Your running speed depends upon two variables – stride length and stride rate. To run faster you need to improve one or both of those variables. A lot of attention has been placed on increasing stride rate in recent years – and for good reason – raising your stride rate to around 90 full strides per minute is one of the most efficient ways to improve your running economy. But don’t forget about your stride length. Over striding is the most common form flaw among distance runners, but don’t confuse a long stride length with over striding. Over striding describes a form flaw in which you land on the heel of your lead foot, in front of your center of gravity. You should always try to maximize your stride length – you just need to do that without over striding. Here are the top ten ways to improve your stride length without over striding.
Build Your Running Strength
If you are going to increase your stride length without over striding you need a lot of air time. No – not like a DJ on the radio – I mean distance that you are traveling through the air before your foot strike. To increase air time you need a lot of power. Now guess the first thing you need to improve your power – Yep, you need running strength. Stronger muscles are like stronger springs. They have greater power potential. The best way to improve your running strength is by performing running specific strength exercises like bench step ups, stride step ups and one leg squats.
Build Your Explosive Strength
A long stride depends upon more than pure strength. I said above that to increase air time you need a lot of power. Power is basically being able to generate strength very quickly and with very little loss of energy. To do that you need to train your muscles to produce energy explosively. Many studies have shown that explosive strength training will improve your race performance and running economy. You can build your explosive strength by performing plyometric drills or exercises such as bounding, hops, jumps and sprints.
Raise Your Toes
Dorsi-flexing your ankle puts your foot into a position that is most efficient at producing a powerful and long stride. Your foot is dorsi-flexed when you raise your toes or pull the front of your foot up towards your lower leg. The opposite action is plantar-flexion when you point your toes towards the ground. Raising your toes pre-stretches your calf muscles and gets them ready to fire quickly as soon as your foot touches the ground. That results in a long, powerful and smooth stride. Go here for more information on raising your toes.
Take Shorter Steps
What? – take shorter steps to increase your stride length! I must be crazy! I’m really not. If you try to take long steps to increase your stride length you will end up reaching out in front of your center of gravity and landing on your heel. You will be putting the brakes on with every step you take. You will also be increasing the stress on your ankles, knees, hip and back, increasing your risk of injury. Remember, your steps should be shorter and more compact. You want to increase your air time and distance – not your reach.
Let Your Muscles Do the Work
Your muscles are like rubber bands. They both work on a stretch-reflex principle. When you quickly stretch a rubber band and abruptly let it go it flies a long way without much effort. That is due to the resiliency of the rubber band. Your muscles are similar. They have a great ability to store and return energy. When your muscles are quickly stretched a lot of energy is stored. If a quickly stretched muscle is abruptly released it will return most of that energy – just like the rubber band. If you land on a dorsi-flexed foot directly under your center of gravity and abruptly release that energy using compact, quick and light steps, you will allow your muscles to do a lot of your work for your. It is like running on auto pilot. On the other hand if you over stride and land on your heel ahead of your center of gravity, the ground will absorb much of that energy and you will lose both power and air time.
Muscle strength and power are two key elements of a long, efficient stride. But there is a third component. Before you can generate that power your brain must send a signal through a vast network of nerves to receptors in your muscles. If you train that system to become more efficient you will be able to produce more power and longer strides with less effort. This is commonly called neuromuscular training. How do you train your neuromuscular system? Current research shows that high intensity running is the best way to improve your neuromuscular function. What is the best way to do that? – Interval training at 5K pace or faster on a consistent basis.
One thing you don’t want to waste as a distance runner in energy. To maximize your air time and stride length you will want to direct all of your power and energy in one direction – forward. If you are running with a lot of vertical movement you are wasting energy. Try to run very smoothly with no up and down movement or bouncing. Imagine you are running with a bean bag on your head. To avoid bouncing always run with soft knees. You should never totally extend your leg. If you do you will end up over striding and creating vertical movement. Also concentrate on compact, smooth strides and a dorsi-flexed foot. Your stride should be smooth, fluid and rotary in motion almost like riding a bike.
Do Dynamic Stretching
There are two main types of stretching – dynamic and static. Static stretches are the very common stretches where you assume and hold a stretched position for 20 to 30 seconds. Dynamic stretches are when you move your muscles through a running specific and exaggerated range of motion. Studies have shown that performing static stretching before a race or workout can decrease the ability of your muscle to produce power. A better stretching routine is to do dynamic stretching after a warm up and before your race or workout. Then do static stretching as a cool down after your run. See dynamic versus static stretching for more information.
Become a Leaning Tower
You know that all of your motion should be directed forward. One way to help accomplish that is by running with a very slight, whole body forward lean. That slight forward lean will recruit the assistance of gravity in pulling your body forward. Next time you watch a professional distance running event pay close attention to the body position of the top runners. The vast majority of them will have a slight whole body forward lean. The key word here is “whole body”. Do not lean forward at the waist. That type of body position will encourage a stumbling stride with a lot of vertical movement. Concentrate instead on a whole body forward lean and lead with your hips. Your hips are your driving force and where they go you will follow.
Running uphill is one of the most efficient ways to improve your power and increase your stride length. Running uphill requires greater hip extension and more power output than level ground running. It also promotes a flat footed foot strike under your center of gravity and encourages a whole body forward lean. You can include hill running in your weekly training by doing short, fast repeats up a steep hill or longer run up a more moderate grade.