You may be able to run faster right now with no changes in training if you shorten your stride slightly, and pick up the turn-over of your feet. As race lengths begin to exceed 400 meters, the optimum stride length shortens. Research has shown that the best distance runners instinctively find that shorter strides get them to the finish line quicker. Indeed, most of us get into trouble by extending our strides. Of course, sprinters have different rules. A long stride may gain an advantage in races of 400 meters or less, but it consumes a lot of energy. A series of long strides will also stretch the normal mechanical limits of the body, and it also dramatically increases the chances of getting hurt. Because of this, sprinters have a high rate of injury.
Here is how a good stride works. After your foot pushes off, it swings behind you. As it swings forward again, your knee moves forward, and your lower leg swings out and contacts the ground. The ideal landing position is directly under the center of gravity of the body. Most of us hit near our ideal landing area most of the time. When this is not done, we tend to over-stride, and the foot hits the ground in front of this point. Many runners tend to over-stride when they are fatigued.
The great risk zones for over-striding are in the latter stages of hard workouts or races. You’ve been cruising at a pace slightly faster than you are ready to run and are getting very tired and slowing down. I believe that it’s your desire to overachieve that drives you to stretch the stride out. You are so set to defeat a competitor, or to run a certain time, that you over-stride to make up the difference.
However, it’s a risky strategy, and it usually backfires. Over-stretching tired muscles will weaken and further stress them. It will increase the body’s workload and oxygen debt, usually leading to a more dramatic slowdown later in the race. A further complication is that you’re probably engaging the stretch reflex. When a muscle is stretched to its limits or beyond, it will protect itself by contracting tighter than before. By over-striding, you’re setting yourself up for injury and poorer race times. With the help of a freeze-frame video recorder, you can easily tell if you over-stride. When you make contact with the ground, your leg should be perpendicular to it. You are over-striding if the foot is extended out ahead and your leg is at an angle that’s less than 90 degrees with the ground.
You can train yourself not to over-stride by doing fast, relaxed accelerations on a flat area. The distance will vary with your experience. Beginners need only 30 to 60 yards, while those who’ve been running for several years can move up to 100 to 200 yards. Advanced, competitive runners will run as far as 350 yards or so. Do four to eight accelerations, two to three times a week, with plenty of slow jogging in between. The accelerations can be inserted into your regular run.
Here’s how you should do them. Warm up the muscles by doing some walking, then jog slowly for 10 minutes or more. Start your first acceleration very slowly and gradually pick up the rhythm. During the last 10 yards, stop accelerating and gradually decrease your speed to a slow jog. You will usually find that your pace will pick up slightly with each acceleration. Never sprint! If you stretch too far or go too fast, you’ll defeat the purpose of the accelerations.
Remember to keep your stride slightly shorter than the point where you feel tension. When the muscles, tendons, and so on, are relaxed, you can concentrate on increasing the turnover of your feet. When your feet go faster, you will tend to run quick even though your stride length may be shorter. If you practice this simple exercise for a year, you’ll notice some improvement and even more improvement after two to three years.
During speed workouts or races, concentrate on a quick, shorter stride especially at the end when you become tired. This may be difficult; when we’re physically stressed, it’s easier to let form fall apart than to concentrate on anything. With mental toughness, however, you can overcome the problem. It’s worth overcoming though. By avoiding the tendency to over-stride, you’ll avoid many injuries and you may find that you’re running faster than ever before.
Jeff Galloway, Efficient Running Through Better Running Form, www.pccoach.com
Long Distance Running Form, www.over40runner.com