Types of Running – A Closer Look at the Mechanics

types of running

Did you know running happens in different forms?

Running is one of the most basic forms of locomotion and you rarely give a second thought to how it all works. Your body just seems to know how to do it naturally.

It’s simple, right? Well actually, your body is conducting hundreds of tiny adjustments each second to calculate and re-calculate the best ways to keep you from falling on your face.

A new study published in the journal eLife found slight variations in the runner’s stride that compensated for changes in the terrain and the runner’s body well before their feet ever touched the ground.

They found that your vertical and horizontal position, as well as your ability to remain upright were largely organized by tiny, micro-adjustments to your running stride.

The Ohio State University researchers were able to pinpoint errors in a runner’s movements as they were running. Those errors were constantly being “fixed” by the body. Nidhi Seethapathi, lead author of the study, noted that “Our muscles and our senses are not perfect, and that leads to errors.

If we didn't correct for these self-generated errors, we would fall. Our study investigates how people correct such errors.”

running for survival athlete
Running for survival

Running For Survival

Humans were designed for long distance running so that we could chase prey over great distances. It’s one of our evolutionary advantages. For example, our Achilles tendon is the most powerful tendon in our body.

It provides stability, balance and facilitates the basic movements of running, walking and standing.

We run upright. Only 40 percent of our body is exposed to direct sunlight, as opposed to running on all fours, so that we can endure long hunts in the midday heat.

Animals rely on instinct and spinal control to coordinate their biomechanics whereas humans have higher brain functions – the ability to learn and modify.

Running is what we were supposed to be good at as a species, but we’ve outgrown the need for survival-based running. Now, we run on treadmills in the gym to strike up a conversation with that hot girl who takes a lot of selfies.

We’ve lost some of our natural instincts about proper run mechanics.

Proper Running Mechanics

Experts agree that running with proper form increases your efficiency and prevents injury. Yet, there are so many different schools of thought out there about the best way to do it.

Some people believe that coaching runners is a waste of time and that you’ll naturally fall into proper biomechanics because that’s what you were designed to do.

Others have specific styles or key points of interest that are designed to optimize your running style.

You should think of your run mechanics as a coordinated series of motions. One doesn’t work independently of the others. So, it’s not practical to break down your running style into different phases.

Related: Short runs can extend your life

Think of it as one large movement made up of several small motions. If you want to correct or improve your running form, then don’t try to break it down into bits. Consider the way you run holistically.

For training purposes, this tutorial will be divided in terms of lower and upper body mechanics.

running mechanics
Mechanics of running

The Lower Body

When you run, your foot should contact the terrain at the mid-foot level. You should not run from heel to toe. Strike the ground with the outer portion of your midfoot, press down, then press out through your toes.

By pressing down, you load up the potential energy that will allow you to propel yourself forward faster. So, don’t try to make a light contact. Use the energy of the footfall to gain power.

Allow your heel to slightly touch the ground now. This loads up the Achilles tendon like a spring. When the Achilles tendon stretches fully, you get a bounce-back effect that adds to your speed.

If you don’t use the Achilles tendon and calf assembly, then you’ll be losing some power potential and your running strides will be flat and inefficient.

When your foot prepares to leave the ground, you should press out through all of your toes, not just the big toe. If you press out through your big toe only, you’ll develop a strain. You have five toes for a reason. Use them all.

Now, don’t try to get too much forward momentum by pressing out through your toes. Instead focus on the action of your hips. It’s like a piston that swings the whole body into the next phase of motion.

By this time in your stride, your opposite hip is swinging up and forward. This will give you more of a forward boost than pushing off excessively with your toes.

At this point, you’ll notice a floating phase of the run or a bounce. It’s important to extend the hips only enough to create a slight bounce.

You shouldn’t lift too high or drift too far forward. This is the trickiest part of proper running mechanics because it takes some “feeling out”.

Next, your back leg folds up with your heel coming up toward your butt. Your knee shifts forward and then you must plant your foot again. Luckily, there isn’t much that can be done to optimize this motion.

Nature has done all the work for you. Just allow the leg to fold without much thought and your knee to come forward. Just avoid planting your foot too far forward. Keep it close to your body’s center of gravity.

Upper body and running
Upper body and running

The Upper Body

Now, you should lean your body slightly forward in the direction you want to go. However, that lean shouldn’t come from the waist. It should be a whole-body slant.

There are running styles that recommend an extreme forward stance, but that will be discussed in later sections.

When your left leg is pulled back, your right arm should be pushed forward. You should avoid an excessive swinging movement with your arms though, as this will throw off your balance. The motion is front to back, not side to side. You’ll need to make those pesky micro-corrections to fix those errors and it will limit your efficiency. Instead, think of this: when your right arm is about to swing back, your left leg should also be preparing to swing forward.

Avoid tilting your head to one side or the other. Your head will bobble a bit, but don’t try to over-compensate by straining the neck muscles.

Try to point slightly with your forehead. Keep your eyes focused ahead of you and not on the ground.


Barefoot Running

You might think that running barefoot could be dangerous and painful. You couldn’t be further from the truth. Humans have been running barefoot before the invention of footwear for thousands of years.

Your foot was designed for running, but we don’t always get it right. Humans are one of the only creatures that run from their heels to their toes, but maybe that’s not how we were designed to run.

Related: 5 cool Obstacle course runs

Barefoot runners tend to run on the balls of their feet and thereby minimize the risk of painful heel strikes. Running barefoot automatically puts you in a longer stride.

You have a reduced risk for shin splints because your running mechanics is altered so that there is more flexion in the muscles of your feet. This takes some of the strain away from your tibia and surrounding muscle fibers.

The muscles of your calf stretch naturally to minimize the impact of striking the ground. Also, your foot doesn’t come in contact with the ground for very long.

A scientific study conducted by Harvard University in 2010 found that barefoot runners have fewer heel strike injuries than runners who use shoes. Daniel E. Lieberman is a professor of human evolutionary biology and worked on the study.

He said that, “By landing on the middle or front of the foot, barefoot runners have almost no impact collision, much less than most shod runners generate when they heel-strike.

Most people today think barefoot running is dangerous and hurts, but actually you can run barefoot on the world's hardest surfaces without the slightest discomfort and pain.

All you need is a few calluses to avoid roughing up the skin of the foot. Further, it might be less injurious than the way some people run in shoes.”

Another key point to notice about running with shoes is that it reduces your tactile sensitivity. You lose just a touch of balance and reaction time by not having this direct contact with the ground.

What you gain is protection from harmful objects like glass and sharp rocks. This is why it’s important to wear footwear designed for running that protects but doesn’t interfere with the experience.

Our ancestors had thick calloused feet to do just that. So, our bodies are primed to develop natural protections against dangers in our path.

martial arts
Martial Arts and Running

Running for Martial Arts

The most popular martial art forms don’t involve much running. Tai chi and Chi gong are more introspective and meditative disciplines that are practiced in a controlled space.

Muy Thai, Taekwondo, and Karate are centered around combat. Therefore, the practice of these disciplines is also focused on movements within a controlled space.

Even though the most popular martial arts forms don’t have specific rules for running, it is a vital component of martial arts conditioning.

However, there is a martial arts form that puts a great deal of emphasis on the mechanics of running and that’s ninjutsu. There are 18 disciplines of ninjutsu and one of them is called shinobi iri –the art of stealth entry and escape.

You might have seen ninjas in movies and popular media. You’ve seen that these ninjas move in a very particular way. It’s not just for movies. These movements are based on real tactics of ninjutsu that have been passed down for hundreds of years.

Ninjutsu practitioners lean their bodies drastically forward when running. This is called the Hiryu posture. The arms are placed behind the body, the forehead is pointed out and the legs pump beneath the body in quick, powerful movements.

If you try to run forward in this stance, you’ll notice that your center of gravity is skewed ahead of your torso and you’ll most likely feel off balance.

This off-balance phenomenon is the point of ninjutsu running. It forces you to compensate by propelling your body forward as quickly as possible so that you don’t fall over. When executed correctly, ninjutsu running can help you move across a short distance much faster than traditional runners.

Now, imagine trying to run like this while you’re weighted down with a full complement of weapons and items. You’ll quickly understand why ninjutsu practitioners have such strong core muscles and legs.

You can train for this style of running by wearing a weighted vest in the gym. Lean forward as if you are going to fall, and then press your weight through the balls of your feet in quick, staccato bursts of speed.

parkour running
Parkour and Running

Parkour and Free-running

Parkour is a movement-based artform that incorporates running, jumping, climbing, and other actions like rolling and vaulting over obstacles. Parkour is a way of interacting with your environment and it’s one of the best ways to build functional fitness.

It’s an exciting way to explore the world around you and your own capabilities.

Running is the core component of parkour, but there are some slight differences from other disciplines. For example, in parkour your mindset should always be centered on the most efficient way to run and traverse terrain.

Therefore, special care is given to your running mechanics. Your movements should be light and versatile, allowing you to change direction or orientation at a split-second’s notice.

Parkour athletes, tracers as they’re called, often run on the balls of their feet and use quick bursts of speed.

Now, this differs from free-running. You can be more creative with free-running because this sport welcomes the incorporation of flips, twists and tricks.

Your run mechanics are more of a freestyle and you’re more likely to run short distances from obstacle to obstacle.

If you need to traverse long distances, then you’d be better served by reverting to a parkour-style gait. The emphasis is not on efficient run mechanics, rather on expressive movements.

Free-runners can choose to run fast or slow, light or heavy, and there is no specific mandate on how your arms should be incorporated to your gait.

Making Complicated Things Seem Simple

If you feel that your running style is out of synch, then don’t try to fix it on a treadmill. Go outdoors and run naturally, barefoot if you can.

Pay attention to what your body is already doing before you try to implement any corrective measures.

Running is natural. It’s free and it connects us to our environment on a primal level. You don’t have to be a competitive athlete to want to gain a benefit from that relationship between your mind, your body and the way that it moves.

Are you an avid runner? Do you have any tips on how to improve the biomechanics of running? We’d love to hear your responses in the comments and don’t forget to share this article with your buddies.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos and Pexels


Step-to-step variations in human running reveal how humans run without falling. eLife. Nidhi Seethapathi and Manoj Srinivasan

About Freddy Blackmon 145 Articles
Freddy Blackmon is a freelance writer and journalist who has a passion for cars, technology, and fitness. Look for articles on these topics and more. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.