Fretting about form is a habit of most runners, both novice and elite. How is it that some runners seem to have endless energy and enjoy a lifetime of injury-free exercise when others are exhausted and tripping over themselves right out of the gate? The answer may lie in optimal running stride -- that often elusive, yet important, component of running style.
Understanding running stride doesn't have to be hard. It simply refers to the way you run, including how fast your feet are turning over beneath you, as well as your posture and the movements of your body as you move over the terrain. Contrary to popular belief, optimal running stride doesn't necessarily depend on body type; it depends on the habits of individual runners. There can be short, heavy people who look like cheetahs when they run and tall, thin folks who look more like gawky emus. The ones with good posture and form will develop a stride that is natural and comfortable, and this will keep them running at top efficiency.
As a runner, your stride has an impact on your form, speed, endurance and vulnerability to injury. In short, proper stride is one of the most important aspects of running. And while understanding proper running stride might be easy, finding the one that's best for you may be a bit more difficult. In the next section, we examine what proper running stride looks like and what you can do to achieve it.
Proper Running Stride
Simply put, proper running stride is the way you run both naturally and comfortably. If you want to know what it looks like, spend a little time on a park bench on a sunny day. You'll see some runners that shuffle along with tiny steps, as well as some who look as though they're being chased by Mike Tyson. But hopefully, you'll also see people with a comfortable style of running. They have their heads held high, shoulders and arms relaxed, and look like they can go on for hours. This is what proper running stride looks like. And with a little practice, you, too, can achieve it.
The first step in optimizing your running stride is to determine how you're currently running. Start by counting the total number of steps you take with each minute of running. Then, divide by two to get your revolutions per minute (RPMs). This is an indication of how much time your feet have contact with the ground. A top-performing athlete's RPM is 85 to 90, or about 170 to 180 total steps per minute. Anything lower means that the body is bearing too much weight during each revolution, making it harder to push off into the next step [source: Pugh]. If yours is significantly lower, work toward increasing it without worrying too much about competing with the world's top-performing athletes.
Proper running stride also depends on your overall form and posture. For example, you should center your weight on the ball of your foot during push-off and land at mid-foot or toward the ball rather than the heel of your foot. This protects the feet and ankles from the impact injuries that are common among runners [source: Lieberman]. You should land with your knees comfortably bent, which is less stressful on muscles and joints, and also keep your core muscles engaged through each leg movement. Also, remember to hold your arms at a 90-degree angle and allow them to swing rhythmically with your stride. Most importantly, hold your head up so that your gaze is on the horizon. Not only will your posture improve, you'll also be able to see what's ahead of you on the running path.
That's proper running stride in a nutshell. In the next section, we explore ways in which you can change your stride.
Changing Your Running Stride
Now that you understand proper running stride, let's talk about when it may be appropriate to alter it. The most common reason for changing your running stride is if you're struggling to complete each run despite regular workouts. There could be several causes for this, ranging from medical illness to improper warm-up. However, it could also mean that your stride length is too long. Taking too long a stride uses a lot of energy and puts undue stress on muscles and joints, making injury more likely than if you were running at your proper stride.
If your turnover rate is less than 85 RPMs, try adding one additional step each time you run. You can do this easily and improve your performance if you shorten the length of your stride just slightly. Shortening your stride by only an inch can relax your muscles and improve your strength and endurance [source: Pugh]. This is an excellent technique for running races, where you need to conserve energy in order to pick up speed at the end of a race.
In contrast to shortening your stride, which most runners find relatively easy, effectively lengthening your stride takes a bit of practice. Among recreational runners, stride lengthening is generally advised only for the shufflers among us. Among elite runners, increasing stride length can be helpful for sprinters, where covering the most ground in the shortest possible time is critical.
Lengthening stride is also a strategy of some longer-distance and race runners, since taking longer steps can be an effective way to go faster. But keep in mind that there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. The wrong way is suddenly leaping forward without training your muscles for the task. This is called overstriding, which we discuss in the next section. The right way is to do stride-lengthening drills, many of which incorporate running up hills and high-knee running.
If you do alter your running stride, what's in it for you? Read on to learn some of the pros and cons about running with the correct stride.
Benefits of Proper Stride
Now that we've covered running stride and ways of altering it, you might be asking yourself whether any of this matters. Is it the end of the world if a runner ignores optimal stride? No, but it may mean the end of a running career. Running with proper stride is extremely important if your goal is to actually make it around the track. Proper stride not only allows you to run faster and use energy more efficiently, but it also protects your body from injury. Let's tackle the issue of energy expenditure first.
A long-held view about running is that you spend about the same amount of energy at various running speeds over the same distance. Using this logic, you should burn the same amount calories whether you sprint for a mile in 6 minutes or jog leisurely for 12 minutes over the same distance. The idea is that the two approaches will balance themselves out to the same net energy expenditure. But new evidence suggests there may be an optimal stride at which runners exert the least amount of energy for their effort [source: Steudel]. This is all the more reason to find and maintain your optimal stride. That is, if optimal running efficiency is your goal. If maximum energy burn is the goal, perhaps kicking it up a notch is preferable to energy efficiency.
Increased speed is another benefit of proper running stride. As we learned in the previous section, the safest and most effective way for most runners to increase speed and running efficiency is with shorter strides. A shorter stride means you spend less time in the air, which reduces your impact with the ground and protects you from injury. Keeping your stride short also protects against overstriding, which refers to reaching out too far with your landing foot. This causes you to spend more time in the air and puts more stress on your muscles and joints with each landing.
The most important point about proper running stride is that it takes time and experience to find it, which is why you shouldn't expect to be perfect right out of the gate. Instead, be mindful about how you run and how each part of your body contributes to the running experience. In this way, you'll learn how to run safely, effectively and without injury for many years to come.
Stride on over to the next page for lots more information about running techniques.
More Great Links
- "Barefoot running and shoes: Q&A part 2." The Science of Sport. March 16, 2010. accessed July 20, 2010http://www.sportsscientists.com/2010/03/barefoot-running-and-shoes-q-part-2.html
- Bus SA. "Ground Reaction Forces and Kinematics in Distance Running in Older-Aged Men." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2003 35(7); 1167-1175. accessed July 20, 2010http://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Abstract/2003/07000/Ground_Reaction_Forces_and_Kinematics_in_Distance.15.aspx
- Farley, CT and Gonzalez, O. "Leg stiffness and stride frequency in human running." Journal of Biomechanics, 1996, 29(2); 181-186, accessed July 20, 2010http://www.jbiomech.com/article/0021-9290(95)00029-1/abstract
- Kathleen Wise Pugh, Certified RRCA and EZ8 Running Coach, personal communication, July 21, 2010.
- Lieberman et al. "Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners." Nature 2010, 463;531-535 accessed July 20, 2010http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7280/full/nature08723.html
- Steudel-Numbers KL, and Wall-Scheffler CM. "Optimal running speed and the evolution of hominin hunting strategies." Journal Human Evolution. 2009 56(4):355-60 accessed July 22, 2010http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19297009