Running Performance…Optimal Stride Length for Runners

Now this is a fascinating topic! A very commonly asked question that I receive often from clients is “How long should my stride be?” As with many things, the answer often starts with “it depends.” 

However, for any running body at a given speed, there is an ideal length of stride that optimizes running economy and efficiency. That’s where we are headed today but first we need to take a look at running speed as a whole.

Velocity, or pace, is the product of stride length x stride rate. Cadence, or stride rate, gets a lot of attention. We know from research that a step frequency, or number of foot strikes per minute, of around 180 (plus or minus 10-15 strikes) is close to ideal for most distance running. We also know that most elite sprinters in the 100m have a stride rate in excess of 250 steps per minute, although they are only running for 9-11 seconds. Consequently, both stride rate and stride length are speed-dependent in that they generally increase with velocity and effort. 

Interestingly, the thing to keep in mind is that until you really begin to reach max speed, it’s actually stride length that determines your overall speed because rate doesn’t change substantially until you are actually sprinting. This is of course assuming you are running near that magical180 steps per minute cadence that is most effective. We must understand and respect the value of stride rate, but in this post we will focus our attention on the often overlooked importance of stride length. 

There is a sweet spot, or Goldilocks stride length, that is neither too little nor too much in any given situation. It’s the optimal length of stride for each runner at a specific pace. This is the stride length that coordinates with leg length and body weight as it maximizes power output and form while simultaneously minimizing oxygen consumption and injury risk. And herein lies the problem. Many, many runners either understride (too short) or overstride (too long). We’ll look at each of these issues separately, and discuss some appropriate remedies to those problems. 

Understriding is perhaps the lesser appreciated of the two stride length abnormalities. The issue here is that if a runner is striding several inches shorter than what is ideal for his pace and body, he is essentially “coming up a few inches short” with every stride. At a fixed cadence he won’t cover as much ground with each stride and will thus be slower. And, in this case if he attempts to speed up by increasing cadence much beyond 180 steps per minute, he ends up with a technique that is biomechanically inefficient and more metabolically consumptive of energy.

There are 3 areas where we see understriding, and two of them are normal. As part of a warmup, it’s totally natural and desirable for a runner to start slowly with short strides and gradually increase to optimal length over the first mile or two. Once the tissues have loosened up, she settles right into her preferred rhythm and stride length. There’s also the scenario when a runner is extremely fatigued, such as at the end of a marathon, and all semblance of good form is thrown out the window just to keep moving. This can usually be prevented with proper training and pacing, but it does happen more than occasionally.

The real problem with understriding presents itself if that’s the mechanism a runner is using most of the time, mid-run, as their go-to locomotive strategy. This is the not-so-classic “shuffling gait” with which you are probably familiar. This robs any runner of full potential in performance.

Understriding is mainly caused by weakness, or let’s just say a lack of strength, power, and tissue integrity. The habit of very pensively striking the ground and then gently pushing off (or not doing so at all) is the issue. The running stride is not supposed to be hesitant or sluggish. It should be brisk and crisp. If a runner is not good at accepting and transferring ground reaction forces, and launching his own bodyweight forward on one leg, he’s got work to do. Fortunately, the solution is fairly simple. Do some strength training that is specific to the running stride, such as lunge and split squat variations and add in some plyometric activities such as hopping and jumping. These will develop the absorptive and propulsive qualities that your legs might be needing.

Poor flexibility can also be a contributing factor in understriding. If you are so tight in your hamstrings and adductors that you can barely separate your legs mid-stride (like a rusty pair of scissors), you’ll benefit from some stretching and related mobility exercises that improve your range of motion, and thus potential for stride length. 

Overstriding, on the other hand, tends to be the elephant in the room for many runners. It’s easy to see, hear, and feel. The overstriding footstrike is easily recognized by a leg that has a nearly fully extended knee, and a distinct heel strike that occurs significantly in front of, instead of almost under, the forward hip. You’ll hear it because the heel is slamming down strongly as opposed to softly rolling through to the midfoot. There is often a two-stage sound as the heel hammers down first, then there’s a slap as the whole shoe crashes down. I call this “slam-slap” and it’s a different sound than the pop of a good midfoot strike. And if you are the dude doing the overstriding, you’ll feel that ground reaction force driving up through your bones as forces hammer the skeleton all the way to the head (since you are not landing flexed and using the elastic qualities of muscles and tendons to manage ground contact).

Overstriding is bad because it causes a braking mechanism which decelerates your body with every landing. Thus, you have to regenerate your momentum with each stride as you go through your stance phase and this unnecessarily uses up energy. But perhaps most important is that overstriding throws pounding and rotational forces into your body to a greater degree than optimal striding and this can contribute to injury. Trimming a few inches off the stride and getting the ground contact into proper position (for the mechanics of the whole lower extremity and total body as well) can really help an overstrider who is struggling with a chronic overuse injury. 

Overstriding is generally driven by habit more than anything else. Either a runner is overextending or overreaching in his stride to “gobble up more ground” or he’s developed this pattern as an artifact of wearing running shoes with thickly cushioned heels and a high stack height. Let’s look at each of these issues separately, although they certainly can and do coexist.

Overreaching in the gait pattern is common in the “back-seat puller” type of runner. You’ll recognize this when you see runners who look like they are “sitting in the back seat” as their hips or shoulders are behind the foot at midstance. Consequently they end up reaching far forward with their leg and then trying to pull the body up to that foot after it lands. Sometimes these runners are stiff, particularly in the spinal extensors or hip flexors, and some stretching can help. But mainly they need to break up those undesirable patterns and using drills and gliders/striders are highly indicated. These practices help you to be more prancy and pouncy in your stride in order to help correct the deficiencies and get a feel for optimal stride length. It’s actually hard to overstride when you are skipping or concentrating on running with good form. Sometimes the magic is in the cue, and in the runner whose stride is a little on the long side, I’ll often suggest they try to slightly compact (verb) their form or use more compact (adjective) technique. 

The shoe issue is a fascinating one. Those super-thick, mega-cushioned running shoes can encourage a lazy foot. Actually, lazy feels like I’m being mean-spirited so let’s use sleepy instead. This is actually true because the thickly padded shoe essentially puts the foot to sleep. The nerve endings don’t need to be as sensitive to delicately time the foot contacts, so the sleepy foot just sloppily slams down (using the previously mentioned terms). There have been a few studies which have used force transducers and demonstrated this phenomenon, but to be fair these were not long-term investigations. Gait generally smooths out the longer your body becomes familiar with a shoe and we don’t want to overlook this point. 

Without going off tangent, I’ll say that shoes are great and we benefit from a certain amount of protection, especially when running on hard, man-made (and thus unnatural) surfaces like asphalt and concrete. In my opinion, these are actually not great terrains upon which to run barefoot or even to wear the most minimal of shoes. The challenge is to find that elusive middle ground where you are comfortable but not wearing so much shoe that it is blocking natural foot function. Thick shoes actually encourage heelstriking and overstriding because you don’t have to use good mechanics when they are on your foot. 

The solution to shoe-induced overstriding is to simply get on a good grass field or a sandy beach and just do a little barefoot running. Your foot will rapidly reacquire its natural, evolutionarily consistent mechanics. Even on a soft surface like this, you will almost never see a runner heel-striking hard if they are barefoot. And they will rarely overstride in this condition. The trick, however, is to keep things reasonable and not overdo it. A mile or two of jogging twice per week, or my favorite, a session of drills and gliders (comfortable tempo efforts at 40 yards) can do wonders to tune up your stride. 

All the things I mentioned above are included in the video below. It’s a collection of a few of the most effective exercises, drills, cues, and practices that you can use to optimize your stride. As Lifetime Athletes, and as runners (many of us) we so often want to just get on with the workout and the more challenging training. But if you can use these tips to tune up your stride, you’ll go faster and farther in every run or workout and you will be less likely to be sidelined with an injury (as long as you have a good coach and training program). Also, stay tuned into The Lifetime Athlete YouTube channel for another upcoming video that looks at stride length.

Also, you might want to take a look back in the Running Performance Series to the article “Identifying Your Runner Type” which describes the 3 basic mechanical preferences in human locomotion. These are Pushers (Concentric-Force Dominant), Poppers (Isometric-Elastic), and Pullers (Eccentric-Rhythm Dependent). There is also a video with that article and it can help you to appreciate your unique signature on movement. 

So that’s my two cents worth (actually it was free) on stride length. Let me know any of your questions or comments. And if you are interested in 1-on-1 coaching to improve your stride, running performance, or athleticism, grab your coaching appointment or subscription today. As my late friend and great runner Tony B. used to often close with…see you on the roads, tracks, and trails.

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