous post) and terminal knee extension, an exercise that provides resistance to straightening the knee. We also incorporate force plate jump testing to train the coordination required to leave the ground with all joints extended.
In addition to more practice, you’ll also need to work on your force and speed. Granted, improving speed comes with a whole other list of variables and science that can’t be covered here — but it’s important to factor in when you want to optimize your triple extension. It’s particularly important to enhance your force here, since triple extension occurs when you’re pushing off the ground for that forward propulsion.
Form Error 4: Insufficient Trunk Lean
Last but not least, let’s cover the basics of trunk lean.
The term for this error is decidedly straightforward — it refers to how far your torso is leaning relative to its usual vertical position (like when you stand up straight). Optimal running form usually functions best with a slight forward lean, somewhere between 8-10 degrees, like the image shown here.
If you’re thinking that that’s a super specific number to strive for, you’d be right. It’s not much, but it can make a huge difference. And, for most runners, even a 5-degree increase in trunk lean will provide some benefits, as most runners end up nearly vertical when they’re out on a run.
As a form error, this is super understandable. It’s common advice in the running community to “run tall.” But there’s an important distinction between keeping your back straight to avoid slouching versus trying to keep as vertical as possible.
The main point being: it’s extremely common to run with too little lean. Some people who run with incorrect lean experience symptoms like pain in their low back, knees, or shins — which takes us right into the importance of trunk lean (and how to fix it).
Why It Matters: Decreased Performance and Increased Injury Risk
As much as a few degrees may seem like a minimal change, research indicates that trunk lean has a significant impact on the functionality of your hip and knee joints.
For one, slightly leaning forward improves your hip flexion — meaning that you have more range of motion in the hip for that all-important triple extension. Without the extra room, many runners end up arching into their lower back to obtain extension, and this is where you start to get in trouble.
Running with extension in the lumbar spine puts excessive pressure on the lower back and reduces the body’s ability to absorb shock, leading to low back pain and an increased risk of stress fracture.
Additionally, decreased hip flexion effectively shuts off the gluteus muscles. Without gluteal activation, not only are you losing out on a powerful muscle group, but other systems have to pick up the slack, leaving the body susceptible to conditions like runner’s knee and patellar tendonitis.
But here’s the real kicker: one of the biggest aspects of trunk lean is its correlation with loading forces at the knee. Studies have shown how a slight forward lean at the hip can significantly offload some of the forces that your knees are exposed to. (Remember: since running consists of repetitive motion, even a 1% offload can make a huge impact.)
It can be super valuable to speak with a running coach or a biomechanics specialist who can provide you with specific feedback and show you the direct impacts of loading forces and joint angle movements as a result of your form. A specialist can also help you understand how to move into a better trunk position during running. Or, you can do it yourself — this one’s pretty simple.
How to Fix It: Lean Into It
The best part about fixing trunk lean is that it’s something you can do immediately. How, you ask?
Lean forward — voila, you’re done!
Just kidding (mostly). There is some nuance to it.
When you lean forward, you need to be wary of two things: rounding (or hunching) and leaning too far.
The first one, rounding, is what all the well-meaning advice to “run tall” is about. As runner’s fatigue, it can often cause rounding or clumping in the spine as your postural muscles wear out. Hearing a cue to run tall is aimed at keeping the spine long and straight and the chest pointing forward instead of down.
So, when you lean forward, make sure it’s coming from the hips so that the spine does remain long. You want to hinge at the hip while maintaining the integrity of your posture.
Secondly, you want to avoid leaning too far forward; 8 degrees isn’t much. When you’re implementing trunk lean, imagine you’re leaning into a strong wind, or pretend you’re Superman ripping his shirt open — that’s all it usually takes.
And that’s it!
If you’re finding yourself struggling with triple extension after implementing trunk lean, spend some time stretching your hip flexors. The more you sit (which is probably a lot in our current society), the tighter your hip flexors are, meaning that your ability to get hip extension without arching into your lower back will be impacted.
Phew, that was a lot to take in. But hey, you made it through — and now you’ve got the knowledge to empower your running form for yourself!
Running is an extremely complex sport, and there are endless biomechanical elements to keep in mind as you continue improving upon your form and execution. But don’t overwhelm yourself with the super gritty details just yet; for now, stick to these common errors and knock them off your list before jumping into anything more complex. One of the best parts about these errors is that their training is extremely beneficial for optimal performance in the grand scheme of things, so you’re already taking amazing strides by correcting the little mistakes from the get-go.
Keep in mind that even though these issues have pretty direct solutions, don’t expect yourself to fix them overnight. Any kind of adjustment to your running form will take some time, and it’s well worth pacing yourself so you don’t exacerbate your body.
So what are you waiting for?? Get to correcting — you got this!