I see a lot of people on my runs doing the same thing, getting a run in, and bringing their dog along for the ride. There seem to be three categories – those who run with their dogs off-leash, those who use a hands-free leash, and those who run while holding a leash. It’s the runners in this last category that I suspect are setting themselves up for injury. According to the Sports Injury Bulletin, “an individual with an abnormal or inefficient running action is more likely to suffer injury than someone with good mechanics.” It makes sense, right?
Understanding Proper Running Form
There’s a lot of guidance out there on proper running form. The good news is that there seems to be general agreement, for the most part, on the proper posture, arm swing, and stride that makes for efficient and injury-free running. Here’s a summary of the guidance I found and the implications of maintaining good form when running with your dog:
- Look Ahead – Correct posture, as it turns out, starts with your head position. One way to achieve this is to focus your eyes out over the horizon. Avoid tilting your head back or jutting out your chin. When running with your dog, you want to have your dog somewhere within your line of sight so you can maintain a forward focus. You also want to be running at a similar pace, so you aren’t leaning back and slowing your dog down.
- Relax Your Shoulders – Keeping your shoulders low and loose is critical to maintaining proper running posture. It’s easy to waste energy by lifting your shoulders, or dipping your shoulders from side to side. As you get fatigued, your shoulders tend to rise and your head will tilt back. It’s a slippery slope from there. It’s also an easy place for people running with a hand-held leash to get into trouble since holding the leash with your hands can cause your shoulders to rise and tighten up.
- Swing Your Arms – This action compliments your leg stride and drives you forward. Without this movement in your upper body, running requires a lot more effort. Your arms should be bent at 90 degrees, relaxed and swinging gently backward. You don’t want to mess up your stride by pumping your arms forward. To maximize efficiency, make certain that your hands remain somewhere between your chest and your waistline. This is where running with a hand-held leash becomes nearly impossible.
- Unclench Your Fists – Any tension in your hands will travel right up your arms and into your shoulders. Some people advise you to hold your hands as if you are carrying an egg or a butterfly. Some coaches have their runners train while holding a potato chip in their hands. The obvious problem for anyone running with a hand-held leash is that you have to hold on to the handle with some tension, enough that you would certainly crush the potato chip. It’s probably enough to also increase tension in your arms.
- Maintain Balance – Proper running form requires that you lean forward to keep your body balanced over your hips. Chi Runners describe a “falling forward” posture that requires a counter-balance in the opposite direction by swinging your arms to the rear as you run. The most efficient runners use gravity to their advantage. If your dog pulls you while running with a hands-free leash attached to your belt, it can help you keep your hips pushed forward in the proper position; however, you need to make certain that the difference in your dogs' pace and yours does not cause you to lose proper balance. You’ll know very quickly when you are going too fast.
- Take Quick, Short Strides – It’s most efficient to lift your knees slightly, with a quick turnover, where your feet land directly underneath your body. Matching your dogs' pace helps prevent under or overstriding.
- Land Mid-Foot – In this area there seem to be two schools of thought, either land mid-foot or land towards the balls of your feet. The faster you run, the more tendency there is to land on the ball of your foot. Either way, everyone says don’t land on your heels and be careful not to over-pronate.
For more details on proper running form, check out these sites – Runner’s World, Running Planet, Active.com, Triathlete.com, Washington DC Running Report, and this video on Chi Running Basics.