I must confess, I'm not a car person. But even so, when I read guidance on running that relies on car analogies, and in particular the emphasis on 'the engine', my heart sinks a little. Watch any great runners, Faith Kipyegon, Letesenbet Gidey, Jakob Ingebrigtsen, how they float, how effortless it looks, and ask whether running can truly be reduced to a question of how much 'engine capacity' is available.
Now, of course in order to become a better runner, you need to be fit. But fitness can only take you so far, and if that's all you focus on, you are leaving potentially a lot on the table, and what might amount to a performance breakthrough.
You see, by working on improving your running form, you are giving yourself the opportunity to maximise your fitness. No more car analogies I promise, but it's adding the wheels to your engine. Better running form is more likely to:
Reduce the impact that takes place every time you strike the ground, decreasing your expended energy and minimising the risk of injury
Enable you to run quicker, as a result of an increased stride length
Make you feel great while you run
But what is it, exactly?
The truth is that there is no single answer that can be recommended for all. Everyone has different physiologies and biomechanics, and if there is a mistake that I have seen often enough, it's one whereby people read about running form and then immediately try to imitate what has been presented as 'the best way to run'. The classic example is heel strikers who have been told that you should run on the mid or forefoot instead. I have seen lots of people unfortunately get injured as a result of doing this.
However that is not to say that there aren't a number of different things which, each taken individually, can improve your running. From your head down to your toe, there are ways in which your body can be manipulated to form a position that optimises your ability to run fast. A very small % of people on the planet can do all of these. They're called Olympic level athletes, and there's no point assuming that we mere mortals can or should attempt to copy them.
The secret is to figuring out which areas you can improve on, which don't contort your natural physiology, and still enable you to run healthily and safely. When I started running, I used to be a heel striker. It was probably a result of being new to the sport, as well as the trend at the time for chunky shoes with built up heels that encouraged this. Over time, I became a forefoot striker, but it was a gradual process and one which always felt good as I was transitioning. If it doesn't feel good, stop. You don't need to force anything. The greatest male middle distance runner of all time, Kenenisa Bekele, is a heel striker. "Hey Kenny, you ever thought about becoming a forefoot striker?", is hopefully a question no one has ever asked.
So what can we do to improve our running form? I would argue that in the first instance, it's not about reading or watching videos on what's right/wrong. Instead, I would think of it more as the result of a process-driven approach which takes in the following:
Drills will increase your mobility, coordination and balance. Strength training will enable you to hold your body upright even when fatigued. And strides will give you the opportunity to run fast and practice high cadence and increased stride length without working too hard. By performing these regularly, you will naturally develop the form that is right for you. After a while, you could then look at what the very best athletes in the world do, and see if there are small adjustments that you can make. But by just being aware of the fact that running is about form as much as it is fitness, you are already going a lot way to becoming a better runner.