Strides for Runners
Strides are simply short, fast, relaxed sprints executed with good form.
Strides come with many benefits and are something all runners should include in their training throughout the year, regardless of training phase or preferred distance.
Benefits of Strides
Several immediate and long-term benefits result from performing strides:
Improved movement patterns and running efficiency
Running efficiency tends to increase with speed1. Learning to run efficiently at fast speeds can contribute to better efficiency and economy (how much oxygen is used at a given pace) when running at all slower speeds.
Strides are an excellent opportunity to practice good form. As with efficiency, practicing good form at faster speeds often translates into good form at slower speeds.
Even if you're not interested in racing shorter distances, having a good finishing kick is nice.
Running fast requires a great deal of coordination2. Practicing coordination improves coordination, and better coordination is associated with better running efficiency and decreased injury risk3.
Running fast requires strength and power, so running fast will help develop these components of fitness.
Increased range of motion
You will improve your range of motion with fast running. Improving your range of motion, both in general and before a session or race, can help you to work more efficiently and to coordinate yourself more appropriately. It'll also mean you're less likely to reach the limits of your range, meaning you can run more comfortably and avoid injury.
Strides are a great way of breaking up longer runs and adding a bit of variety. Variety can be handy for high-mileage runners, for whom tedium can present an extra training challenge.
Strides can help you tune in to race pace. And running at race pace or faster than race pace in the warm-up before a race makes the early stages feel easier.
Running fast stimulates fast-twitch muscle fibers. There are two broad classes of muscle fibers: fast- and slow-twitch. Slow-twitch fibers are engaged when running at relatively slower speeds, and the fast-twitch variety is recruited for speedier stuff.
Training fast-twitch fibers provides a clear benefit for shorter-distance runners and those looking to improve their finishing kicks. But even if you have no interest in racing anything shorter than a marathon, they could help you. There is evidence4 that well-trained fast-twitch fibers are recruited when slow-twitch fibers start to fatigue (for example, in the later stages of a marathon).
Running fast feels good. Stretching your legs out provides a sense of exhilaration and freeness.
Increased aerobic capacity
Fast running can actually improve aerobic capacity5 (your body's ability to make use of oxygen)
How to stride
In order to get maximum benefit from strides, it's important to ensure the correct effort, speed, duration, number of repetitions, and recovery.
Running fast isn't necessarily physically demanding. A combination of speed and time spent at that speed are what make an effort tough.
There is no strict definition of how fast a stride should be. The speed will likely fall somewhere between 400m and 1500m pace. Or about the pace you could maintain for 45 seconds to 6 minutes in a race situation. But don't worry too much about exactly how fast you're running. As long as it feels "fast, but not flat out," you're probably in the right area.
The key is to balance the effort. You want to run fast enough to get a good turnover but not so fast that you cannot relax, and your running form is impaired.
Each stride should be short enough so that you don't begin to suffer the effects of a prolonged hard effort, which will affect your ability to run with good technique. If you're struggling to maintain form, breathing heavily, or just finding things difficult in general, then you're running too far or for too long.
When planning a running session, it's always best to think about the time you spend running rather than the distance you cover.
Note that it is the duration of an effort that dictates intensity, not the distance. If two runners run with the same intensity over the same distance, the faster runner will finish first. Because the slower runner is running for longer, they will experience more overall stress. Alternatively, if they run for the same time at the same intensity, then the overall effort they expend will be the same.
Having said this, there is nothing wrong with repeating strides over a fixed distance as long as the time it takes to cover that distance is in line with your ability. Using a measured distance has the benefit that it's much easier to run between two points than it is to monitor elapsed time when running fast.
The best approach is to first time yourself running for a given duration and note how much distance is covered. You can then use that distance for subsequent efforts.
Another good option when it's inconvenient to use distances or monitor time is to work out how many steps you take in a given time and then count out a certain number of steps when performing strides. This is my preferred method: I count 30 steps for efforts at 1500-meter pace, 24 for efforts at 800-meter pace, and 18 for efforts at 400-meter pace. This is based on an assumption of three steps per second, which is reasonable when running at faster speeds.
How long you should spend performing a stride will depend on the intensity at which you are performing it. The table below gives rough guidelines.
|Race Pace||Race Duration||Stride Duration||Steps|
|3000m||8–15 minutes||12–20 seconds||36–60|
|1500m||4–8 minutes||10–12 seconds||30–36|
|800m||2–4 minutes||8–10 seconds||24–30|
|400m||45 seconds–2 minutes||6–8 seconds||18–24|
|200m||20–45 seconds||4–6 seconds||12–18|
It may be helpful, particularly for the faster paces, to begin with a rolling start or to use an acceleration zone. The time spent accelerating also provides a valuable opportunity to prepare for the stride ahead, considering which technical elements you want to focus on.
The key to recovery is to take enough after each stride to ensure that you are fully prepared, both mentally and physically, to perform the following one to the best of your ability. 2–3 minutes is usually sufficient. After this time, your body will have replenished a significant portion of its energy stores. Feel free to recover while jogging if you're doing the strides as part of a longer run. Just be sure you've recovered enough to attack each stride with total concentration and good form.
Number of Repetitions
If you're warming up before a race—and to a lesser extent before a training session—then bear in mind some advice you should follow for the rest of your warm-up: do as little as possible to achieve the intended goal. You don't want to do such an extensive warm-up that you end up too exhausted to race well. 3–5 short strides is probably a good number, although if a race is running late, it's a good idea to include a few extra to keep warm and limber.
As part of an easy/steady run, 6–8 is about right. Much more than this, and you risk over-exerting yourself (which is not the goal of easy or steady runs).
You can also make strides the main focus of your session (see below). In this case, a good target is 12–30.
When to stride
Ideally, strides will be performed when you're warmed up but still reasonably fresh. You can include strides in various scenarios.
As part of an easy/steady run.
One option is to perform the strides a mile or two into your run, jogging for recovery between each. An alternative is to perform the strides at specific time or distance intervals. E.g., running one stride every 5 minutes or running one stride every mile. This is a great way to break up runs.
As part of a warm up
Including a few strides at the end of a warm-up can ensure you practice the full range of motion required for your session or race. This will also help you to "tune in" to training or race pace.
As a specific session
A session composed purely of strides (ignoring warm-up and cool-down) can be beneficial in several cases, such as when introducing speed into your schedule or when you want to work on technique.
When strides are the sole focus of your session, and you're therefore performing more than in other situations, then you must take sufficient recovery. It will take slightly longer after each subsequent stride to recover fully, and you will get increasingly fatigued as the session continues. Remember you want to be fresh and focused before performing each stride. A good approach is to break the session into sets, with longer recovery between sets than between reps. For example, you could perform four sets of five strides, with a walk-back recovery after each rep and an extra 2-3 minutes recovery between sets.
We have some examples of strides sessions that you can carry out on the track6.
After a session
It's not uncommon to see athletes performing strides at the end of a session, the goal being to improve their ability to run fast when tired.
If you're clear that this is your goal, then proceed, but do so cautiously. Be aware that practice doesn't always make perfect, but it does make permanent. If your form is suffering because you're tired when doing strides, this can easily filter through to the rest of your running.
Establishing good form when well-rested will positively affect your form when tired, so it's best to focus on strides when you're bursting with energy.
Where to Stride
Safety is the most important consideration when choosing where to perform strides. When running fast, you have less time to react to obstacles and are more likely to be affected by the terrain and weather conditions. Since you are likely to be concentrating hard on your technique you may also be less aware of the surrounding environment.
Ideally, you'll be able to perform your strides on a flat terrain with good traction and no camber. If conditions are wet or you're unsure how well you'll cope with running fast, then gradually build the speed of each subsequent stride.
Running tracks, being designed for running, are unsurprisingly ideal for strides. The surface is guaranteed to be flat and consistent. You may want to wear spikes in wet weather.
Pick an area free from traffic (definitely vehicular and ideally also human) and without a camber. Tarmac is preferable to paving slabs, which can often be uneven. You are far more likely to get injured when running fast, and things that can be a minor inconvenience at slower speeds become hazardous when moving quickly.
Freshly mown, lump-free grass is excellent if you can find it. Take care since even short grass can sometimes hide hazards, so it's worth jogging over the area a few times to save yourself from nasty surprises.
Running uphill is excellent for building strength and power and can force good running form. For example, running fast uphill is much harder if you don't get up on the balls of your feet, don't drive your arms, or don't run tall.
Running fast on a gentle downhill is an excellent way to improve speed. Fast movement patterns are learnable at a neuromuscular level7, meaning you can teach yourself to run faster simply by running fast.
By letting gravity lend a hand, you can force yourself to run a little faster than you would ordinarily, and the brain-muscle pathways associated with movement and coordination at speed will be engaged and improve as a result.
When performing strides, you should ensure good form at all times.
Telling somebody to "run with good form" is all very well, but what is good form? This will depend partly on your body type and biomechanics. And if you have specific technical weaknesses, then strides are an ideal opportunity to correct these weaknesses. However, a few technical pointers will benefit almost all runners.
A good posture can correct a manner of technical problems. It'll open up your chest, making breathing easier; it'll help you to relax your shoulders and neck, improving arm action; and it'll open up your hips so that less stress is put on the hip flexors, facilitating leg swing and optimizing cadence.
It's natural to tighten up when running fast, making it more challenging to execute the complex biomechanical movements required by running. Try to relax specific areas, focusing on just one at a time. Parts of the body that are prone to tightening when running fast are the shoulders, neck, jaw, and hands. There can often be a cascading effect with tightness: once one body part becomes tense, others follow. If you particularly struggle with relaxing, a few dynamic stretches, such as arm swings, between strides might help.
Driving your elbows backward when running fast will help stabilize the trunk and engage opposing hip flexors, facilitating knee drive. Keep your arms bent at about 90 degrees, increasing the angle slightly as the arms drive back. Execute a "sockets to pockets" action (at their uppermost point, hands should be in line with shoulder sockets, and when pulled back, should be in line with the hips) and focus on the backward - rather than forward - motion of the arms.
Different foot strikes seem to suit different runners, but when running fast almost everybody will benefit from a mid- to fore-foot strike. Focus on the ball of the foot hitting the ground first.
Dorsiflexing the foot, i.e., pulling the toes towards the shin, helps prepare the Achilles tendon to apply greater force during toe-off8. Getting this right will mean you can run faster for the same effort.
Rear leg extension
Extending the leg before toe-off helps ensure you apply maximum force and propel yourself forward better. Extend the hip, knee, and ankle and deliberately push down and backward.
Experiment with different rhythms. It's very fashionable to advocate a cadence of 180 steps per minute, and while it's true that it's common for beginners to have a lower cadence and to overstride as a consequence, trying to prescribe a precise, perfect value for cadence ignores a variety of factors such as ability, height, and body-shape, each of which will affect an individual runner's optimal stride rate.
Instead of rigidly adhering to a predetermined value, experiment by picking up your stride rate a little during some strides and dropping it slightly during others. You'll soon discover what works for you.
Do note that with a higher cadence, as well as reducing overstriding and the braking effect that comes with it, you'll be spending less time in the air between each step and, therefore, landing with less force and experiencing less overall stress to the legs.