Imagine a fast runner jogging down the street, moving at an everyday, conversational pace, wearing clunky training shoes and listening to throwback hip-hop jams (because that’s the best thing to do on easy days).
Now, stop. (You can also Collaborate and Listen or Hammertime, depending on the throwback jam you were imagining.) What are you picturing?
Most likely, the unifying theme of all of your mental images will be the stride. It will be soft, with relatively quick turnover compared to other runners, even at a somewhat slow pace. The runner might be a woman or a man, tall or short, very smelly or only somewhat smelly. But no matter what the specifics, almost all fast runners share a similarly quick and soft stride.
Interestingly, the position of the foot doesn’t matter as much as you may have heard. You can strike with your forefoot, midfoot or heel and have success—as long as you are using proper mechanics to get there. (This would be difficult with a vicious heel strike, but not impossible).
If you master proper stride mechanics, you will reduce injury risk and increase your ability to hold faster paces. However, for many of us, it does not come naturally.
I am a loper, for instance. I naturally gravitate toward a form that looks like a hippopotamus running on the moon. That slow turnover and heavy stride resulted in numerous injuries and slow improvement when I began getting serious about running six years ago.
While Jorge Maravilla’s mid-race happy kick is not ideal from a speed perspective, it is ideal from a fun perspective. Photo by Jesse Ellis/Let’s Wander Photography
Once I changed my form, the difference was night and day. I was able to do higher mileage at a faster pace, leading to running adventures that I never could have predicted back then. Since, I’ve heard similar stories from countless runners, including the athletes I coach. Developing proper stride mechanics is the lowest-hanging fruit for long-term running development.
So how do you grab the fruit, make sure you don’t run like a hippo astronaut and all the while keep your metaphors straight? While I’m clearly no expert on the third thing, the first two are relatively easy. Here are three tips to get you there.
1. Run With Proper Cadence
In general, it is better to run with a higher turnover than with fewer, longer strides. A higher cadence will decrease the impact forces of each stride, while also reinforcing proper footfall and body positioning.
Most elite athletes gravitate toward 90 strides per minute with each leg, but that number is not a hard-and-fast rule. I have found that I can’t really hold more than 88 strides per minute for very long. (I raced at that cadence at last weekend’s Way Too Cool 50K). Meanwhile, my wife Megan often races at 94 or 95. For comparison, lopers might be as low as 70 or 80.
In general, you should make sure you are running at least 85 strides per minute, which is sustainable even at slower paces and on easy days.
Start by counting your cadence on a normal easy run. For 30 seconds, count how many times one foot hits the ground. If it’s 42 or below (corresponding to a single-leg, one-minute cadence of 84 or lower), focus on speeding up your turnover without changing your pace.
Megan Roche uses ideal stride dynamics to win the 2016 Way Too Cool 50K. Photo by Jesse Ellis/Let’s Wander Photography
2. Run With a Soft Stride
Recent research indicates that one of the most important factors in injury prevention is the “softness” of each stride.
Once you make sure you are running with proper cadence, your stride will naturally soften, as each footstrike comes with less jarring. But consciously thinking about landing softly can enhance your stride even more, by directing more of your motion forward, rather than up.
Think soft, puppy thoughts for soft, puppy strides. Photo courtesy of David Roche
On an easy run, turn off the throwback jams for a second and listen to your footfalls. Concentrate on getting quieter by decreasing vertical oscillation (in other words, the less bounce, the better).
This will serve two purposes. First, your stride will soften, and even minor improvements can have major positive outcomes. Second, you will be better at sneaking up on people, ninja-style.
3. Shorten Your Stride
The final point is connected to the first two, but deserves its own section. Running is not about slashing at the ground with big, mauling hacks, because the ground will always win that battle over time. Instead, it’s about pawing at the ground gently, about putting on some Boyz 2 Men and caressing the ground with love.
Short strides allow you to get that loving feeling, while simultaneously increasing cadence and softening each footfall.
Dylan Bowman demonstrates the quick, soft stride that has made him an international champion. Photo by Jesse Ellis/Let’s Wander Photography
At the same time that you are thinking about increasing your cadence, think about shortening your normal stride as well, until the proper cadence feels natural. (Big old hippo strides are not compatible with a higher cadence, because doing both simultaneously would require something close to a sprint—long strides plus quick turnover means an unsustainable pace.)
Then, when you run fast, aim to keep the same strides-per-minute rate, but add power so that you cover more ground each time. In essence, how fast you run should not be how fast you move your legs, but how much power you deliver with each stride.
Even when you are delivering more power and running quicker, be sure not to overstride—you always want your body weight to land under your center of gravity, not in front of it. Keep the same dynamics you learned by running slowly with short strides, and you’ll be stronger than ever at all paces.
Running a lot with improper mechanics is a surefire way to get injured. Learn the right way to run, and you’ll be healthy, which is the key to unlocking your speed. As Mr. Snoop Dogg might say, it’s important to get your mind on your stride and your stride on your mind.
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.