Should You Increase Your Stride Rate?

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.

6 thoughts on “Should You Increase Your Stride Rate?”

  1. 1. I think this post is interesting because according to my Garmin, I can see my cadence change in different shoes. I think this relates to the softness of their cushioning rather than weight. Although I feel comfortable, my cadence is typically lower in my adidas adios boost compared to adidas takumi sen boost, or luna sandals, for example.

    2. An interesting question about elasticity is why those tissues, tendons etc evolved to be so responsive at a cadence of around 180?

    3. I think the elasticity cannot come automatically at 180, but other elements of how the gait is set up and applied to the ground are likely important. In other words you can run with a cadence of 180, but still not have form that will yield this elastic energy return – don’t you think?

  2. It is very interesting to notice one’s stride rate, and play with one’s stride rate some, but I think there is no ‘best’ rate. When running we can consider ourselves to be acting like a spring — we bounce off the ground with a springing action. If we are on bouncy ground, or wearing bouncy shoes, that is akin to adding a tiny, very soft spring to our ‘spring system’, making it slightly softer overall. A softer spring naturally wants to oscillate at a lower rate. We can still increase the stride rate for a softer spring by pushing down harder, briefly, to compress it to the point where it offers enough resistance for us to spring back into the air, but that requires extra work. It is more efficient to allow the ‘spring’ to work closer to its natural frequency. As you run from track to pavement to mushy trail, it is fun to notice and play with stride rate.
    I think that any recommendation to run at certain stride rates is over-reaching (not overstriding haha). Jae, you mention Mierke and Romanov. I see that Mierke is a coach and physio. My experience with physios is that they do not necessarily have the understanding of Newtonian physics necessary to do good biomechanics. Romanov clearly shows his lack of understanding of physics, with his teaching of ‘forward lean from the ankles’ and ‘letting gravity pull you forward’. On the other hand Feldenkrais was a top physicist. And yet he did not come up with any specific recommendations about such things as stride rate. Stick with Feldenkrais, he pwns!

  3. I’m not at all convinced that a faster stride rate will reduce stride length and heel striking. Running in shoes, compared to running barefoot introduces the concept of learning to reduce impact forces when running barefoot, verses running in shoes. Your use of the term “cushioned training shoes” raises many issues and questions for me (those types of shoes, in my opinion and based on the research I’ve read, create more problems then they are advertised to prevent.

    I strongly agree that biomechanics (my term) dictates stride frequency and length.

    Two interesting, and old studies I read (sorry, I don’t have the references) suggest that the two issues to improve running efficiency are Range of Motion (of the hip and knee, moving backwards) and the amount of time spent in the air is surprisingly consistent between runners and running speed – the greatest change occurs in time in the air.

    Combining those two theories, I’ve used a few simple drills and recommendations that improve speed (efficiency) and reduces injury. Both of which are only observationally supported, but strongly supported by the results of the athletes I coach.

    I suggest runners focus on improving their range of motion, using “butt kicks.” And using the Arthur Lydiard drill of “bounding” to improve the time in the air.

    Butt kicks will cause the runner to spend the time their foot is off the ground by lifting it more towards the rear, causing less time for their foot to travel forward, in front of their pelvis.

    While bounding would seem to be contradictory to the theory of not “reaching” forward with their foot. Video taping runners shows the opposite is the case – “bounding” results in making contact with the ground under the pelvis! This is true for runners that are “heel stikers” (based on the wear pattern of their shoes). In addition, the more the runner lifts their heels (increased range of motion) the closer to their center of gravity they make contact with the ground.

    I agree that using a metronome to “force” a stride rate is going about things backwards. And I agree that your Feldenkrais lessons, and my drills, will cause more efficient running and a more natural form (stride rate, balanced contact point).


  4. I think that increased stride rate have indeed some objective benefits and the fact that elites have greater stride rate even at slower pace seems to confirm this. However, this may be very true that forcing yourself to maintain some predetermined stride frequency can be detrimental to the running technique. I guess that quicker stride should come naturally, after working on the running economy. I feel however, that counting your steps as you run is very interesting away to bring your attention to your footstrike and can be quite useful.

  5. “It would be better to change your footwear so your stride rate spontaneously increases” – enlightening!
    I have both minimalist and “normal” footwear and I wasn’t aware of doing that. But I do and it is my feeling that I can’t control my stride length (/pace/impact). It doesn’t feel right unless I change my shoes.

  6. This is interesting! I got in the habit of counting 3s. I figure 3 strides per second is 180 strides per minute. My “second” varies somewhat while I’m running, but keeps me in that range. I run barefoot and am still working on unlearning bad habits from a lifetime in shoes. I notice that running barefoot on gravel has helped a lot. You can speed up on gravel, but not from pushing off harder, that hurts! A faster cadence keeps gravity from slamming you into that sharp gravel too! I also notice that on squirrelly trails with roots, rocks, and turns my cadence naturally speeds up to negotiate the course. Where I get into trouble is the flat hard places like concrete. There it is easy to fall into my old overstriding banging along. If I remember to think like I’m still on gravel and keep the cadence up it helps a lot! I hope that will become more and more of a habit as I keep doing this running thing.


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