Many of us will have been inspired by the Great North Run in September, when over 57,000 professional runners, enthusiastic amateurs and apprehensive first-timers took part in the world’s largest half marathon, and Mo Farah romped to a fourth time victory.
One thing that always stands out in a big public running event like the GNR, is the variety of running styles and strides on show. It seems that when it comes to stride length in running, it always pays to go for what you know. A new study released by staff at Brigham Young University in Utah reports that the stride length that runners naturally choose is the best for them, whether they’re experienced athletes or newcomers to running, and no matter what shape they’re in.
The study, which was published in the International Journal of Exercise Science, measured the energy use of 33 runners – 19 of which were experienced runners who averaged at least 20 miles a week, while the remaining 14 were inexperienced runners who have never run more than 5 miles in a week – while they were carrying out various stride lengths during a twenty-minute run.
During their runs, which were monitored on a treadmill, the participants were steered towards making five different stride lengths: their natural stride, and then strides of plus and minus 8 and 16 percent of their normal stride, which were maintained with the assistance of a computer-based metronome, which beeped each time their foot should've hit the treadmill. Meanwhile, researchers measured the energy output of the runners with masks that recorded the amount of oxygen used.
Don’t break (or remake) your stride
The study concluded that both the experienced and the inexperienced runners were most efficient when they were using their preferred stride. In other words, attempting to develop and maintain a ‘new’ stride to maximise efficiency is a waste of time and energy. As Professor Hunter pointed out; "Just let it happen – it doesn't need to be coached. Your body is your best coach for stride length."
Both professors are experienced runners, so they’re well placed to comment on the study results from a dedicated athlete’s point of view. "Many people are advocating for various 'optimal' running forms, but this study shows even novice runners shouldn't try to run any different than their body naturally does," said Professor Ward. "Enjoy running and worry less about what things look like."
The long and the short of it
Stride length is a topic that athletes and coaches have wrestled with since time immemorial, and for good reason: different race lengths call for different stride lengths, with shorter distances calling for longer strides. But there’s a price to pay for that: longer strides burn up more energy, and create a higher risk of injury at lower speeds because the feet land harder with each step, sending a jarring sensation up the legs and causing wear and tear on the muscles and knees.
If you feel that the stride you’re currently using isn’t right, you may be overthinking it and not concentrating on the rest of your body. The following tips may help:
Aim to keep your foot strike under your body
When accelerating, focus upon quickening your stride rate
Lean the body forward slightly as you run, but not too far
Avoid tensing up in the shoulder area
Keep your head upright
Keep tabs of arm movement – forward-and-back, not side-to-side