Running strides on a regular basis can do wonders for your running performance. It might be your missing piece en route to a new personal record.
“Strides have a major impact on your running economy.”
What’s more, strides are easy to implement into your existing running routine without overly taxing your body.
What Are Strides?
Strides go by many names. Striders, stride-outs, accelerations, and pick-ups.
They are typically 50 – 150 meters long or 10 – 30 seconds in duration with an intensity ranging from 5K race pace all the way down to 400m race pace. If you are training for shorter events such as the 5K and 10K then running strides is in the faster range, and vice versa for HM and marathon runners. But strides are NEVER all-out sprints!
Also, strides are rarely a standalone workout (although in some cases they can be). Rather, they are complementary to your existing runs. Strides can be tacked onto an otherwise easy run to inject some speed, serve as a warm-up for intense workouts, and should be done the day before a race to ensure bouncy legs on the starting line.
The Benefits of Running Strides
Strides have only a minor effect on your aerobic capacity (VO2max). But, they have a major impact on your velocity at VO2max (vVO2max). What’s the difference between the two? vVO2max takes your running economy into account. That means the pace you can run at your maximal aerobic capacity can improve significantly even if your VO2max itself is unchanged.
Here’s a real-life example of my own training. In 2016, after completing a 10K training cycle, I set my eyes on a 400m masters competition. I dramatically reduced my easy mileage to running 5 miles twice a week and dedicated 2 track sessions to anaerobic intervals of 50 – 400m. The result: My VO2max reading on the Garmin increased from 66 to 68 over the 12 weeks of 400m race preparation, despite a complete lack of VO2max intervals and a ridiculously low weekly training mileage.
That’s the power of running economy! Because it’s fair to assume that my aerobic system actually declined to some degree. That means the increase in running economy made more than up for it. And I won that 400m dash masters competition (53.8sec) in case you were curious. Not bad for a distance runner. It’s an ability that has helped me outkick competitors and finish photogenically in longer events on pretty much every occasion – unless they killed me aerobically well before the finish line.
If that anecdote didn’t convince you that running strides is beneficial to your performance, then maybe science will. The effects of strides enhance your musculoskeletal system, biomechanical system, and neuromuscular system. In concrete terms, strides improve stride length and cadence via increased force production, more range of motion, and a shorter ground contact time.
But most importantly, including strides into your existing running routine preserves your speed as you age.
When Should You Be Running Strides?
There are 3 occasions when running strides is beneficial:
#1 After an easy run once or twice a week. Since an easy run almost exclusively recruits slow-twitch muscle fibers, a few strides will help you loosen up by engaging your fast-twitch muscle fibers. Not to mention all the sexy benefits I just mentioned with little strain on your system. Start with 1 or 2 strides and add one every week until you arrive at 4 – 8 strides, depending on your level.
#2 As part of a warm-up for fast workouts. Strides are a great neuromuscular primer following 10min of easy running, dynamic stretches, and drills. 2 to 4 accelerations are plenty to rev your system. You can also end a workout with strides, making it a combo stimulus. But don’t overdo it, as more is not necessarily better.
#3 Pre-race day shakeout. All my training plans include 20 – 25 minutes of easy running with a few strides the day before the race. That way you won’t feel flat on race day. Of course, you should also do 2 or 3 strideouts on race day itself to ensure bouncy legs. Before 5K and 10K races do a few pickups at 800 – 1500m race pace and for longer distances 3K to 5K pace will do.
Where to Run Strides
Let me state the obvious first. Run strides where you don’t endanger yourself or others. And avoid undulating terrain.
I always recommend my athletes to start with uphill strides, or hill repetitions as I like to call them. The 2 benefits of hills are more muscle recruitment and reduced landing impact forces. Great for building running-specific strength in a safe way.
Once you have established a foundation of strength, you can take the strides to flat terrain. Whether you perform strides on asphalt or the track is really up to your convenience. But if you happen to have a track nearby or you do your main set there anyway, it’s a better choice simply because the track’s surface is more forgiving.
If you want to work on a faster leg turnover, you can also do strides on a slight downhill segment with a 2 – 3 percent grade, occasionally. Use this method in moderation as this puts additional stress on your knees. Alternatively, you can use the treadmill for the same purpose: the pace at the same effort is faster largely due to a lack of wind resistance.
How to Run Strides
As I mentioned before, strides are typically 50 – 150m long or about 10 – 30 seconds in duration. The fastest pace of strides should be your 400m race pace, which roughly equals 90 percent of your maximal speed. The idea is not to turn strides into an all-out sprint. You will likely tense up and unnecessarily increase your risk of injury.
Also, keep in mind that even though strides are fast, they shouldn’t be hard. They are intentionally short so that there is not much lactate buildup. For that reason, the rest intervals are typically walk-back recoveries. The purpose of strides is to enhance your running economy and not your VO2max or your lactate threshold.
Most importantly, focus on your running technique. Quick light steps, a slightly exaggerated form, all the while keeping a relaxed face. Pay attention to your knee lift and bring your heels up to your glutes. The arms dictate the pace. There is no need to observe our running watch (and it would be difficult if you tried at that pace).
Use a flying start, accelerate gradually, hold the peak for a few seconds, and then decelerate until you come to a walk. Leave the starting blocks to who they belong – sprinters. You don’t need to work on acceleration at the maximal effort as a distance runner.
If you happen to run strides on a 400m track, you can use the 100m straightaways to accelerate and walk the turns. You could bring your racing flats (or even spikes) if you fancy. But not all strides have to be fast. Doing a few pickups in the 5K to 3K race pace range is often enough to keep your legs bouncy.