A few weeks ago, I had the best run of my life. It was my once-a-week three-mile route from my NYC apartment to Washington Square Park and back. But that Wednesday morning my time was a solid 45 seconds faster per mile and I didn’t take a single walking break. I felt strong—and fast—and the only thing I had changed was that I took more frequent smaller steps, rather than the long, bounding ones I was used to.
The tip was passed along from SELF.com’s lifestyle editor Zahra Barnes who received the advice while training for her first 10K. Sports medicine doctor Jordan Metzl, M.D., told Barnes that shortening her running stride might help with the annoying shin pain she was dealing with during her longer runs.
Hearing this got me thinking about my own form—and for the first time. I’ve never been a huge runner, and I figured that just putting one foot in front of the other would eventually get me around the track and back home. Needless to say, there was room for improvement, and I was aware of that. I decided to try this running tip out for myself—it was one “major thing” that helped her running routine, so why not mine, too?
Turns out, I wasn’t alone in the mistake I didn’t know I was making. “Overstriding is probably the number one mistake that recreational runners make,” says Jeffrey Wight, PhD, an assistant professor of kinesiology and director of the Running Biomechanics Laboratory at Jacksonville University. The solution? Shorter strides and quicker steps.
Here we breakdown how to check your current form, as well as how to transition to a more efficient stride length and pace.
Shortening your stride can help you run faster and longer.
When you’re taking longer strides your legs have to cover more distance with each step and you end up landing inefficiently, explains Wight. This places additional stress on your body—and let’s be real, running is already stressful enough.
“Many recreational runners straighten their leg at the knee [when they run forward], landing [with the foot] out in front of their body,” Wight says. “It can really slow you down because when you land like that, you actually hit the ground pushing it forward, and the ground is pushing [back] against you in the wrong direction.” This slows you down because you’re meeting resistance with every step. “When you land with your foot in front of you, the muscle contractions in your leg [are similar to] doing a mini lunge,” he adds. This often leads to an extra (and unnecessary) exertion of energy that’s going to negatively impact your endurance.
When you’re taking smaller steps you’re more likely to land with your leg underneath your body—this sets you up for a longer, faster, smoother, and more efficient run, explains Wight.
Plus, shorter strides may help prevent pain and injuries associated with running.
This comes down to body mechanics. When you run, you land with an impact force of two to three times your bodyweight with every step, Wight explains. Smaller strides re-position your posture so that your foot strikes more under your body (instead of in front), which helps absorb the impact of that force better.
“When it’s stretched out, your leg is in a horrible position to absorb any force because it’s an awkward position,” he says. This can lead to pain (and even injury) in many joints and muscle groups, particularly the ones in your lower body (think: knees, hamstrings, shins). Wight points out that it’s hard to blame certain injuries or pain on any one mistake because there are many causes of running-related issues, from your shoes’ arch support to your natural gait. However, shortening your stride may help reduce your risk for many of these injuries simply because your body is able to absorb the force of running better. Of course if you’re experiencing pain while running it’s always best to see a doctor to rule out any serious conditions.
Shortening your stride is the first part of how to correct overstriding, taking more frequent steps (picking up your cadence), is the second.
Start by determining your current step cadence (that’s how many steps/strides you take in a minute). The easiest way to do this is to focus on one foot (say, your right foot), and count how many times it hits the ground while you run for 30 seconds, suggests Kristy Campbell, founder of Run The Long Road Coaching. Then multiply that number by four for your per minute cadence. (You multiple by four to account for both feet.)
The ideal running cadence is about 160 to 180 steps per minute, explains Campbell. If you’re overstriding, that number will probably be less than 160 because you’re taking longer, less frequent steps. To correct, try increasing your cadence by five percent chunks until you’re in the ideal range, explains Campbell. So, if your cadence was 150, aim to hit 157 to 158 steps per minute.
“Try this a few times on your next run and then gradually increase the amount of time you spend at your new cadence,” says Campbell. “It will likely feel a bit odd at first but give it time,” she says. “Practice makes perfect, and soon it will become second nature.”
You can also practice with this drill: Jog in place for 10 seconds as if you were stopped at a red light, suggests Wight. “You will naturally use a high cadence and land under your body.” Then start running forward, keeping that high cadence and landing position. “This can help you establish a short, quick, and efficient stride,” he adds.
As you start to shorten your stride, you might notice that your hip flexors bother you a bit. That’s normal, explains Wight, because you have to lift your knees a bit higher to run this way. Eventually, this should go away as they get conditioned for the movement.
Ease into it, practice, and you should see the benefits. “The great thing about running is you’ll get feedback—you’re going to feel better during the run and the next day,” says Wight.
And I can vouch for that—for me, that feedback has been faster miles, fewer stops, and the ability to finally enjoy a run without it feeling so damn grueling. Taking shorter strides is a form tip I still use every time I hit the pavement, and the more I work on it, the more fun my runs have become. I may not be a marathoner yet, but for me, my improvement is a victory.
SELF – Fitness