|For both beginners and advanced runners alike, improving running form and technique is one of the most asked questions I get as a coach.Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most complex and variable components of training, both to adequately explain and for the runner to implement. Foot strike, turnover, paw back, knee lift, these are just a few of the terms used to describe the multitude of muscle movements, both conscious and subconscious, that go into every step you take. Isolating and improving these processes is difficult and can often distract a runner from the ultimate goal – running faster, running longer and staying injury-free.
Consider a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina . When researchers interviewed 35 runners who wore minimalist shoes and asked them whether they were heel or forefoot strikers, all 35 responded that they were forefoot strikers. However, after analyzing footstrike patterns with a slow-motion camera, 33% of the runners were actually heel strikers.
First, this study is a good demonstration of how difficult it can be to identify your specific running form issues when your foot strikes the ground so quickly. More importantly, it’s a good example of the risks associated with thinking you’re doing something right, when you’re actually doing it wrong.
The accepted theory is that running in minimalist footwear decreases the impact forces on your legs because the lack of cushioning encourages you land on your forefoot. This is definitely true, but if you wear minimalist shoes and you don’t land on your forefoot when you think you are, vertical loading rates can be up to 37% higher than heel striking in traditional shoes and 50% higher than forefoot striking in minimalist shoes. It doesn’t take a PhD to realize that increasing your ground impact with each step by 50% can lead to some serious injuries.
So, how can you determine if you’re running with the correct form during the middle of a run when no one is around? I recommend counting your stride rate. Research has shown that stride rate helps runners land with their foot properly beneath them, which promotes forefoot striking and reduces loading rates.
Luckily, to get started on improving your running form, you can implement one simple trick that will help you develop a foundation for optimal running form and provide a building block for future improvements. So, what’s this “secret” building block? Improving your stride rate.
What is stride rate
Your stride rate is the number of steps you take per minute. Stride rate could also be called your running cadence or turnover. Calculating your stride rate is easy, simply count how many times your right foot hits the ground while running, and then multiply by two. This number is your stride rate.
Why is stride rate important
Improves your form
As previously mentioned, your stride rate is a fundamental building-block to establishing good form. By implementing the proper turnover rate, you increase your chances of striking the ground at the correct angle and moving through the proper range of motion when your leg moves back, up and forward.
Improves your running economy
Running economy is a measure of how efficiently you use energy when running. It’s exactly like the way a car measures miles per gallon. The more efficient you run, the longer you can go before getting tired, and the less effort you will use to run fast. Running with the optimal stride length maximizes your force on toe off (when your foot pushes you off the ground to move forward) and minimizes the time you spend in the air by controlling your stride length. These elements contribute to improving your efficiency.
Reduces your chance of injury
One of the main causes of running injuries is shock absorption, or lack thereof. If your stride rate is too low, you will spend more time moving up in the air, moving up and down as opposed to forward, and consequently land on the ground with more force. With the proper stride rate, you take lighter, quicker steps and reduce your chance of injury.
So what is the optimal stride rate?
As the subject of stride rate has become more main-stream, so too has the emergence of the “magic” optimum stride-rate of 180spm. The reason for this is as follows: at the 1984 Olympics, famous running coach Jack Daniels counted the stride rates among elite distance runners. Of the 46 he studied, only one took less than 180spm (176spm). Daniels also noted that in his 20 years of coaching college students, he never had a beginner runner with a stride rate of over 180spm.
Unfortunately, Daniels’ studies have been misquoted and as a result lead to all too frequent claims that everybody should be running at 180spm. These claims ignore the fact that Daniels noted stride rates of at least 180spm, not exactly 180spm. History clearly shows Haile Gebrselassie running 197spm en route to his world record time of 2:03:59 at the 2008 Berlin Marathon, and Abebe Bikila used a 217spm to become the first man to run a 2:12 marathon (2:12:13, Tokyo 1964).
Differences in our biological make-up means what works for one runner will not necessarily work for all. If you do one day become an elite distance runner (and we sincerely hope you do!) it is highly likely your race cadence will be over 180spm. However, and this is the important part, your journey to 180spm and beyond needs to be gradual.
The average recreational runner has a cadence closer to 150-170 spm. How quickly you progress and in what direction your running form develops will be affected by factors unique to you – your height, hip mobility, level of general fitness, to name a few.
The safest and most appropriate way to increase your cadence is to try and improve by 5% to 10% at a time.
How do I increase my cadence gradually?
- Using the counting your steps method described above, determine your current cadence for a speed you would use for a 5km+ race. Let’s imagine it is 160spm. Adding the 5% increase (10% could well be too much of a jump), your new target is 168spm.
- Start by adding short distances into your runs in which you try to maintain your new target. This can be done through use of a metronome (available from Amazon or downloadable as an app for your phone). Be careful as many of these gadgets still regard 180spm as the “magic” number and will only provide beats of 180spm+. Sites like JogTunes can be used to find music with beats per minute (bpm) to match your desired spm. Otherwise, you can always just monitor your progress with a 30-second one foot count (then multiply it by 4).
- Practicing your new stride rate on a treadmill can sometimes be handy as you can set the speed to stay the same.
- Once you have can comfortably run your a 5km+ pace at your new spm (without thinking about it – remember we are seeking unconscious competence), add another 5% and repeat the process.
How to improve your stride rate
If you want to improve your stride rate, focus on developing a 180 steps per minute turnover during your easy runs. On easy days, you have less to think about than tempo workouts or speed days.
Imagine you’re running on a road made of eggshells and you don’t want to break them. Picture yourself floating over the ground quickly, with light, purposeful steps. Focus on running over the ground, not into it.
If you run with music or a smartphone, consider installing a metronome app that you can set to a 180 bpm range. Focus on taking one step for every click of the metronome. You’ll quickly fall into a natural 180 stride per minute rhythm and can turn off the metronome.
Likewise, music can throw off your stride rate. Many runners tend to naturally move to the beat of the music. If you want to improve your form, consider running sans music or with a metronome app instead.
If you’re like me and do most of your runs technology free, you can simply count the number of steps you take with your right foot. Count for a minute and see how close to 90 steps per minute you get. Speed up or slow down your stride rate accordingly and you’ll soon find yourself running in a natural rhythm.
Of course, you don’t need to be exactly 180. A slight deviation like 175 or 185 is ok too, as long as it feels comfortable for you. Stay close to the 180 range and you’ll be on your way to improved running form before you know it.