Runners often try to improve their speed by lengthening their stride. Although it’s true that the speed of a runner is the product of their stride length and cadence, many other variables can affect a runner’s speed in the real world. Trying to lengthen your stride to improve your speed can be a very harmful adjustment.
Increasing stride length excessively can come with consequences. Striding too far will cause the foot’s initial contact to occur in front of the body’s mass. The angle of this contact makes the foot into a functional brake, slowing the speed of the runner with every step. When this happens, the runner has to accelerate with each stride instead of maintaining speed. In addition, this forces the leg to absorb a more violent force, creating a greater stress across the runner’s ankle, shin, knee, and hip. Although stride length is important to speed, too large a stride can slow a runner and increase risk of injury.
This fact holds true no matter the distance. Whether running a 100 meter dash, a marathon, or to catch a runaway dog, every runner should strive to be as efficient as possible. A common misconception is that a runner should dramatically increase their stride length to finish a race, but this is simply untrue. The best competitive runners don’t increase their stride length at the end of a race, but instead focus on maintaining or improving their cadence. Anyone who has attended a track and field meet or a cross country race has undoubtedly heard the crowd shouting, “stride out!” Instead, a better chant would be, “fast feet!”
Most runners can find a better improvement in speed by adjusting their cadence, or the number of steps they take in a given time. A good goal for cadence in a distance runner is 180 steps per minute (spm), and professional runners can have cadences well above 200spm. Unlike increasing stride length, increasing cadence can actually improve running form. With a fast cadence, the foot is forced to land closer to the body, preventing the braking action and decreasing the force of every step. In fact, coaches and trainers often address overstriding by improving cadence alone.
Increasing cadence might not come with biomechanical downfalls, but changing from 150 spm to 200 spm overnight can be very taxing. A safe way to work on improving cadence is to aim for improvements of 5%-10% at a time. For example, an average runner with 150 spm should try to make 157-165 spm feel natural before aiming for the next milestone.
As important as it is, good running technique is never a substitute for good training. There is much more that goes into a successful race than the speed of your steps or the length of your stride. Don’t let thoughts of improving your cadence cut into your training – just incorporate the quick steps of your new cadence goal into your warm-up jog and longer distance runs. Your fast feet will feel natural in no time.
Casey Stokes, DPT Certified Track and Field Coach