Running Efficiency and Speed
Coach Robert Haviland
So you want to run a bit faster, or maybe you want to run a lot faster. Where to begin. First it may help to understand that two factors determine your speed:
1) stride rate (the frequency of your stride, or how often you take a stride) strive for 180-200 foot- strikes per minute. Forward lean with chest forward, shoulders back, head straight with eyes slightly down and forward.
2) stride length (the length of each stride across the ground. Center of foot strike with foot landing under your body- aim for ball of foot with power.
You could take the combined approach of trying to increase both your stride rate and stride length at the same time. However, you will find the combined effort of this approach too severe (at least initially). You’ll likely run quicker, but not for very long. You need to allow your body to adapt to the stresses of running faster and do it in a way that incorporates good technique.
I like to work on stride rate first with my athletes as this establishes both proper running mechanics and aerobic efficiency that we’ll need for running faster later. Running with a higher turnover (stride rate) allows you to do the following:
- establish a slightly forward leaning body position so your feet are landing UNDER your body, not in front of it;
- produce a footstrike position closer to the center of your foot (not necessarily forefoot);
- use less energy per stride;
- rebound quicker off your ground-contact leg;
- decrease vertical oscillation;
- increase forward propulsion;
I’ll break each of these down in the following paragraphs but focusing on stride rate forces you to abandon premature thoughts of speed and instead establishes a good foundation for future running speed gains. You will run slower initially (on purpose) until you adapt to the new running stride. Increasing stride rate first allows your cardio-respiratory system to become accustomed to the increased aerobic demands of turning your legs over quickly (angio-genesis). Get your system used to working out at a higher frequency (despite how small your stride length may be initially) and then increasing your stride length is a simple matter of increasing strength/power.
A Higher Cadence
As I indicated above, turning your legs over faster will lead to many positive changes in your running form. To begin with taking more steps in the course of a minute (without a corresponding increase in ground speed) will have you shorten your stride length, which is exactly what we want to happen when establishing this new running pattern. Initially, I find people do very well running on a treadmill to establish the feel for an increased stride rate. Once you set the speed of the treadmill you don’t need to worry about increasing your stride length along with your increased stride rate. If you did you would run off the front of the treadmill. The constant speed in effect ensures that an increasing stride rate will result in a shorter stride length. As mentioned, this shorter stride length will bring your foot strike more beneath your body. This will allow you to run over top of your feet rather than onto them. When you over strike forward and run onto your feet (think running heel – toe) you create mini breaking actions at every foot-strike, not what you want when trying to go forward. When you land with your foot directly under your body instead of out in front you have less resistive force and are able to get off your feet quicker and thereby shorten the time your foot is in contact with the ground. Imagine you’re a ball. A ball rolls so well because it center of mass is directly over where it contacts the ground. A box doesn’t roll so well because it’s center of mass is well behind where it’s leading edge is.
By decreasing the ground contact time you’ll be able to generate more power to be used later in increasing your stride length. Imagine having the same force application for each stride. When you get on and off your foot faster you’ll create more reactive force or power. In fact, once you start this you’ll probably find that your shorter stride and the resulting power generation will have you feeling like you want to just open it up. Go easy though, maintaining that higher stride rate is quite aerobically challenging. Your muscles need to adapt to the higher stress. You need to focus on your new higher stride rate on ALL your runs in order to ingrain it into your new running form. Your aerobic system will also have to adjust to the increased load due to the higher turnover. Once that is established though (usually takes a few weeks) you’ll be able to increase the strength component of the stride and eventually the length of your stride (not how far your legs move but how far YOU move across the ground).
Work on getting your running cadence (number of times one -foot hits the ground in 1 minute) as close to the low 90s (or higher) as possible. If you’re stride rate is higher than this then you’re doing well already. As an aside, almost all elite runners have stride rates in the 90s. It doesn’t matter how tall you are, if you want to run fast you have to get your stride rate up. The winners of all the top running races in distances from 1 mile to the marathon (including triathlons) are almost all at between 92 and 104 strides per minute.
Now counting your strides for a whole minute is tough. I have a hard time counting and keeping track of numbers when running/racing. To make it easier to count your strides, time yourself for 20 seconds and try to get to 30 or 31 strides for one leg.
Shorten That Leg
Your feet should have the sensation of moving up and down as you run and not really forward and back. By bending your knee as you drive your leg forward you will reduce the effort required to return your leg forward (don’t shuffle with feet low to the ground). Try this exercise. Stand upright with nothing around you. Stand on your left leg and with a straight right leg swing your right leg forward and back, increasing the speed of the swing till you’re swinging your leg as fast as you can. Take note of all the force that’s being put through your body. Feel the torque and the resulting requirement for your arms and other body parts to have to shift around constantly to counteract this swaying force (not something you want to be doing while actually running). Now, without decreasing the effort level of your swing, bend your right swinging leg at the knee. Feel 1) how much more quickly you can now move your leg, and 2) how much easier it is to move your leg back and forth (less torque through your body). So if you’re out on a run and shuffling along, you’re likely putting a whole lot of unnecessary energy into moving your legs forward. Bend them a bit more and you’ll be able to get them forward quicker (which will help your stride rate) and with less required energy.
Shorter Impact Duration
This is a great one. Studies out of the UK have shown that reducing the time your foot is in contact with the ground by only one 100ths of a second can shave minutes off your race times. Of course the time saved depends on how efficient you are to begin with. The bottom line though is if you do nothing else but get off your foot faster while running you’ll be able to generate more power in your stride and ultimately increase your stride length. So the quicker you can get on and off your feet the more force you will be able to direct into the ground which will in turn allow you to move forward faster. So think quick light steps.
Run smoother and you’ll direct more energy towards moving you forwards rather than up and down. There was this Russian running coach who would have his athletes run through a tunnel that was just barely taller than his athletes (only an inch or so over their heads). As they learned to run through the tunnel without bouncing up and down too much he would gradually lower the height of the tunnel for each athlete, till the tunnel was just barely above their heads. They would have to run smoothly or they would take the top of their heads off. Running smoothly basically allows you to conserve energy, as you aren’t directing energy to move up and arrest your resulting plunge back to earth. The saved energy is therefore available to allow you to run longer, faster, or both. To run smoother focus on driving forward as you push off with your rear foot rather than pushing up. Because you’ll be taking shorter strides, at least initially, you won’t need to jump as high into the air to allow for your leg to get forward to catch you for your next stride. Think SMOOTH=SPEED.
Use Your Hands
You can use your hands to control the speed of your legs. If you move your hands in a relatively large range of motion then it will take a correspondingly long time for your hands to travel that distance. Shortening your hand movement pattern will allow you to speed up your hands as you will be able to move through their range faster. Once you do this then your legs will also increase their turnover in order to maintain synchronization with your hands. So faster hands means faster feet.
One other Thought
Keep your upper body as smooth and quiet as possible. This starts from the hips and works it’s way up. Stay relaxed and smooth and try to move your arms more forward and back rather than across your torso, without being too extreme of course. Along with that, try as much as possible to keep your hips and core area firm. Don’t let your hips sway from side to side or dip down as the associated hip strikes the ground.
Now for the fun part SPEED!!!
Once you’ve established this proper running efficiency you can add in the speed component. You shouldn’t find your leg range of motion change too much. It will open up a bit but not as much as you think.
A great feeling for running faster is skipping. Feel like you’re bouncing up and down off your foot, where you load and unload off your forefoot. To go faster just create more load and explosive reaction off the ground.
Remember to keep things smooth. Don’t unload off your rear foot too early or you’ll just pop yourself up into the air. Ensure you drive forward and get that lead foot underneath your body (not out in front). You should have that sensation of falling forward all the time.
Again, go into this part slowly too as you’ll create a lot more load thru your tendons, muscles and ligaments. Pretty soon though you’ll be increasing your run speed nicely with a lot less effort than it took to go that fast before.
ROBERT HAVILAND BS MS, PT, CSCS, CES, CNC