Running stride length is the visible feature that separates front-pack runners from the slower ones. A seemingly effortless, powerful stride is graceful and drives speed more than cadence.
“Stride length drives speed more than cadence.”
In fact, your cadence is similar to that of Olympian Mo Farah. It is his average stride length of around 2 meters that is in another league. If you ever witnessed elite East-African athletes running past you on a U-turn, then you know what I’m talking about.
Stride Length and Cadence
From a biomechanical point of view, only two factors lead to faster running—stride length and cadence.
First, let’s have a quick look at cadence which is synonymous with stride frequency. The optimal cadence is generally considered to be around 180 strides per minute (spm). And although average runners only have a cadence of 150 – 170 spm, this doesn’t explain the difference in running pace compared to the elite runners. Mo Farah is known for a notoriously low stride rate after all.
The important thing to know about cadence is that there’s a great deal of individual variation. So don’t force yourself into a stride that feels unnatural to you. An optimal stride is largely self-selected by your nervous system and to a lesser extend by your conscious effort. Only the optimal ground contact time (GCT) leads to an ideal energy return by taking advantage of the free elastic energy that is stored during the stance phase. As your neuromuscular coordination improves your GCT will be lower.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take control of your cadence. Some running watches feature a metronome that helps dictate your leg turnover. Aim for small changes in strides per minute rather than big ones.
By now it should be obvious that running stride length is what really separates the elites from us mere mortals. A sub-30 minute 10K time requires a stride length of around 2 meters. A mid-pack runner at a local event only covers half as much ground per stride. The good news is you can improve stride length—by a lot. The bad news: It’s not a quick fix.
A powerful and efficient stride is not one that has you strike the ground ahead of your body. This only breaks your momentum and places unnecessary stress on your knees. This pattern is common in heel strikers and the main cause for shin splints as well. In short, it’s inefficient and it’s a major cause of injuries.
The action is behind your body and not in front of it. That means a powerful stride begins under your center of gravity which is right under your hips. Admittedly, that’s easier said than done as most of us are guilty of sitting for hours on end in an office every day. That shortens the hip flexors and compromises good running form.
In order to counter this, stretch your hip flexors briefly after the warm-up and once again for an extended amount of time after your workout. You can also reach high with your hands like plucking an apple during your run occasionally. You’ll notice your hips coming forward. Try to maintain that position. If your hips are properly aligned you’ll recruit the gluteus maximus—the largest muscle of your body as the name gives away. Yes, if you want stride power then you actually have to put all the running muscles to use and proper running form allows you to do that.
Once your hips are aligned you’ll be less likely to overstride. A good cue that can help is to ‘put your foot down earlier’. This may initially shorten your running stride length and up the cadence. But since you ‘release the brakes’, engage your glutes, and utilize more elastic energy, you will still be faster.
Stride Length & VO2max
Before we dive into the specifics of how to train your muscles for a more powerful stride, let me explain the interplay between running stride length and VO2max.
If you were a sprinter, a powerful stride paired with a flawless technique is all it takes to excel. But you are a distance runner. You have to supply oxygen at a fast rate so that your muscles can burn glycogen to fuel the effort for a prolonged period of time. There are more factors, of course, such a fatigue resistance at race-pace, lactate threshold, and running economy. Yet maximal aerobic capacity amounts to 70 – 80 percent of your running performance.
But I will also argue that your VO2max is limited by your stride power. If you lined up the competitors of a local 10K race and then rearranged that line based on their 100m sprint performance, the 2 lines would look strikingly similar. Thus, if you were to test your VO2max on a treadmill in a laboratory, you’re most likely limited by your neuromuscular power before you are even able to access your maximal aerobic capacity.
In other words, your general speed—and therefore a powerful stride—is a precondition for effective VO2max interval training.
Essential Strength Training
We often associate strength training with sprinters. But running, in general, is a power sport. Think of it as long series of jumps.
Strength is the foundation for that power. In case you aren’t familiar with the science lingo, strength is producing force over any amount of time and power is producing force fast. It’s the latter we are after. But just as you wouldn’t excel at lactate threshold training without a solid aerobic base of easy running mileage, you wouldn’t improve your power without a base of strength.
Communicating with my athletes, there seems to be a lot of confusion about strength training sets and repetitions. We runners typically have a strong work ethic and therefore a ‘more is better’ attitude. Yet I will argue quality trumps quantity. Heavy 1-set exercises in the 6 – 8 repetition range, twice a week, develop the necessary neuromuscular strength for a powerful stride. You definitely don’t need to train your muscles for endurance in the gym. That’s what running is for.
In regards to exercise selection, aim for compound movements. You are not a bodybuilder isolating muscle groups for maximal growth so that you can take selfies in the bathroom. You’re after new PRs and that calls for functional muscles. Then progress everything from general to running-specific. For example, build strength with squats and deadlifts first and then introduce single-leg exercises that more closely resemble running, such as weighted forward lunges.
I will elaborate more on strength training in a future article.
The Magic of Plyometrics
If you are above the age of 40, skip to the next section where I cover hill sprints and flat sprints. The potential risk of getting injured with plyometric exercises outweighs the benefits for older runners. Sprints should be your only plyometric training.
For everyone under the age of 40, plyometrics can be an effective way of developing your stride power. Though, I don’t recommend it for beginner runners either unless you consider yourself an athlete in another weight-bearing sport. A foundation of strength is crucial for plyometric training.
The main benefit of plyometric exercises is an improvement of the so-called stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). It is a pre-stretch of a muscle that allows for rapid production of force, as needed in jumping and running. It happens when an eccentric muscle action is immediately followed by concentric muscle action. Try jumping as high as you can from any static position and then again by quickly bending your knees first before promptly rebounding into a jump. That’s the power of the SSC in action.
Jump squats, burpees, jumping lunges, side-hops, and box jumps are just a few examples of plyometric exercises that you can add to your running program. The best time to perform them is after a thorough warm-up including a few running drills. That is, before your main set of running. If you haven’t done plyometrics before, phase them in slowly and limit them to twice a week.
Hill Sprints vs Flat Sprints
A sprint is the most specific plyometric training a runner can do. Sprints are synonymous with strides, only that strides are typically not all-out efforts. As an endurance runner, that’s anywhere from 1500m race pace down to 400m race pace. You don’t need to go faster than that to reap the benefits. During all-out sprinting, we tend to tense up. Our aim is to stride powerful but relaxed.
Just like your endurance base, general speed is fundamental and should never be entirely phased out during any training cycle. But I do recommend adding an element of progression. For that reason, my training plans make use of hills sprints right from the beginning. Hill sprints recruit more muscle fibers than sprints on flat terrain and that with a lower landing force.
The disadvantage of hill sprints is a lower leg turnover. So closer to your race, it is better you transition to sprints on the flat, ideally on a running track. That way your neuromuscular system gets primed for speed—a precondition for faster training paces like VO2max intervals. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to maintain your strength with hill sprints once a week or once every other week.
As endurance runners, we don’t need dedicated sprint sessions, of course. As little as 3 repetitions twice a week during or after easy runs will do. You can slowly build up to about 10 repetitions if you’re an advanced runner. In any case, it’s wise to start your first sprint conservatively and then increase the pace over the following repetitions. I also recommend a flying start and a gradual acceleration to reduce the risk of injury.
We have covered a lot of ground here in regards to running stride length. The key takeaway is that a multi-faceted approach is necessary to really make a difference. Running may be a simple sport, but that doesn’t mean running training can be simplistic.