How to Run WIth Perfect Form Like the Tarahumara Tribe – Posture, Breathing and Footstrike Explained

By on July 16, 2014

Running is great for loads of reasons. It’s one of the best forms of cardio for burning fat (especially if you do it like this), you can do it anywhere, it gets you outside and it gets you places quicker. When done right, it’s also a lot of fun.

running in the park

We all know we should probably run more then, but the problem is that it also sucks. When you run you tend to get out of breath, you get sweaty, you hurt your feet and your shins, your back aches, your shoulders stiffen up, you feel sick… sometimes you are sick… sometimes you cry… It’s a messy affair. And you don’t get very far as a result.

Thing is though, it’s not actually running that sucks at all. It’s you. Unfortunately most of us run completely wrong which places unnecessary strain on our knees, our shins, our back and wastes a ton of energy. Think you can’t run because you have bad knees? There’s a good chance you’re actually wrong about that.

And even if you are perfectly fine with the way you’re running currently, you’ll probably find you could still be doing it better which would make you more efficient helping you travel further and faster so you enjoy it all the more.

Correct Back and Head Posture

Unless you’ve addressed your running form already, there are quite likely a number of things wrong with the way you’re jogging/running at the moment.

For starters, you’re probably all tensed up with tight shoulders, hands in fists and back arched. Most of us don’t do this on purpose, but over time as we run our shoulders have a tendency to tighten and to raise up by our ears. This leads to back pain and tightness which in a) wastes energy and b) takes the joy out of running. Try then to make a conscious effort to loosen your arms and shoulders, letting them relax into light fists (so your fingers are just touching your palms) and dropping your shoulders down. If you were sprinting this might be different, but for just running this is more comfortable in the long term and more energy efficient.

As for your back arch, you’re likely to find that you are bending forwards slightly, rolling your shoulders forward and looking downwards. This again puts strain on your spine leading to subsequent back ache, but it also actually slightly closes off your windpipe making it harder to breathe and reducing the amount of oxygen you take in with each breath. The result is you end up gasping for air much sooner.

Instead keep your chin slightly up and eyes looking straight ahead to open your wind pipe right up and allow the air to flow freely. Your feet are going to take care of themselves and actually keeping your head up is directly good for your mood and energy levels (our body language can influence our emotions). Apart from anything else though, this will prevent strain on your neck.

Meanwhile you should keep your back straight at the waist. It’s fine to lean your whole body forward, but you shouldn’t be leaning just your upper body forward. There should be no arch at the top of your back and you should be able to draw a straight line down from your head to the central point between your legs.

No More Heel Strikes! Chi Running and Pose Running

Now for the important bit: your legs and the way your feet hit the ground.

Most people will run by taking large strides that let their heels hit the floor first ahead of them (called a heel strike). They then ‘roll’ their foot forward, pushing off the ball of the foot and then landing on the next leg once again on the heel.

What this then means is that your leg is ahead of your body and completely straight when your foot makes contact with the floor. Your heel hits first, which sends a shockwave up your leg and through your shins and knee. This is a big part of the reason that so many people have shin splints/bad knees when they run often.

How you’re supposed to be doing it, is to strike the ground with the middle/ball of your foot while it is actually directly beneath you (or only very slightly ahead or behind). This then allows your leg to absorb the impact, you will bend first in your foot, then at your heel and then at your knee. Essentially this turns your leg into a spring while keeping the centre of gravity travelling in a direct line through your body to be evenly dissipated.

sonic running2

There are two well-known techniques for running which both recommend these biomechanics: chi running and pose running. Both of them tell you to keep your body straight, to let yourself fall slightly forward, then to catch yourself on the middle/ball of your foot to soften the impact. This means taking smaller strides – and increasing your cadence if you want to go faster rather than the length of your steps.

Not only does this greatly reduce injury by letting you absorb the impact of each stride, but it also makes running more efficient still because you are using some of the energy provided by gravity to propel yourself forward. Nevertheless, taking quicker strides will actually give you a better cardio workout.

You don’t need to worry too much about these specific running techniques unless you’re very keen on becoming a long-distance athlete. Instead focus on taking smaller strides so your legs are underneath you as you run, and on hitting the ground more towards the front of your foot rather than your heel.

Barefoot Running and the Tarahumara ‘Running People’

This is where barefoot running comes in. You see the main culprits for our botched running gait are our shoes: they have large padded heels which practically beg us to hit the ground with our heel first and to take longer strides. We wear them our whole lives and we end up running like dinlos – all the other animals are laughing at us.

If we were to run barefoot on the other hand – which is actually the way our bodies have evolved to run (we didn’t have Rebocks in the Savana surprisingly) – it would actually force us to land towards the front of our feet and take smaller strides. Try it and you’ll see for yourself!

Did you know that long-distance running is actually what humans are built for? We’re not very fast compared to an antelope, but we have better endurance and tracking skills. This is what allowed us to follow them for days on end until they would eventually wear out and collapse. Then we’d eat them and get us some protein.

And in fact there are still tribes out there who do run barefoot and track prey over such distances. One tribe of Native Americans in Northwestern Mexico – the Tarahumara or ‘running people’ – are able to run over 435 miles across two days. That’s pretty much superhuman.

Of course this isn’t just down to their bare feet. It’s also a result of practice (these dudes are like, constantly running whereas we are like, constantly watching Agents of Shield) and it may also be to do with their diet. Apparently a particular type of corn beer is used to give them the blood sugar (it’s very low in alcohol) and hydration (I would recommend coconut oil in a cup of tea with a big glass of water as your pre-run snack instead, maybe a banana too and something salty if it’s hot out and you plan on breaking a sweat).

The Tarahumara beer is made specific from something called ‘chia seed’ which has the ability to absorb over 12 times its weight in water. This makes it awesome for hydrating your body, which is one of the big things that lets many of us down on long runs. I haven’t tried this myself yet but I will do. You can buy the seeds here on Amazon.

Still though, it’s thought that the barefoot status of these natural athletes is largely what gives them their skills.

The drawback is that these days, running barefoot will mean a shard of glass straight in your foot (even the Tarahumara sometimes use thin, home-made sandals). That’s why companies like Vibram have created shoes specifically designed to mimic ‘barefoot’ running while still providing some protection. Five Fingers also give you better balance, they allow your foot to ‘grab’ the floor and contort to avoid tipping your ankle and generally they’re awesome. These ‘toe shoes’ look a little weird, so if you don’t want to go that far, you could always try just getting a more ‘minimal’ shoe.

You can find the Five Fingers
here, or just a a more minimal running shoe here. I have used footwear similar to both of these and had a lot of luck with them!

Strengthening Your Muscles – Hip Strength and ‘Runners Knee’

Finally you need to make sure that your whole body is functioning optimally and in unison. Recently I talked about maximum fibre recruitment and making sure that all your muscles are working together to achieve the same goal. If you have even a slight weakness in your legs, your back or elsewhere in your body, this can result in you trying to naturally ‘correct’ your stance and in turn that can create more problems. Either you’ll be generally less efficient, or you might end up causing yourself an injury.

For instance, many people’s running technique will suffer due to weakness in their hips. The hip adductors and hip abductors are the muscles that bring your legs together and apart respectively. Over time when we run these can become fatigued and this can result in our legs ‘flailing’ out to the side rather than staying straight in front of us. This will in turn result in the leg hitting the ground so that the foot is further out to the side than the knee when in fact the knee should be directly above it. This places strain on the knee as you can imagine and is one of the biggest causes of ‘runners knee’.

To fix this, you should not only make sure to be consciously placing your foot down directly in front so that they’re in a straight line, but you should also make the effort to integrate abductor and adductor workouts into your routine. As you build up to running greater distances you’ll develop these muscles naturally (by being conscious to use them correctly), but if you’re planning on diving straight into a new running program you should support this with the right workout. Likewise strengthening the muscles of your core will also improve your running speed, efficiency and ease. You can read about the muscles of the core in this recent post on ‘ab-natomy’. It’s the erector spinae (the muscles at the base of your spine) for instance that will help you to maintain an erect posture for a long run.

Stretching and strengthening the gluteus maximus (a hip extensor) and the quadriceps (which are hip flexors) is also important. This is because long hours sitting at work can weaken the glutes and tighten/shorten our quadriceps, resulting in uneven pressure on the pelvis and creating a pelvic tilt that further damages our posture and places yet more pressure on the lower spine.

Correct Breathing for Running

Finally you need to think about your breathing which is your primary method of delivering energy to your muscles and burning off the fat you’re quite likely trying to lose. The aim here is to breathe efficiently so you take in as much energy as possible with each breath.

And the way to do that is by breathing from your belly rather than from your chest. This means keeping an upright posture, then letting your stomach out by relaxing the transverse abdominis in order to allow your diaphragm to drop into your abdominal cavity. Your chest will then follow by expanding via the intercostal muscles, but it’s your stomach that will ‘lead’ the movement.

This is how we breathe as children, but our hunched posture makes many of us into ‘chest breathers’ in later life. This is a problem because that means we’re not using the bottoms of our lungs, which would give us 13% more oxygen per breath and greatly improve our VO2 max.

Also important is the cadence of your breathing. Apparently inexperienced runners will breathe fitfully and erratically, whereas top performers use a ‘2-2’ pattern. This means you breathe in for two steps and out for two steps. Others maybe use a 3-3 patter which may be more appropriate when running faster. A downside of this though is that it means you will always be breathing out on the same foot which is why some researchers recommend using a 3-2 pattern instead (research was conducted by a guy called ‘Coates’ if you want to do some digging).

I wouldn’t worry too much about this – just try to breathe with a regular pattern and find what works for you.


So that’s an awful lot to take on board… sorry! Hopefully this information dump doesn’t put you off running for good, and instead you implement a few of these things and then come back for more over time.

If you only take away a few points though, then let it be the following:

  • Tension in your shoulders and neck makes running unnecessarily uncomfortable
  • It’s important to keep your back straight
  • You should be striking the floor with the middle/towards the front of your foot, not your heel
  • ‘Minimal’ shoes will help to support this
  • Leaning forward slightly (with your whole) body, will let gravity do some of the work
  • Core and leg strength/flexibility can help to support better running technique
  • Runners knee is often a result of weak hips
  • Breathing should come from the stomach
  • Regular patterns are more efficient for breathing

Happy running! Get some practice in, as next time we’ll look at how to improve running speed using speed drills, training and more biomechanics.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Don Marchini says:

    I’ve only recently begun viewing your content and linking to these articles. I appreciate the depth your content reaches in its explanation—much more functional and actionable this way.
    I’m diabetic and have lost a lot of muscle—partly due to my taking better care of others than myself, which includes working a lot—and it takes it out of me. I’m looking into ways to build back some strength and stamina, and like how you present the information, always careful to consider one’s starting point. Not quite ready for Batman’s workout, but we all gotta start somewhere, yeah?
    Keep them coming!

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