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Stride Length: Is This the Most Important Element of Good Form?

Posted by on May 31, 2012 | 37 Comments

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!

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37 Comments

  1. Cadence, the Next Most Important Aspect of Barefoot Running TechniqueBarefoot Athlete Blog
    June 11, 2012

    […] notice that Jason Robillard wrote an article on his blog Barefoot Running Stride Length: Is This the Most Important Element of Good Form? that comes to a similar conclusion. #socialbuttonnav li{list-style:none;overflow:hidden;margin:0 […]

  2. Laura
    June 8, 2012

    I believe yours was the very first barefoot running book I read, and it helped me a lot. That was nearly 2 years ago. I would simply like to add here that I have learned to apply something from my swimming, which is that sometimes the thing that helps is simply to relax. I am one of those people who can tend to over analyze things. When I find that I am having trouble with anything during running, from getting tired to feeling awkward, it helps me immensely to just relax, specifically from the waist down. The run immediately feels better and I often find myself going faster!

  3. Doug
    June 6, 2012

    I think you’ve really hit the mark about foot placement in relation to the knee. I was just watching a video of Usain Bolt

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QrlPmK4B94&feature=autoplay&list=FLHN_9YRBvQtAwCVzxqzRBZw&playnext=1

    who has a very long stride, but his foot lands perfectly under the knee. I think that’s very important information I can put to use.

    One topic I’d like to see covered in depth is shoes selection for barefoot runners. I’ve been running over 35 years, but only the past 6 months barefoot. I have very few problems except when I must run in shoes. My body seems to forget what to do and I end up hurting. My kingdom for some Kevlar socks!

    Thanks for your blog. Can’t wait to get your new book.

  4. Chris
    June 5, 2012

    Jason – we talked @ merrell tent @ pineland about the lack of focus on proper form (art)vs metrics such as VO2/Heart rate etc. so glad to read this discussion about form. One thing I mentioned was seeing a 15 y/o lap the field in the 3k a few years back and the “silence” of his form on the track. Wondering what others think about one’s footstrike noise as being another factor to listen for maybe a confluence of footstrike, cadence and stride length which people can tune into it when trying to find the sweet spot. Breathing is another factor but for a variety of reasons one persons breathing maybe louder or softer at various times in a run.

    • Bare Lee
      June 6, 2012

      For what it’s worth Chris, I think foot silence can be an excellent indicator of good form. Whenever I feel smoothest is also when I’m most silent.

  5. Chris Yow
    June 3, 2012

    As a novice runner, I’m definitely finding it difficult to monitor or perceive what my body is doing.

    I recently completed a 5 Week to 5K plan, and now am in week 3 of a 12 week 10k plan.

    Maybe I’m still too inefficient in every aspect of my running form, but I find that when I try to increase cadence to the 180 level, I quickly get tight through the hip flexors and thighs, as if I’m really lifting my knees too much or muscling through the motion, as opposed to pulling my heel.

    So many variables….. ;-/

  6. Peter Larson
    June 2, 2012

    Jason,

    One of the really interesting things I’ve noticed is that movement just prior to contact is really different when you compare barefoot and traditionally shod runners. In barefoot runners the foot almost hangs still in the air for a split second before touching down, whereas in a lot of shod runners the foot may still be swinging forward a bit and the runner tends to fall onto the heel. I think that friction plays a big role – barefoot runners learn to land in such a way as to avoid ripping the skin off their soles, and this helps to reduce overstriding. Impact reduction is also important, but friction often gets overlooked, and I think is why lots of people still can have bad form even in shoes like the Fivefingers.

    I really like the visual of the ankle being roughly below the knee at touchdown. This is pretty common in both barefoot runners and elites, not as common in recreational runners in big shoes. It’s an easy mental image.

    The cue that worked best for me was to imagine “putting my foot down behind me.” This came from Steve Magness. It never happens in reality, foot always lands in front of the center of mass, but I found it to be a useful cue.

  7. Glenn
    June 1, 2012

    When I want to run faster (for whatever reason) what should be increasing: stride length or foot strikes per minute?

    • NickW
      June 1, 2012

      Your stride length should lengthen behind you while your cadence may or may not get higher. My cadence typically stays the same unless I am flat out sprinting in which case it increases. My own opinion though. Jason, what do you think?

      • Jason
        June 1, 2012

        Depends on the individual. Like Nick, my cadence stays about the same even when sprinting. Stride length varies dramatically. Others may increase and decrease cadence as a means of achieving speed. I’m guessing most people alter both variables.

        • Glenn
          June 1, 2012

          Any recommended links for videos on good running form? I’ve done some YouTube surfing, but I’m not sure which videos should be viewed as credible or not.

  8. NickW
    June 1, 2012

    I think there is a misconception about stride length. It seems a lot of people think a long stride means you must bring your leg way out in front of you. The truth is you can also have a long stride by bringing the bent knee up and still landing under your COG with a long stride behind you. Look at some of the Kenyan runners out there. You’ll see exactly what I mean as they have very long strides and are fast but do not stick their legs with a straight/mostly straight knee in front of their body. Of course that hurts and is inefficient.

    • Jason
      June 1, 2012

      I agree. The misconception comes from the heavy heel strikers that DO land well in front of their COG.

      The down side to lengthening the stride behind your body- it typically puts a lot of stress on your metatarsals, which is a common site of stress fractures among new barefoot/minimalist runners.

  9. Bare Lee
    June 1, 2012

    Seems to me that having your foot land just in front of your center of gravity is the key cue. Everything else seems to fall in place. Stride length is too dependent on speed to use as a baseline indicator of good form. And I’m not sure cadence has to be the same for everyone, when you consider height differences and differences in limb-to-torso proportions, or even lower-leg-to-upper-leg proportions. (I’m taking BFR as the default here–I have no idea if this would apply to shod running, where proprioception is greatly diminished.) I’m not saying stride and cadence are unimportant, just secondary to good foot landing, and more complicated and individual.

    • Jason
      June 1, 2012

      The trick is figuring out which cue works best for different people. I like the idea of focusing on where the foot lands. It will serve the same purpose as focusing on stride length or cadence, but would be easier for some people to conceptualize.

      I’m totally stealing this to use in clinics! :-)

      • Bare Lee
        June 2, 2012

        I would be honored by your theft, especially if you could work in the alliterative phrase ‘key cue,’ with exaggerated aspiration on the voiceless velar consonant, five or six times.

    • Steve
      June 2, 2012

      I did time the cadence of an elite Marathoner near the end of a race last year (yes, there are apps for that) and found it to be in the upper 170s, slightly slower than we are encouraged to aim for when less experienced. My ChiRunning instructor reckoned I’d probably have a quicker ideal cadence than average, being the short arse that I am. Presumably, the makeup of your muscles, sinews and ligaments, and how relaxed you are, will change your natural frequency according to the laws of physics. It seems incredible that the research hasn’t been done yet.

  10. Kenneth D
    June 1, 2012

    I have only been running seriously for about 7 months now, and have been reading everything I can get my hands on dealing with running gait and injury prevention.

    In my limited experience, cadence is the best way to control your gait. 180 steps per minute just so happens to equal 3 steps per second, so the best way I have found to maintain a 180 cadence is to count “1-2-3″ over and over again every second, like counting a waltz (but faster).

    However, cadence and stride length are not necessarily connected. It is certainly possible to have a slower cadence and not over stride. For someone like me, who is still working on his base aerobic fitness level, cadence and stride length are not married at all. I am rarely able to keep up the 180 cadence for more than about 3 miles, but my stride length doesn’t change, regardless of cadence.

    I just slow down.

    • Jason
      June 1, 2012

      This will be another post for another day. When new runners begin, I’ve found different people alter either cadence or stride length to speed up or slow down. Once they gain more experience, they tend to use a combination of the two.

  11. Jeff Gallup
    June 1, 2012

    I’ve been wondering about this, as I’ve been running about 10 months now, but not getting much faster. I can ran farther for sure, but can’t seem to get to a point where my pace is better.. I am certain I am not running in the most efficient manner…. I think my cadence is comfortable, so I’m guessing I need to extend my stride a bit to cover more ground.. I probably think too much about a light stride so I get paranoid about overstriding.. any advice on ways to get faster, while expending the same amount of energy?

    Thanks

    • Jason
      June 1, 2012

      I think Nick’s point from above is good- stride length can increase without overstriding when the trailing leg spends a fraction of a second longer on the ground.

      Try this- do some sprinting then some very slow running. Pay attention to what’s happening with your body in both conditions. The trick is to find the middle ground between those two gaits.

  12. Brad
    June 1, 2012

    As a reasonably fit runner, I completely agree with this. In the past few months of training, I have developed a “swing thought” to steal a golf term. When I start to feel like I’m working too hard or stuff hurts I just focus on 2 things. 1. Slightly quicker cadence and 2. Completely loose ankles. It snaps me back into the zone.

    As you know, I’ve been “coaching”, and I use that term loosely, new runners on good form. I’ve found that high cadence seems to be a sticking point for many. If you don’t have any aerobic fitness, a high cadence is very difficult and people fatigue quickly. In these cases, I try to get people to focus on the location of foot strike (at or behind the knee) while maintaining the highest comfortable cadence. This seems to be manageable. I also advise them that their cadence will get quicker as they build the muscles and aerobics.

    • Jason
      June 1, 2012

      The foot-in-relation-to-knee cue is good as it will assure you’re not overstriding.

      To get people used to a faster cadence, i have them take really short, fast “baby steps” at the beginning of each run. It works like a charm!

  13. Brian G
    June 1, 2012

    As I understand it the human body is quite good at optimizing efficiency and always attempts to move in that direction. If true, wouldn’t everyone by default already be in their metabolically-efficient peak? And if they’re not, what would be the reason(s) for why they aren’t? Perhaps some forced mental effort to move away from that peak, like reaching out with the legs to cover as much ground as possible?

    • cavecritta
      June 1, 2012

      I think the major contributing factor here is that most people started running in super cushioned running shoes which encourage you to over stride. Which encourages a different type of cadence when running. I remember one of the faster guys on my cross country team in high school had a much shorter stride and faster cadence. It was 15 years later when I ditched my running shoes that I finally understood why.

      • Jason
        June 1, 2012

        I agree with this, too. The raised heel and thick stack height really encourage a heel strike, which also seems to encourage severe overstriding. You can see this effect immediately by having kids run barefoot then placing them in foot coffins.

        It would be interesting to measure a runner in heavy raised heel cushioned shoes a) overstriding, and b) landing with more of a midfoot landing with higher cadence. I wonder if the heel strike WOULD be more efficient with those shoes. Any guesses?

  14. Mike Baker
    June 1, 2012

    I have to agree with the article and the comments. When I find myself out of breath or just not running smoothly, I shorten my stride and increase my cadence. Within a few strides, I am back on track. Thanks for another insightful article.

    • Jason
      June 1, 2012

      No problem, Mike!

  15. Steve
    June 1, 2012

    Jason and Mark, both ideas have got to be worth trying. I currently do not have a metronome, and check my cadence by thinking of The Who’s “My Generation”, which is at 185bpm. (Mark Ronson’s Bang Bang Bang is good, too.) I should probably give cadence more attention. I’ll be getting a heart rate monitor soon, as I want to try aerobic training. Thanks, Jason, for pointing me in that direction by including Dr Mark Cucuzella’s article in your book.

    • Jason
      June 1, 2012

      Steve- keep in mind there’s a lack of research on this topic. most of this article is based on my own observations and recommendations from good running coaches.

      Play around with the heart rate monitor. Eventually you’ll be able to use it to hone in on your own particular “best form.”

  16. Nrmrvrk
    June 1, 2012

    Jason,

    I like the idea of finding ones optimal stride (who doesn’t want to be a more efficient runner?) but testing different stride lengths that I didn’t normally run at won’t feel as comfortable as the one that I’m currently using. A slightly longer/shorter stride than I’m currently using might be more efficient but it won’t feel as natural as what my muscle memory has learned over the hundreds of hours I spend running each year. I think that like most people, my body falls into the habit of using the stride that feels the best. It might not be the best for efficiency though.

    I’d need to find a stride/cadence that was more efficient and retrain my body to run that way just as I retrained my feet/legs to run with zero-drop /minimalist shoes.

    My thoughts anyway. I enjoyed your talk at Born To Run in Seattle, thanks for coming out!

    • Jason
      June 1, 2012

      Agreed, which is a major flaw in trying to determine a metabolically-optimal stride length. Short of video, it may be really difficult to do on your own. Mark’s idea in the comment below would probably be more effective than mine.

      I’m going to be posting a handful of ideas that individuals can use to check their form… those may be helpful.

  17. Mark
    May 31, 2012

    In my journey to become a better, healthier runner, I have also found cadence to be the single biggest factor in my running. Finding the right cadence begins with building from the 170s through the 180s or more. As you point out, your body will sense what is too slow or too fast.

    I would suggest that to find the optimal MEG, use a heart rate monitor and a stopwatch. Go to a track, do 400m runs at different cadences, stopping each time to get your average heart rate and note your pace. Let your heart rate recover before the next attempt. There will be a point of diminishing returns on pace, cadence, and heart rate (heart rate representing the metabolic response).

    I have been doing this over my long runs, and, for example, found 188 to be too high: higher average heart rate with no real gain in pace compared to 178-180 (I am one for whom the 180 seems to work). I did a run at 176 that also felt good in some respects.

    Hey, I have only been on this journey a couple of years; I am not an expert, just sharing my observations. Jason, thanks for your great contributions; they are invaluable to folks like me!

    • Jason
      June 1, 2012

      Mark, I like this idea a lot. I’ve played around with this very idea to find my ideal uphill running gait. I think I may try setting up a semi-scientific controlled experiment using this method. Thanks for mentioning it!

      • Tyler Greenhaw
        June 1, 2012

        Jason, so trying to “find your ideal uphill running gait”… would this imply that there is not a ‘constant’ gait for up/down/flat surfaces?

        I listen to music that is at a constant 180 bpm and I match my cadence to this. But I have noticed sometimes, especially on downhill stretches, my legs wanting to go faster than this number. This has me thinking that I might just need an all around faster cadence than I am currently using or adjusting my gait to the conditions.

        And as far as stride length goes, is there such a thing as ‘under-striding’? Sometimes I feel that I try too much not to over stride and I end up taking some of the ‘distance covered’ out of my gait.

        Good stuff man!

        • Jason
          June 1, 2012

          Tyler- I rarely increase or decrease my cadence on hills… but I DO dramatically shorten my stride going up. Stride going down depends on the grade and technical aspect of the trail. I know other runners that use roughly the same stride length but alter cadence. Experiment with both… you’ll probably find some combination of the two that works best for you.

          Yes, “understriding” will los result in less efficiency, like on the left side of my bell curve above.