Sunday, July 25, 2010

Striving for an Improved Stride

It's odd that both serious and recreational athletes of seemingly all other sports than running are encouraged to continually improve their technique, often spending tens of thousands of dollars and a significant amount of personal time in doing so. Perhaps the consensus thinking is that by adulthood our running-specific neuromuscular patterning is too ingrained to be effectively altered.

Opening my eyes that improvements in stride can be
very beneficial is the observation by an excellent international distance coach, Jack Tupper Daniels. He studied a range of top Olympic distance athletes across all distances, and found their running cadences were amazingly consistent, regardless of the athletes' height, at 180 steps per minute (spm). Also encouraging are two recent Science of Running posts (i.e. #1 & #2) describing several successful efforts to change runners' biomechanics, and advice from my Kenyan Way coach, Sean Wade.

With this in mind, some time ago I had measured my cadence, and found it to be 165 spm. 
Despite knowing that I should therefore target a quicker stride cadence, my subsequent attempts to do so felt a bit awkward and were generally unsuccessful. This began to change with purchase of my first pair of Newton running shoes about a year ago. Newtons are very lightweight, have a reduced heel and slightly elevated mid-sole landing area, and thereby encourage the runner to avoid heel-landing by instead landing with their mid-foot or forefoot, using a somewhat shorter stride and more rapid cadence. Immediately gratified by seeing my finishing times significantly improve I became a Newton shoes convert, and continue to use them as my prime racing shoes.

However, owing to the Newton's comparatively high cost per mile I have been reluctant to wear them routinely in training.  W
hen I grow fatigued while not wearing the low-heeled Newtons, I often lose concentration on my running form and revert to an inefficient and slow cadence heel-landing stride. To avoid this, I've begun a gradual and - I hope permanent - change in my running form to a shorter and quicker stride with a forefoot landing via:
  • My purchase of an excellent DVD, Evolution Running: Run Faster with Fewer Injuries. After viewing the DVD and following its exercises I highly recommend it as the system is well communicated via the informative videos, dialog and explanations. Please see this post by Coach Mierke on the importance of running turnover and form.
  • My download of the excellent Podrunner audio tracks for use on my iPod while running. Simply by listening to the rhythmic and percussive techno and progressive house tracks my stride automatically synchronizes. With a faster and slightly shorter stride, combined a slight forward lean from the ankles and relaxed shoulders I find an efficient new stride has quickly emerged! Over a period of four weeks I gradually - and successfully - transitioned to this faster (180 spm) stride cadence by listening to faster Podrunner tracks while concentrating on the key running form elements. One should not attempt to increase one's cadence by more than 3-5 strides per minute per week, however. Thus, in my first transitional week I ran at 169 spm via listening to identical beat Podrunner tracks, followed by 173, 176 and finally 180 spm.
When not racing in the Newton's I train in comparably light-weight - though significantly less expensive - training shoes, the Nike Free Run+and the Brooks Mach 12 Cross Country Racing Flats. Through gradually increasing my running distance in these shoes I find they help strengthen the muscles in my feet, and have allowed me to transition to the Vibram Five Fingers for a portion of my runs.

Here's a good video from
Harvard's Dr. Lieberman regarding forefoot/mid-foot running:

Cautionary Disclaimer:
Thanks to fellow running bloggers Pete
Joe and Flo I found the following super slow-motion videos of the elite leaders and Ryan Hall during the 2010 Boston Marathon. Fascinatingly, you'll see the full range of heel-landing, mid-foot and forefoot landing techniques represented, though from my perspective Ryan Hall's stride appears closest 
to perfection:

Elite Men in the 2010 Boston Marathon - Super Slow Motion from Runblogger on Vimeo.

Ryan Hall Super Slow Motion - 2010 Boston Marathon from Runblogger on Vimeo.


  1. Mark,
    I'm with you 100% here. Didn't you also buy a clip-on metronome to help you stay on cadence? If not, I highly recommend it. It's amazing how much shorter my steps became when on proper cadence. Proper being what both my Coach and the auther or Chi Running prescribe.

    Another amazing thing happened to me. Not long ago I was running in a park with lots of grass and a cement bike lane running through it. The grass was wet and when I ran across the bike path (not down it), my wet shoe soles left perfect foot prints. I puposely ran slow and I was shocked how much distance I covered with each foot strike when running so slow. Seriously, it was amazing.

  2. Hey, Chris... Yes, I'd bought a portable electronic metronome, but haven't taken it out of its box yet. Instead, I've found that by listening to the Podrunner percussive track (I'd started at 170, and as of today am up to 179 bpm) my stride automatically matches the cadence. Much better than a beeping portable metronome!

    Those moments, like your park run, when running seems automatic and effortless are directly from Heaven!

  3. Mark, there's no "contact me" button on your blog so I thought I would just post here. You know, I really think you are on to something about my form breaking down when fatigued. It's funny, I really believe that I am a mid-foot, fore-foot striker, but cringe when I see race photos of me heel striking. My first thought is, "No way". I do think I need to be extra careful from now on and I like your idea of a softer surface. Thanks.

  4. Chris, first, thanks for the "contact me" idea! I've just incorporated that link.

    Secondly, and most importantly, don't feel bad about seeing your form break down when you're fatigued. It happens to *literally* everyone! To break this habit (by default I too am a heel striker) through following the Evolution Running DVD's guidance I've been attempting to increase my mileage run while maintaining my close-to-ideal running form and maintaining a cadence of 180 steps per minute. It's much easier when I'm on the treadmill at the gym, versus running outdoors and being continually distracted by other runners, interesting scenery, road hazards, etc.! Other advantages of stepping up my running distance on the treadmill is the comparatively much softer running surface (especially versus concrete or blacktop) and seeing slight changes in stride translate immediately to efficiency - demonstrated by breathing rate changes and whether the adapted stride 'feels' right. Note that this unfortunately takes *months and years* of continual effort and concentration to undo the neuromuscular patterning which had become ingrained and to replace in your "muscle memory" your target running form. Consequently, don't feel badly if you occasionally regress to your former stride. Good luck on your stress fracture recovery!

  5. Great blog ... so intense with information it's difficult to see how I could get good enough to use it all, but I'm a wannabe!

    [How come the guy on the bike didn't win the race? What a looser.]

  6. Excellent Blog. As far as running with music, I understand the principle and the benefits, but I rarely get to run on a closed course, so I leave the iPod at home.

  7. Jamoosh - Thanks! Its certainly safer not using an iPod on an open course! With regards monitoring your stride cadence note Sean's suggestion that we do so by counting how many times one hand rises over a 30-second period; the ideal being 45 (corresponding to 180 steps per minute).

  8. Mark, I could watch those slow motion videos a million times. Fascinating. It was really apparent how inefficient the severe heel striker's stride (was that Meb?) was compared to the others.

    Sometimes I wonder, though, for older runners like us if trying to change our running mechanics is as fruitful as maybe looking at our stride length. Running Times' Scott Douglas interviewed Pete Magill a while back (you can find the podcast in iTunes) and Magill mentioned the following:

    “Almost ever single study done for the last 20 years shows that runners maintain the same stride frequency (the amount of times we’re turning our stride over) even to our sixties, seventies, and eighties. What’s happening — and I think it accounts for a lot of the slowdown in masters runners — is that over that same period of time we lose up to 40 percent of the stride length…. If you aren’t going out and trying to maintain that stride length, you’re getting slower.”

    He says loss of leg strength is a major factor in losing stride length. So, I guess I wonder whether working on the strength issue would be the key to maintaining or even increasing speed. He recommends a variety of drills to help with this.

  9. Effin' J, Indeed! There's something almost hypnotic about watching those athletes glide by!

    I agree that strength training is important to maintain our competitiveness. As regards the presumed immutability of a runner's bio-mechanics and stride cadence I agree that's been the general presumption.

    However, I'm encouraged in several ways that my efforts to alter my stride mechanics will ultimately pan-out:
    1) No less a gifted athlete and coach than Alberto Salazar has increasingly been successfully tweaking his athletes' running form to minimize their risk of injury and their competitiveness (see;
    2) As part of my ongoing running form transition - where I place the greatest effort during my weekday treadmill runs - I've found that simply by listening to Podrunner techno and house tracks at 180 bpm that my stride cadence quickly synchronizes to that same optimal cadence. While unfortunately my running form reverts quickly upon silencing my iPod and losing my concentration on my running form (such as when I'm doing my long run talking with friends), I'm encouraged nevertheless that:
    a) My new mid-foot strike remains (a great reminder is my wearing low-heeled shoes!);
    b) Though my cadence without my continued concentration and the Podrunner assist quickly slows from the optimum 180, it nevertheless remains in the low 170's, and is thus significantly improved from my initially measured 165 cadence;
    c) Since focusing nearly single-mindedly on my running form improvement over the recent month I've found that my average pace - for a given level of exertion - has improved, and that I've simultaneously increased my mileage without my normal signs of fatigue when I increase both volume and pace.

    I'm encouraged by the running form changes that I'm seeing, and hope to see their benefit validated in my coming races.

  10. I watched the videos closely. I like Ryan Halls Stride, but I think it's still a stop-go stride out front of him. The best one I saw was the first dude. His foot was already coming back when it contacted the ground. Also, Meb ought to be fined with that percussive heel strike, no wonder he is oft injured... And you can probably hear him coming from up the street. Here comes Meb... whap, whap, whap...

    My Word verification "Tardly" I like that, gonna make up a meaning for it.