Run Softly, Run Tall
Improve your form, and you'll run better. It's that simple. Our five-point makeover shows you how
by: Joe Henderson

Try this at a race: In addition to running it, watch it. If you do, you'll see important differences in the passing parade of runners that you probably never noticed.

You'll likely observe the contrast between how much better the front-runners look than most of the runners are back in your group.

Faster folks look better because they run smoother, quieter, taller. Mid-packers can tend to pound the ground, slump forward, and stare at their feet.

The differences in pace dictate some of the differences in appearance, but this doesn't have to be so. Midpackers can learn from the speedsters. Even though they can't duplicate their speed, they can look more like them, and run better because of it.

Running isn't a beauty contest, and style points aren't awarded. But ideal form--running lightly in good head-to-toe alignment--is important because it's easier on the body than landing heavily and out of balance. Good form also allows you to run faster with less effort.

I see these contrasts in speed and form at my favorite runner-watching spot: The Amazon Trail, a 1-mile sawdust loop just down the road from my home in Eugene, Oregon. The Amazon Trail brings together some of the world's fastest runners and many of the slowest.

As I do my own run on the Amazon, the speedsters glide by, brushing the sawdust quickly and quietly with each footfall. They run proudly, with their backs straight and eyes forward.

Although my pace places me among the slowpokes, I still try to model myself after the faster runners.

I don't claim to have perfect running form. But I did learn good racing habits at a young age that have stuck with me.

If you've never run fast or had great form, start taking corrective action. Try this: Add some faster running to your routine. Do short runs at a pace 1 to 2 minutes per mile faster than you typically run. This will force you to run more efficiently. The habits learned in these up-tempo runs will transfer to your normal running. And in all your runs--fast and slow--check your form by following these guidelines:

1. Face: Your jaw should be relaxed, not clenched in a grimace, and your eyes should gaze forward, not down at your the feet. Looking ahead at
the horizon will naturally straighten your back, and bring you into a more efficient running alignment.

2. Shoulders: Your shoulders should be low and loose, not high and tight. They should also be level, not dipping from side to side, or with one shoulder higher than the other.

3. Arms: Your arms should swing forward and backward between your waist and the lower chest. Elbows should be bent at roughly 90 degrees.

4. Hands: Your hands should be lightly cupped with fingers brushing the palms, not extended or tightly clenched. You should also keep your wrists relaxed.

5. Feet: Your feet announce how well you absorb shock. Instead of slamming the ground, land lightly on your heel, roll forward on your foot, and push off on your toes. Good running is springy and quiet.

Improving your running form may not advance you to the front of the pack, but it'll make your running easier and more comfortable--whatever your pace.

Visit www.joehenderson.com to read more running columns by Joe Henderson.