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(8/24/10)

Making Every Stride Count
 

There are two ways to go faster – take longer or faster strides. Changes in stride length are largely dictated by fitness. However, you can increase your stride rate, and thus your speed, without a big increase in fitness.

 

Let’s say you run an 8:00/mile pace, taking 80 strides/minute (spm). That runner will take 640 strides (1,280 steps) in a mile, at a length of 4’ 1.5” per step. With just a small increase to 82spm, without a change in stride length, you will cover a mile in 7:48. That’s 1:13 faster for a 10km, over 5 min faster for a marathon. Who wouldn’t take that?

 

One of the most visible differences between elites and most other runners is their stride rates. Elite runners do 90-92 strides/minute (left-right is one stride) in marathons, and faster in shorter races. The average runner may only have a stride rate in the low 80s, and it may not vary much with speed or distance.

 

A faster stride rate not only makes you run faster, but it is more efficient. The biggest difference between 80spm and 90spm is how much time your feet are on the ground. The more time on the ground, the more of your momentum you take away, actually slowing yourself down. You are absorbing more of the ground impact in your muscles and joints, rather than transferring that force into forward movement.

 

Changing your stride rate doesn’t happen over night. But it can happen over time, with practice.

 

Counting

The first thing to do is to count your strides while you run. The purpose is to do two things. First, find out where you are. Second, the simple act of counting will make you more aware of your stride rate, and tend to make you start to stride faster.

 

Count for 1 or 2 minutes, a few times during your runs. Count at different paces or types of runs: long, short & easy, tempo, track, hills, flats, etc. See how your stride rate differs over pace (you’ll generally have a faster stride, the faster you go), distance and terrain, as well as whether it changes over the course of a run as you fatigue. Log these counts as your base rate, so you can track your progress over time. You don’t have to count on every run, although it’s something I do.

 

Also note how different stride rates feel. Does it feel slow or fast? Over time, you should notice that your old base rate will feel slow

 

Many experts mention 90spm as an ideal stride rate. That may be a good long term goal, but in the short term, just focus on incremental increases.

 

Counting (and remembering) while you run is easy for some, and difficult for others. I’ve counted my strides for an entire ½-Marathon. In fact, I sometimes have to purposely screw up my count to keep from doing it continuously. OK. So I’m not normal. If you find it difficult to count, start counting for just 20 (multiply by 3 to get your spm) or 30 seconds (multiply by 2). Also, I find counting every other stride, where left-right = 1, instead of 2 (I don’t have to count as high).

 

Several different heart rate monitors and GPS watches include foot pods that measures stride rate (and pace). I use a Polar 800sd heart rate monitor, with an extremely light weight foot pod. This alleviates the pressure on me to count in my head while I’m running (I have counted in my head for an entire ½-marathon race before). That feature is worth more to me than the heart rate readings.

 

Striders

Add Striders to your training, focusing on stride rate. For those who don’t know what Striders are, it’s a series of short sprints. Many group track workouts incorporate Striders into their warm-ups. They’ll sprint the straights, and jog the curves. You don’t need a track to do this. All you need is a fairly flat and smooth area, where you sprint for 20-40 strides, and jog for 30-60 strides (same distance, about 50% more strides).

 

You gradually build your speed for the first half (50m on the track), carry that speed to the finish, then gradually slow down. The focus shouldn’t be on how fast you can sprint, but rather on how fast you can stride. Keep your stride short and quick. Imagine running on hot coals, so that you want to lift your feet as soon as they hit the ground. Don’t reach with your stride. Let me repeat that. DON’T REACH! Does that mean making your stride shorter? Not really, but if that helps you to stride faster, then that’s a good way to think of it. What will happen is that when you start your sprint, your stride may be shorter, but as you speed up your stride, your stride will naturally lengthen.

 

You can also do striders at the end of easier, shorter runs, as well as in the middle (part) of your longer runs.

 

Striders are a great warm-up before a speed workout or race. After the easy jog part of your warm-up, a minute or two before the start of intervals, a few minutes before the start of a race (especially shorter/higher effort races), do a series of striders (4-8, depending on weather and how hard you are going to run).

 

 

Stairs

Running stairs can force you into a quicker stride. Bleachers/stadiums, office buildings, and for those of you in the Denver area, Red Rocks Amphitheatre are good places to run stairs. At Red Rocks (the side stairs, not the bleachers), I can easily take 2 or 3 stairs per step. However, I usually choose to take only one per step, forcing me into a short, quick, and light stride. If you don’t have access to stairs, you can get the same effect on a smooth, steep hill, but you have to consciously force yourself to take shorter strides.

 

Hills, up and down

Running hills, both up and down, tends to magnify flaws in your form, making them easier to feel and work on. Running uphill, the time your foot spends on the ground exaggerates the loss of momentum. Downhill, it exaggerates the pounding and braking.

 

Uphill: Find the steepest hill you can run (and maintain decent form, 5%-15%), that’s not too technical. It doesn’t have to be that long; 10-30 seconds is enough. Start by running in place, with short, quick strides (sort of like a running start), then lean forward and start running. Stride as quickly as you can, a little more than is comfortable (like striders). Exaggerate your arm swing, focusing a little more in the backwards swing of the arm. Drive your knees up and forward. Run as long as you can, until your form and rhythm starts to break, usually around 20 seconds.

 

Downhill: It can be easier to get a fast stride rate going downhill. Find a gradual (about 2%-4% grade), smooth (either road, or dirt where you don’t have to worry about footing) downhill. Start slowly, and gradually pick up the pace. Focus on lifting your feet as soon as they touch the ground (like running on hot coals), and kicking back.

 

Extended Striders/Hills

Running fast for a short distance can be easy. After you’ve started working on your stride rate for several weeks, it’s time to start working on extending a higher stride rate over distance.

 

Take a strider or uphill stride workout, pick a fast stride rate, and go a little bit farther than you normally do at that stride rate. I like doing this on a steep, paved hill. I can do 94-95spm, for about 30-40 seconds, before my form starts to break down. For this workout, I’ll go at 94-95spm until my form starts to falter, then I’ll continue running uphill for as long as I can maintain a 94-95spm rate, but at least another 5 seconds. These last few seconds are hard and take a lot of focus to maintain. Over time, a slightly slower stride rate, but still faster than your original base rate, will start to feel normal, and your current base rate will feel slow.

 

More Spring in your Stride

When your feet hit the ground, your feet and calves should quickly gather some of the energy, then return it like a spring to propel you forward. You can improve your springiness by practicing dynamic, spring-like exercises. Jumping rope is a great exercise for this. You have to spring up quickly off the balls of your feet. If you don’t like jumping rope, you can do something similar with a stair, or other stable, fairly low platform. Stand on the lowest stair. Hop down, then quickly hop back up. Don’t let your heels touch the ground, and spring up as soon as your feet hit the ground at the bottom.

 

Listen to the Music

For some, running to the beat can help their stride rate. I don’t listen to music when I run, so I can’t speak from personal experience, but I know many of you do. You can program your own tunes. Note the beat of those tunes, and load music with a slightly faster beat than your base spm. You can also buy music programmed for specific beat rates. A metronome might help too, when running on a treadmill.

 

Personal Experience

In the 1980s, when I was mainly doing triathlons, I used to do 80spm. It was the same whether I was running at a 6:00 or 8:00 pace. I was so consistent, that I could accurately time my runs by counting my strides.

 

I started working on my stride rate several years ago. I regularly do striders and uphill sprints. And, when doing intervals, I focus on my leg turnover as well as effort and speed. Now, I do ~84spm on my easy runs (which feels slow), I can do low 90s for a 5km, ~90 for a 10km, and was able to average 87spm at the Boston Marathon in April (2010). I’m not quite that high on hills, but it’s something I continue to work on. This has allowed me to stay mostly injury free, and continue to set PRs into my late 40s, and hopefully now my 50s.

 

 

Striding faster will make you a faster and more efficient runner, without requiring you to get a lot fitter. It takes time and practice, but the ability to increase your stride rate is important for all runners. Start practicing. I’m counting on you.