Stride rate: training and coaching implications

Last week the running website community kicked off a discussion about the efficacy or otherwise of 180 strides per minute as being a universal benchmark for efficient running at a variety of speeds. The conclusion, in amongst some lively discussion, is that 180 strides per minute shouldn’t be some kind of beacon for runners to aim at to improve their efficiency and perhaps even their personal best times. In this article I report on results of my own stride rate after running technique improvements and also that of former elite runner and now coach Mark Gorski.  The data (including my own and Mark’s) posted over at Alex Hutchinson’s website Sweat Science shows that runners do tend to increase their cadence from lower than 180 stride per minute, in Alex’s jogging zone, to well above this threshold in the higher performance Olympic Zone.  In my case, cadence at a leisurely 6 minute km (9.40 mile) pace was 166 strides per minute, compared to 192 at a frantic (for me) 3 minute (4.49 mile) km pace.

I had a crack at explaining some potential running technique implications in this article that also referenced the work of writers Alex Hutchinson and Pete LarsonMy primary idea being that faster elite runners would tend to stride slower at cross-over speeds with recreational and competitive club athletes because they are able to cover more ground per stride.  And that recreational and club runners, rather than obsess about trying to hit 180 strides per minute in every easy training run, could consider focusing on a slightly more powerful, glute (buttock) driven stride pattern, even if that meant striding a bit slower on your easy runs.

In my article I mentioned that I was going to head to the treadmill and take some more detailed data of my own to add to Alex’s informative graph on the topic.  That is now done and Alex has updated his graph – see above. My camera wasn’t on hand this time but I will repeat the experiment at a later stage so readers can get an appreciation of what happens to running mechanics as you push towards and then in my case beyond your running comfort zone.

Changes in stride rate as a measure of improvement in running technique?

In my book I make the case that runners who make improvements in their strength, coordination and running technique could expect to be able increase their performances and most likely run at a lower heart rate intensity at a given pace. They become more efficient and powerful, thereby running faster with less effort. For example, my experience has been that what was formerly my blow-up inducing 1000m interval training pace (and 5000m race pace) is now probably about my threshold pace.  Where I was going in my article last week was that now that I have improved, running at 4min km pace could possibly be achieved taking less strides per minute than before I started working on my running technique.

The data I collected tends to support my idea that better and stronger runners will stride less frequently at equal speeds than slower runners.  I took some video pre-technique improvements that revealed my stride rate at 4 min km pace was 180. I was curious to see whether improvements in running technique, backed up by a better 5km personal best would be supported by a more powerful stride, allowing me to take fewer strides per minute at a given running speed.  And so it appears to be the case, now my cadence at 4 min km pace is closer to 172.  Is that a significant difference?  I believe so, over an 18 minute 5km effort that would be 144 fewer strides, nearly 1500 steps over a 3 hour marathon.  Proper funning form should be more efficient, and on these metrics I’d argue that this is another way of demonstrating (in addition to personal records and observation) that mine has improved.  The scientists out there might point out that what I’ve presented is nothing more than an interesting discussion point and that’s ok, bring on the discussion, I think the variances are significant enough to show that there’s something behind my argument.

So what about Gorski versus Martin?

Mark and I followed a fairly similar trajectory in terms of cadence until the pace started to hot up – well at least from my perspective. At 3.30 km pace the stride rate gap started to open up a little, a testament to Mark’s superior running ability.  Even though he’s not currently doing much running, his former life as an elite 1500m runner is still well in evidence. Mark is clearly able to lengthen his stride more relative to cadence as we crept up towards speeds closer to his former normal habitat, whereas I was in control at 3.30 pace striding at 180; I was out of control at 3.00 pace striding at 192.  Gorski didn’t miss a beat, when I had started slapping the treadmill in fear of being shot off the back into busy Melbourne traffic; Mark was still holding good running form and maintaining a lesser rating of 188.  I suspect the gap in cadence would be much wider if Mark were in anywhere near good shape.  You’ll see what I mean when I repeat the experiment with video. Alex Hutchinson, another former elite runner, followed a very similar cadence progression to Mark.

Training and Coaching implications of monitoring stride rate

Training: cadence something else to record and tinker with.

Stride rate could be a potential mechanism to help regulate your pace in tempo running and especially during easy runs.  I’ve found over the past week or so of playing around with this in my training that consciously slowing my stride down a little has helped me run with better form and slow me down a little on my easier and long runs (I’m always going a little too fast). If you own a copy of Daniels Running Formula you could try mapping your stride rate at Daniels’ five training pace intensities as I have done below.  See recommended reading about running for more information about Daniels.

What does stride rate say about my technique for running?

You could monitor your cadence as a measure of improvement in running form, strength and coordination. Overtime, wouldn’t it be interesting to see if your stride rate remains constant or reduces slightly for given training paces?  You now have a possible crude measure of improvement in running mechanics to go alongside incremental gains in fitness. So you might get an insight into whether you are a better runner with good running technique or have you just got fitter? Ideally you’d like to do both, but it’s easy to get seduced into training longer and harder and therefore compromise your long term improvement as an athlete.

Coaching – another means to monitor and/or instruct your athletes

Stride rate is another variable to look at instead of, or alongside heart rate to gauge relative intensity of a training session and as a means to track progress in terms of fitness and running technique.  For example, if a runner advised me they were striding at much more than 180 strides per minute during a tempo running session I’d carefully check to see if A. they were running it too fast and B. whether or not they looked to be under striding and/or not activating their glutes (buttocks) enough during the contact phase.

The former could possibly be determined remotely by heart rate, the later would need close observation and likely a detailed analysis of their running technique. If as a coach you were monitoring a track session, cadence as well as visual observation of running technique could be another cue of when to halt your athlete. For example, if the first few 400m repetitions were done at 185 and then they start climbing to 195 you may have a cue that tells you the athlete shouldn’t continue the training session. If they cannot maintain close to the original cadence then it’s likely that proper running form has been abandoned in favour of turning over faster, thereby negating the original purpose of the training. It’s a good clue that biomechanics and fitness are not in synch for the session you had planned.  Next time you may need to back off the pace set for the repetitions, reduce their number or increase the recovery time between reps.

So there is enough there to go on with, it’s been an interesting week, if you got this far thanks for reading.

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