Any runner, competitive or otherwise, wants to run faster, longer. There’s nothing better than the feeling of athletic power, unlimited gas in the tank. But we can’t talk about speed and strength without addressing functionality.

Running can be hard on the body. And doubly so if you’re out of alignment. Impact from each stride travels through the body and if the eight load-bearing joints (shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles) aren’t aligned, you’re asking for trouble. This alone is a good reason to incorporate dynamic warm ups and cool downs before and after your runs.

A common pitfall for many runners is driving forward motion from the shoulders rather than the hips. “If you’re running with your elbows winging out and your shoulders rounded forward, it could be because your hips aren’t activated,” says Brian Bradley, fitness director of Elev8d Fitness, the new home workout program from the experts of Sonima. “People are tearing their rotator cuff running because they are overcompensating with the shoulders.”

The Shoulder Problem

The shoulders, Bradley explains, shouldn’t factor into the forward motion of the run. “It’s just not natural for you to drive your gait from your shoulders.” When the back and shoulders are rounded forward and the hips are tucked under and inactive, then the shoulders take over for the gait, rotating forward and back. The hips should be the driver of the stride and this compensation is a surefire path to injury.

In order to be a functional runner, the arms should swing back and forth, and the shoulders should be down and back. If you look at a professional runner, you’ll notice they are upright, shoulders pulled back, upper back relatively still. Their arms swing, but their shoulders aren’t punching forward and back.

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Your body should operate like a well-oiled machine—joints, muscles, and skeleton working in concert. If you have full range motion in the load-bearing joints and your hips are driving the forward motion, this will naturally take your shoulders out of the equation. A smooth stride and pace is really all about functionality.

A Sequence for Function and Speed

It is essential to set your body into proper alignment before you introduce impact and rapid movement. These three exercises, excerpted from one of Elev8d Fitness’ 8-minute home workouts, free up the shoulders and activate the hips so that you are prepared to stress your system with cardio (or strength training, for that matter).

To improve range of movement in the upper body, you need to free up the scapula, the shoulder blade bone. “The first exercise in this sequence, Active Cows Face, teaches the arm bone how to function correctly in relationship with the shoulder blade. It’s really the same with the relationship between the femur and pelvis.” This simple movement addresses range of motion in the shoulder, which shifts the mid-back, the thoracic spine, and the pelvis into better alignment.

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Sequence, Bradley stresses, is everything. Only when your shoulders are in a better position are you ready for the next exercise, Mountain Climbers. “With your shoulders down and back, you’re ready to load them and fire your deep hip muscles,” he explains. “Your core will stabilize this second movement.” Activating your core and hips further establishes function in the spine and shoulders.

Finally, the Downward Dog Bent Knee requires you load up the torso and the shoulders and hold the very position that was just activated by the Mountain Climbers. You’ll notice that in this final, static position that your upper body wants to collapse. It is crucial here to pull the weight off your hands by pulling your hips back, tilting your pelvis forward and firing the front hip flexors.

How Does This Translate to Running?

Once you’ve aligned your joints and activated your hips, how do you optimize for speed? The key, says Bradley, is the arm swing. Leg stride is actually the easy part. “The body naturally knows how to run, your legs know how to move,” he says. “But if you want to be the fastest person, you need to learn to arm pump as fast as you can.” The hips are driving the movement, yes, but the arm swing will take your pace to a new level.

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