What are the best techniques for efficiently running long distance?

For all the marathon runners…

Answer by Gurvinder Singh Gill:

This will be a long answer but if you are a long distance runner, I know, you will endure.

First of all let me clarify one thing: there is no “best” technique for running. Yes, there are some “better” techniques but most of the time, the running techniques are subjective and depend upon your body structure & fitness, running distance, and running surface. So try various techniques and ease into one which you find most comforting.Following information is only for Long Distance Running and out of my own experiences as a Runner.

A good running technique is not only about proper foot landing and body posture. It is as much about how you are breathing and even what you are thinking while running!

Firstly, judge your current running technique on following parameters:

  1. Do you experience joint pains (usually in knees and ankles) especially when you run on hard surfaces like roads etc.?
  2. Do you experience lower back pains after running?
  3. Do you experience shoulder pains during running?
  4. Do you generate excessive noise while taking steps during running?
  5. Do you feel sharp pains in lower left/right side of your abdomen?
  6. Is your breathing erratic and arrhythmic while running?
  7. Does your mind give up even before you have reached your body’s limit?
  8. Or do you match any of the following:

If your answer to any of the above questions is in affirmative, you need to look into your current running technique and take corrective measures.
We will discuss it in three parts:

  1. Physical Techniques
  2. Breathing Techniques
  3. Mind Techniques

Physical Techniques

It can be divided into three basic aspects namely

  1. Foot landing
  2. Body posture
  3. Running rhythm or cadence

1. Foot Landing

Many of my friends complain of acute pain in their heels, toes and calves due to running on hard surfaces. This is due to improper foot landing.

The red runner cannot use his front leg to propel himself forward. He’ll have enough momentum to keep going but before the front leg can contribute to forward movement it will first resist forward motion. Moreover hitting the heel first will send jerks up his legs and can result in deterioration of knee, ankle and hip joints. This is the reason for joint pains.
The blue runner’s front leg is landing right under his center of gravity. His forward momentum is unimpeded and as soon as he extends his leg the force will be pushing him forward too. Moreover he is landing on his mid-foot which would greatly reduce chances of joint pains after running on a hard surface.

Look at the foot placement……Perfect!


Changing the foot landing from Heel first to mid-foot will initially result in stiff calf muscles. So take it slowly to reduce chances of an injury.

2. Body Posture

Another important aspect of good running technique is maintaining a good body posture such that your core remains strong. Your core consists of abdominals, hips and gluteus (Gluteus are muscles of the buttocks).

The red runner does not have a strong core. The blue runner has his hips forwards and holds his pelvis level. The force from his legs is transferred efficiently through his hips, pelvis, spine, neck and head.
As you can see from the blue figure, your head, spine and hips must be in line with the point of contact of your foot. That’s why it is advised to run tall and look straight ahead to the horizon. To move forward your body must lean in like giving a kiss.
Moreover your arms’ motion must also be set to the rhythm of your running with your elbows bent approx. at 90 degrees.

3. Running Rhythm

Most of the fledgling long distance runners lack running rhythm.

Your feet should act like natural springs and you should properly extend your hips to propel forward.
Secondly, you should always run in a rhythm with high cadence. It is generally taken as approx. 170-180 steps per minute but may increase or decrease slightly depending upon the length of your legs.

Moreover, it is more energy efficient and easy on your body if you run with small steps (blue) rather than taking longer strides (red) which put undue pressure on your knees and other joints. It is a misconception that longer strides alone can give you more speed.
It is generally seen that people take longer strides during the initial phase of their run when they are more excited & energized and then slowly they ease into a more comforting and enduring small-step run. Many new runners change this rhythm many times during a single run and hence lose a lot of energy in the process.

For a long distance run it is highly important that you maintain a rhythm. Find your natural rhythm and then stick to it.

To sum it up:

Breathing Techniques

While running, we only think about training our body and legs, and ignore training of our lungs.

Keep in mind following points:

  • Breathe through nose

There is lot of misconception regarding this point. Many held belief that breathing should be done through mouth as you can take in more oxygen as well as release more carbon dioxide. In my view, this way of breathing is more appropriate for short distance runs. For long distance runs, you should try to breathe through your nose as much as possible so that your throat and mouth don’t dry up during running. During very long races, excessive mouth-breathing can even lead to cramps.

  • Breathe from the Belly

When you are running you should not be breathing from your chest. To get more oxygen into your system, you have to breathe from your belly. Moreover your shoulders move while breathing from chest and such motions tend to tire your shoulder muscles during long distance runs.

  • Long and deep breathes

This is again a controversial point. Many believe that it is better to have short and shallow breaths and they feel suffocated and out of rhythm trying long breaths. When changing from short to long breaths, it is commonly seen that runners feel uncomfortable. Treat it as a transitory period.
Long and deep breaths provide much more oxygen to your lungs while running than short shallow breaths. Change!

  • Breathe in Rhythm

It is important to breathe in rhythm while you are running. You should inhale and exhale at a consistent rate. One way to check whether you are breathing in rhythm is to count your steps when you are running. Irregular breathing will only reduce your oxygen supply and tire you sooner.

Mind Techniques

The hardest thing during running is that it’s a very long time to concentrate and remain motivated.

When someone forfeits his/her race, more often than not, it is the mind that gives up, not the body!

When I first started running, the biggest hurdle I experienced was to keep my mind in control during long runs. I used to run in the cross country races at my college and was considered one of the best runners. But every time I used to hit the “mid” part of the race, my mind would invariably start playing its tricks. The first question would be “why the f*** are you running?” closely followed by “Would it be too embarrassing if you leave the race in-between?” And then my mind would start suggesting me all embarrassment-free ways of forfeiting the race! Go and intentionally injure your toe with that rock lying at the road side! Entangle your foot with the exposed roots of that tree and then trip & fall! See that vehicle coming…get hit! Leave! Leave! LEAVE! Just f***ing leave the race!
It used to take all my mental strength to keep running.

Mental aspect of running is the toughest part and most rewarding also. As Will Smith as aptly said:
“When you're running, there's a little person that talks to you and says, "Oh! I'm tired. My lung's about to pop. I'm so hurt. There's no way I can possibly continue." You want to quit, Right? That person…if you learn how to defeat that person when you're running, you will learn how to not quit when things get hard in your life.”

That's Right! Never Quit.

The Pain, the exhaustion, the inability, the weakness……they are all in your mind only.

Push yourself to the limits and find out for yourself that there aren’t any limits.

Learn the mind techniques.

Different things work for different people.
Studies show that elite runners tend to stay focused on the run—on things like form, pace, and the way their bodies feel. The rest of us flit around four major thought bubbles: organizing, problem-solving, wandering, and pondering. If such things help you in maintaining your run, well and good, keep it up. But many a times such activities start to affect your running and even your emotions. Look out for the signs and take corrective measures.

  • Run in groups whenever possible, especially with some people who are better than you at running.
  • Do not stay in your fantasy world for the full duration of your run. Check in with your body every few minutes.
  • Every time you run a familiar route, mark your progress with landmarks. These can act as your cheering sections and lift up your spirit while running.
  • But sometimes environmental cues can be limiting and can trigger muscle memory and mental memory, recalling how you felt the last time you ran this course. If you are unable to shake such feelings, try changing the running course periodically.
  • Re-frame your run in your own way. Recently I read somewhere about a technique used by a marathon runner.

    “When I run, I think of the distance as a lifetime. During the first few miles, I pretend I'm an infant just learning how to walk. During the next stage, I imagine I'm an adolescent, running wild. When I hit the mid phase, which is sometimes incredibly tough, I think, I'm having a midlife crisis. And when I hit the last miles, I think, why am I feeling so bad? It's because I'm too old! Even at that point, I don't think about the race being over. It's still too early. I only let the final distance enter my mind when the end is in view.”

    Think of your own way of interpreting your run. Be creative. It will help to keep your mind occupied.

  • And most importantly,

On top of all this, you need to keep in mind your nutrition and water requirements too.

My own way of fighting the mind demons is a little peculiar! I set my targets before running, sometimes in kilometers but mostly as checkpoints or landmarks. And then there is only one rule, DO NOT STOP before reaching that particular checkpoint, no matter what. And to keep my mind focused, I keep on repeating one thing to me:

Just Kidding!!

That will be all for now. I hope, I have not missed something important. Correct me if any.

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