Over the last two years, I’ve been working on developing simple methods to teach people to run with more efficiency. I’ve relied on my own experiences with running ultras and observing the runners that attend my clinics. My quest was helped considerably with my collaboration with Walt Reynolds and Jon Sanregret of Merrell, who helped develop our ABC method of teaching better form.
The methods have also been honed with my conversations with running store employees and podiatrists. The final piece came from Pete Larson and Bill Katovsky’s excellent book “Tread Lightly.”
The ultimate question is pretty straight-forward:
What is the most important element of developing better running form?
My conclusion- stride length is the single most important element of good form, which can also be measured as cadence.
Other factors like shoe design (or lack of shoes) or foot strike play a role, but they seem to be rather minor contributors. Finding your optimal stride length seems to have the greatest impact on running efficiency and presumably the occurrence of running injuries. Here’s how it works:
Each of us has an ideal stride length that will result in the greatest metabolic efficiency, which can be measured directly with VO2 max or indirectly with heart rate. In other words, there’s a specific stride length that will use the least amount of energy. I’m going to dub this as “MEG” or Maximal Efficiency Gait.
Most runners have a tendency to overstride. For the sake of this discussion, I’m defining “overstriding” as a stride length that is longer than an individual’s peak metabolically-efficient stride length. I DO like the definition Pete and Bill gave in their book: Overstriding occurs when your foot lands in front of your knee. This overstriding produces a braking effect and has a tendency to produce a strong ground reaction force that can be felt as the “jarring” when your foot collides with the ground. Overstriding severely limits the ability of your bent knees to absorb some of the impact.
If these runners shortened their stride, they would eliminate the braking effect and reduce the impact of the foot hitting the ground. The result is greater efficiency and a more gentle gait.
However, there is a point of diminishing returns. If you shorten your stride too much, you waste energy by covering too little ground with each step. There’s a definite point of diminishing returns with stride length. In fact, theoretical stride length efficiency could be graphed with a good-ole bell curve:
The peak of the graph represents any given individual’s metabolic peak. If their stride length is too long or their cadence too low, they will lose efficiency. Likewise, if their stride length is too short or their cadence is too high, they lose efficiency. Here are a few considerations:
- Each individual has their own peak efficiency. The standard 180 steps-per-minute cadence should be used as a guide, not a hard limit. Based on my own observations, most people seem to reach that peak above 180 steps per minute. My own peak seems to be around 205 in most situations.
- Peak efficiency may change based on conditions, including shoe choice, pace, distance, terrain, current bodily state, or even environmental conditions.
- In the absence of sophisticated equipment to measure maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max), individuals are probably the best judges of their own ideal stride length. Coaches or other observers will not be nearly as reliable as internal feedback when trying to determine efficiency. A heart rate can be used, but there are many other variables that affect heart rate (altitude, time of day, caffeine, etc.).
How Can You Determine Your MEG?
This idea is entirely theoretical. It may or may not work. For those of you that try it, please give me some feedback in the comments section.
Step One- Pick your preferred pair of shoes (or barefoot). Go to a flat, smooth area free of obstacles. You need to be able to run about 100 meters.
Step Two- Run 100 meters at a slower pace while taking giant, exaggerated steps.Pay attention to how your body feels. Notice the jarring in your skull. Notice how tired you feel. Did this feel hard? Are you breathing hard? Is your heart racing?
Step Three- Run 100 meters back to the start at approximately the same pace, only take short baby steps. Pay attention to the same elements as the long stride condition.
Step Four- Go back to taking longer steps, but not as long as step two. You should notice it feels better. You’re moving closer to your MEG.
Step Five- Do the shorter step condition again, but take longer strides than step three. again, it should feel better than step three as you move closer to your MEG.
Step six- repeat each of these conditions by shortening the longer strides and lengthening the shorter strides. Eventually you should find a stride length that feels the best. There will be virtually no jarring. It will feel easy. You’re very close to your MEG.
What are your thoughts? Should stride length be our focus when teaching running form? should all new runners be taught this concept?
Also- an update on the status of my book. Due to a contractual obligation with my publisher, I have discontinued sales of the second edition of The Barefoot Running Book (both dead tree and ebook version). Some copies may still be available as they exhaust the stockpile of new and used books. The new edition will be released on August 28th and can be pre-ordered from Amazon here. I’ll be posting more about the new edition in the near future!