Your running stride has two components: stride rate, which is the number of steps taken per minute, and stride length, which is the distance of each step. Running speed equals stride rate times stride length:
Speed = Stride Rate x Stride Length
Over time, as someone runs a lot, and spends time running at faster speeds to work on technique, the body adopts the best combination of stride rate and stride length to make him or her a more economical, fluid runner, giving new meaning to the phrase poetry in motion.
Although stride rate varies considerably among runners, most runners should aim for 80 to 90 steps per minute with each leg. To calculate stride rate when running, simply count how many times the right foot hits the ground in one minute. If the stride rate is less than 80, most runners will likely benefit from increasing their cadence. With a slightly faster stride rate, the runner will take lighter steps and spend less time impacting the ground, which reduces the chance of injury.
Stride rate is influenced by the number of fast-twitch muscle fibers and the ability of the central nervous system to recruit muscle fibers and move the legs quickly. Fast running is the simplest way to increase stride rate because it trains the central nervous system to recruit those fast-twitch muscle fibers.
After a thorough warm-up of easy running for about 10 minutes, gradually accelerate to full speed and then hold your maximal speed without straining for about 5 to 10 seconds before decelerating. Because the arms and legs move in sync, stride rate can be increased by pumping your arms more quickly. Remember to remain relaxed through the sprint. Do 5 to 10 sprints a couple of times per week.
Have you ever run with someone much taller than you and noticed that he or she takes longer strides? Despite what you may think, little correlation exists between a person’s height and stride length or between a person’s leg length and stride length. Taller runners don’t always take longer strides than shorter runners. Surprising, huh?
Of the two components of the stride, stride length is more important than stride rate. When the pace is increased from a jog to a run to a hard run, stride length increases more than does stride rate. If you don’t believe me, count every time your right foot touches the ground for one minute next time you run. Then pick up the pace and count again for one minute. You’ll notice that you won’t take that many more steps in a minute, despite a large difference in pace.
Stride length explains much of the difference in speed among runners. The subconscious manipulation of stride length and stride rate at different speeds is governed by what is most economical for runners; that is, at each pace someone runs, he or she may have a stride length that’s most economical for him or her to use, while staying at a specific stride rate (or within a narrow range of stride rates) may be what’s most economical for all running paces. The body is always trying to enhance its economy, and it’s a more economical strategy to increase the distance of each stride than it is to increase the cadence of the legs. (Same is true for swimming or rowing—distance per stroke is more important than the number of strokes per minute.)
Stride length is influenced by the range of motion at the hip—specifically, hip extension—and the amount of force the muscles produce against the ground at push-off. Never reach the leg out in front of your body to increase stride length, because that causes deceleration and braking. As you become a better runner, your stride length naturally gets longer.
Stride length is also influenced by fatigue. Indeed, a shortening stride length is one of the most obvious signs of a fatiguing runner. If you watch the end of a race, you’ll notice that the runner who has the faster stride rate compared to the other runners is the one who usually wins. So, while stride length is more important during the early and middle stages of a race, stride rate becomes more important at the end of a race, when the steps are shorter because of fatigue.
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