One of the generally accepted elements of good running technique these days is cultivating a stride rate of 180 or above (meaning your feet touch the ground 180 or more times per minute). For a number of years I have recommended this as well. However a few clues have recently begun to suggest something different to me, and this month I got a crucial piece of the puzzle.
In Daniel Lieberman’s 2012 article, What We Can Learn About Running from Barefoot Running: An Evolutionary Medical Perspective, he writes:
Stride rates vary enormously among runners for many reasons, and few studies explicitly have quantified differences in stride rate between barefoot and shod runners. A number of studies (e.g., (5)) have found that elite shod runners typically use a stride frequency between 170 and 180 steps per minute even at low speeds such as 2.75 mIsj1; in contrast, nonelite runners often adopt a lower average stride frequency of about 150-160 steps per minute at similar speeds (e.g., (13)). A few studies of nonelite barefoot runners confirm that these runners tend to use a high frequency, ranging from 175 to 182 steps per minute at speeds of 3.0 mIsj1 (11,17,34); barefoot runners also tend to use slower stride rates and take longer strides when asked to run shod at the same speed (11,34).
This is compelling because (setting elite runners aside) it’s about people’s spontaneous choice of stride rate; specifically that experienced barefoot runners spontaneously run in the vicinity of 180 but when you put them in shoes they choose slower stride rates, as do people who habitually run shod.
People’s spontaneous stride rate is particularly of interest to me because of the way I work. I have learned much of what I know about running over the past decade simply by giving Feldenkrais lessons and seeing what changes about people’s running, and I have included myself in this experiment as well. But it’s always bothered me that Feldenkrais lessons don’t seem to shift people’s stride rate to 180. It’s the only element of good running technique that I’ve been persuaded of by research that doesn’t spontaneously appear as my clients work with me. I have to tell them about it and recommend a metronome.
A while back I wrote about the tissue viscoelasticity aspect of stride rate: namely, that a quicker stride rate makes your body more elastic. If you haven’t read that post, go read it now and then come back to finish this one.
When I originally learned about the importance of stride rate from, I believe, Ken Mierke’s book, (though Danny Dreyer and Nicholas Romanov, among others, also teach it) I was given to believe that when you get your stride rate into the 170-180 window your body is naturally more elastic, and you reap the benefits of this in your running.
But after writing my cadence post I realized it raised a critical question. If stride rate is a result of tissue viscoelasticity, then whatever stride rate you naturally fall into reflects the elasticity of your body.
In other words, elasticity determines the stride rate, not the other way around.
If your feet are bare (and you’re used to that), you find your sweet spot of elasticity in a stride rate of around 180. If you have cushioned shoes on, they’re absorbing some of that impact and also changing the weight and proportions of your whole frame, so your sweet spot will tend to be a lower stride rate.
So the critical question became: what benefit would a runner in cushioned trainers get from learning to run with a 180 stride rate? Would it mean they were reaping the benefits of increased elasticity and thus more efficient running? Following the logic as I was coming to understand it, it didn’t seem so.
This past month while on holiday in the US I had the tremendous good fortune to get to meet and talk with Dr. Stephen Levin, whose work I referred to in my cadence post. I asked him about my hunch and he agreed.
And he went further: not only is it impossible that increasing your stride rate to 180 in cushioned trainers would make you more elastic, in fact it would reduce your elasticity. The rhythm your gait naturally assumes in given footwear is the most elastic one — the frequency your structure oscillates at — and tampering with that is likely to increase, not decrease, your effort.
So where does that leave you? If you run in cushioned trainers should you stop trying to run at 180? I’m honestly not sure. Some biomechanical benefits of a higher cadence, such as shortening your stride and thereby reducing overstriding, heelstriking, and excessive vertical oscillation, may be worth it.
Then again, Feldenkrais lessons can accomplish all of these things, resulting in The Balanced Runner Keys appearing in your running, without manipulating your stride rate.
As for the matter of the loss of momentum due to prolonged ground contact or flight time when the natural stride rate is in 150-160 range… maybe instead of using a running metronome to increase the stride rate it would be better to change your footwear so your stride rate spontaneously increases.
I’ll be working on this further myself, and when I’ve got a guideline I feel really confident in I’ll share it with you. Meanwhile, my advice is to stop aiming for a particular number. You could use a heart rate monitor or careful attention to your subjective level of effort to help you find a stride rate that makes your running as easy (and therefore elastic) as possible.
Better yet, focus more on variety, experimentation, exploration, and improving your coordination and agility, and let your stride rate take care of itself.