Should You Change Your Stride?
As an athlete, you are constantly looking for ways to improve. You meticulously pick your gear, research new training techniques and monitor your diet to make sure that you’re always performing at your best.
And, more than likely, you spend a considerable amount of time thinking about and perfecting your form. Although outsides tend to oversimplify the motion of running, the reality it is that there are many different factors that make up a runner’s form. What’s more, these factors are often up for debate. So, you’ve probably tried several different running styles and may have even made significant changes to your stride.
But… should you? Can you actually benefit from making these shifts in form?
Just Part Of The Equation
Before delving into that discussion, though, it’s important to be clear on precisely what “stride” is. Although it’s often used somewhat interchangeably with other form-related terms, your stride is a very unique part of your running technique.
Specifically, your stride is the distance between two successive placements of the same foot. So, while running, you would plant your left foot, then right, then left again. Your stride would ignore the placement of your right foot and stretch between each of your left-foot steps.
Clearly, this is distinct from things like strike pattern. Despite being very closely related to stride, your strike pattern describes the angle at which your feet hit the ground. This is most common defined using terms like heel-strike, mid-strike and forward-strike.
Why does any of this matter, though? Because your strike and others aspects of your form can all be tweaked independently of your stride – for the most part. Since your legs are essentially one big chain, each link will be affected by the others. Still, the whole point of this definition is to make one thing very plain: Your stride is the length between your steps.
The question at the heart of this discussion, then, is whether or not you should change your stride. Things like strike pattern are another topic for another day.
Go With What You Feel
It make sense, in theory at least, that there would be a so-called “optimal stride length.” After all, a longer stride – covering more ground with fewer steps – will logically translate to faster runs. But, if you naturally have a shorter stride, forcing yourself to lunge forward with each step seems like it could put unnecessary strain on your joints.
So, which is the correct way to look at the situation?
To answer that question, a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science, studied the strides of 33 different runners. To deepen the insights, the sample group consisted of both experienced and inexperienced athletes. The subjects were asked to perform 20-minute long workouts while either following a specific stride length or just running however they felt like running. Throughout the process, oxygen intake was measured as a way to judge running economy.
And what did they find? Nothing. The “optimized” stride had no advantages over the runner’s natural patterns. Since stride training can take lots of time and – by definition – requires you to change the way that your body naturally functions, the researchers recommend not attempting to change your stride length.
Factors At Work
Deeper understanding of how stride is determined, though, may help you appreciate the full import of the above-mentioned study.
Of course, the length of your limbs will have a major influence on the length of your stride. And, in this respect, genetics are the primary factor.
But other aspects of your training and lifestyle can also impact your stride length. In fact, these can change over time and even from run to run. The level of flexibility in your lower back, hips, thighs and ankles, for example, will all control how far you are able to extend your legs with each step.
The speed at which you’re moving doing any given session will also have an effect. When you’re running, there are actually brief moments during which both of your feet are off the ground. This doesn’t happen when you’re moving at slower speeds. Sprinting also involves a more dramatic forward burst, increasing the length between each of your footfalls.
Perhaps the most often ignored factor at work here, however, has to do with your running surface. Amazingly, your brain automatically adjusts your overall running form as you move from one running surface to another. Most notable for a discussion of stride, slippery, loose or otherwise unstable ground will likely cause you to shorten your stride for increased balance.
Running on a treadmill, though, will also have a major influence on your stride. According to a 2014 study, runners instinctively use shorter strides on a treadmill than they would otherwise use while running outside. It’s also important to point out that many ellipticals and some treadmills will mechanically restrict your stride length based on the machine’s settings.
What It Means
In practice, then, there really is no reason to be overly concerned with the length of your stride. Your body is extremely good at making rapid adaptations – many of which you may not even notice – to keeping your performing at your best.
That being said, if you find that your runs are causing you pain or that you’re dealing with some sort of overuse injury, consider checking your form for other possible errors.
- Self-optimization of Stride Length Among Experienced and Inexperienced Runners, International Journal of Exercise Science ,
- Running in the real world: adjusting leg stiffness for different surfaces , Online Publication ,
- Effect of treadmill versus overground running on the structure of variability of stride timing., Online Publication ,