Does increasing stride rate improve running technique?

Recently Pete Larson wrote about a study performed on the implications of increasing stride rate on the muscle activity of recreational runners by Elizabeth Chumanov and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin. I’ve had this study sitting around for a few months now and have been frankly procrastinating about what to say about it, so it was good that Pete bashed out some typically thoughtful words on the study in recent days to force my hand.

Study results and summary

The study of 45 injury free recreational runners, doing a modest amount of training (30km per week average) analyzed the impact of increasing cadence (stride rate) by 5 and 10 percent off a self selected speed and initial stride rate. In short, the runners were asked to maintain their preferred speed but increase their step rate by 10%. The muscle activity at different stages of the gait cycle was then measured and recorded to identify if any changes were evident and importantly where they occurred.

I was pretty interested to see that an increase in cadence of 10% above a self selected step rate resulted in increased hamstring and glute activation late in the mid to late swing phase of running and in what I call preparation – the moments just before ground contact.

This is significant as it suggests increasing stride rate could lead to more optimal positioning of the pelvis, thighs and even feet ahead of ground contact. Although I’m not sure this study shows or was designed to measure this potential knock on effect, rather measuring the increased muscle activity but not a significant change in movement pattern.

As Pete indicated in his article, I’m the first to promote any measure that gets these key hip extensor muscles (hamstrings and glutes) firing. But I was slightly surprised that an increase in cadence would, for want of a better description, automatically trigger this increase in muscle activity. However, it’s been measured, so it did happen and that’s a good thing to know.

Stride rate as a coaching intervention

The general approach we’ve taken in our coaching work has been to note cadence during the technique assessment as a benchmark that we can compare after the runner has increased strength and taken on board any technical tweaks.  Rather than try to restrict runners by making them take many very small strides, we prefer to work on evolving towards better movement patterns and the muscle strength and activity needed to sustain this over time.

The net result is runners usually increase stride rate at various speeds, especially if they are coming off a low cadence base, are not very strong, or are using a compromised running technique. Why? It seems the correct movement and muscle activation pattern of activating the hips extensors quickly and with strength gets you on and off the ground faster and leads to faster recovery of the leg. The end result: increase in cadence without counting steps. To summarize our approach it’s about working towards running better before worrying too much about increasing stride rate.

However, where runners’ step rates are very low e.g. low 160s or even in the 150s we do suggest some focus/awareness on cadence combined with working on strength and muscle activation.
This study does suggest that we could place more emphasis on combining these elements. There could be some beneficial chicken and egg impact at play. I’m reluctant to do this however, because runners trying to make changes already have enough to think about without adding another layer of complexity. Where runners have foot-pods, then looking at data collected after the run can give a sense of whether changes in movement pattern are impacting cadence. This is likely a better way to go.

Writing on stride rate and running technique

To read a bit more about our left field thinking on stride rate, please take a few moments to read two previous articles I have written on the subject. The first examines popular stride rate thinking, the second gives some ideas about how stride rate can be a measure of improved strength and something to monitor during demanding training sessions.

Other thoughts and questions about this study

There are some questions about this study that would be interesting to note that didn’t appear to be in the write up of the findings. How fast were the runners running and how slow was their initial step-rate on average? It seems logical that if overall the group shared a tendency towards being slow striders then a greater compensatory effect may have been in evidence than if they were already in a normal range – whatever that might be! Food for thought.

Correction 14/6. Thanks to Luke Nelson for alerting me to some data I missed. The preferred speeds were 2.9+/- 0.5m/s, and the step rate was 172.6 +/-8.8. The runners were in the 6 to 5 min km pace ball-park.

Spoiler alert, not sure if many people will agree with what follows

If the stride rate increase were driven by overuse of the quads (in particular rectus femoris) then perhaps the potential benefits could be somewhat negated? In this study the authors did notice an increase in activity in rectus femoris (hip flexor and knee straightening muscle) and tibialis anterior, (major muscle that points toes up ahead of landing in heel striking).

Where they noticed this increase was interesting, what they describe as pre-swing/early swing. To me that could indicate potential use of the rectus femoris to retrieve the leg, a pattern that I’m familiar with from my own running in recent years gone by. It tends to lead to a low leg recovery that means you need to cock the ankle more to avoid scuffing the ground and tripping as the leg swings forward.

So a potential destructive impact of increasing step rate without corresponding gait retraining and strength work could be to make the hamstrings and calves work harder to try and brake the forward swinging leg. It could also lead to compromised hip extension (pictured) as the runner cuts this phase short in an attempt to recover the leg faster.

My final injury that put the nail in the coffin of my quad driven running style was in behind the knee / high calf area and appeared to be related to aggressive flicking out of the lower leg with every stride. I know it’s always hard to pin down the exact cause of injuries, but this one hurt more in relation to my speed and leg straightening increasing.

Thinking back to my own experiences, I did spend some time focusing on cadence before I began researching running technique. It did help, but I didn’t feel it made much difference to my overall muscle activation and movement pattern and I still became injured as a result of my pretty ordinary mechanics.

This video of me running at 4min km pace and striding at 180 steps per minute – in theory a magic number, may give you a sense of what I’m getting at.

Conclusion

This is a great little study that provides some good insights that could be useful for runners and coaches; however I think we need to be cautious about only focusing on one element as a means to reduce the instances of running injuries. Striding faster, yes it can help, but striding well is more important.

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