Saturday, April 26, 2014

Quick Running Tip: Use a Shorter Stride and Faster Cadence

As an ex-heel striker, I've developed my fair share of bad running habits. Two of these bad habits were a long stride and a slow cadence. Unknown to me at the time, my stride and cadence were making my running so inefficient that I could barely finish the 1.5-mile run in a respectable time without feeling like I was going to pass out.

The solution to my problem turned out to be fairly simple: Shorten my running stride and speed up my running cadence.

Shorter Stride Length
The simple definition of stride is the distance between each step. When it comes to running, your stride length will determine how high you have to jump with every step.

This picture shows a very long running stride. Notice how high this person has to jump to complete the stride.

With a longer running stride (see above), you have to jump higher with each step to complete the stride. Since you want most of your energy to move you forward, not up, longer strides will waste a lot of precious energy.

Here is an example of the stop-and-start motion caused by overstriding, or allowing your forward foot to make contact with the ground ahead of your center of gravity.

Longer strides can also encourage overstriding, where your forward foot actually makes contact with the ground ahead of your center of gravity (see above). There are two big problems with overstriding: Braking and loss of elastic recoil energy.

When you brake, your forward foot actually slows you down with each step. Excessive braking forces you to re-accelerate with each stride, wasting a lot of energy. Braking can also contribute to your injuries by causing or exacerbating shin splints. (1)

Elastic recoil describes the muscles and tendons in the legs acting together like springs that absorb and release energy as you run. The more energy you can store and release while you run, the less energy your legs have to provide with each stride. Obviously, if your legs are efficiently providing energy through elastic recoil then you will be able to run longer distances at a faster pace, making a HUGE impact on your 1.5-mile run times.

A shorter stride will allow your forward foot to make contact with the ground directly under your center of gravity, improving running efficiency. 

A shorter stride, on the other hand, allows you to reduce or eliminate jumping and braking. It also encourages you to run more naturally (see above). However, a stride that is too short will prevent you from generating enough elastic recoil energy. The optimal stride length can actually be determined by an optimal running cadence.

Faster Cadence
Running cadence describes the number of times that your feet touch the ground every minute. According to Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, Executive Directer of the Natural Running Center and winner of the 2011 Air Force Marathon, the most efficient running cadence is around 180 steps per minute (spm). At this cadence, so long as you are not heel striking, you can reuse about 50% of your running energy through elastic recoil.

Why is there such an improvement in efficiency?

As mentioned before, elastic recoil allows your legs to reuse energy as you run. But this elastic recoil system works most efficiently when you spend very little time in contact with the ground. The more time you spend touching the ground, the more stored energy can be lost, impairing running efficiency. Conversely, the less time that your feet make contact with the ground, the less energy you lose, and the more recoil energy your legs can provide with each stride, improving running efficiency. A running cadence of 180 spm makes sure that you are reusing the most energy.

Putting It All Together
To improve your running efficiency you can shorten your running stride length (which reduces jumping and braking) and speed up your running cadence (which can help you reuse more of your own running energy). These two tips can also help you to naturally correct your running form by encouraging you to forefoot strike, which is a more natural way to run.

When working on your stride and cadence, you also want to make sure that your feet make contact with the ground when they are just under your center of gravity, not ahead of it. If you are a heel striker, where your forward foot extends ahead of your center of gravity, then this will probably force you to transition to striking the ground with your forefoot. Although this may feel awkward at first, forefoot striking may actually lead to an improved running form and faster run times.

And don't get too frustrated if you are finding it difficult to shorten your running stride and speed up your running pace. In my next post I will describe the simple training program I used to improve my running efficiency: Natural Running training.

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