Like all runners I want to get faster. How you do this is, of course, the difficult part. Having a coach or following a plan takes you through the workouts you need to do to improve speed, stamina and endurance appropriately to your event.
There are certain guidelines for what you’re trying to do; for example, 100m sprinters are working on top-end speed and trying to be as efficient with their running form as possible. Marathon runners are training to improve their aerobic efficiency and top-end speed isn’t too important to them. Everybody in between is working on some variation between these.
But even when you think the marathon is more about endurance than speed, you discover world class marathoners are fast. Take Paula Radcliffe, she can run 4min25 for a single mile where most parkrunners can’t even run 200 metres at this pace.
When I benchmarked my 800m last December, my peak pace was 5:02/mile. That is, of course, dependent on the accuracy of my GPS but nine years ago I was hitting 3:38/mile in my finishing sprints at parkrun. I wanted to figure out how to rebuild this.
The simple mechanical explanation of speed is that it’s the amalgamation of how quickly you move your legs and how far you travel with each step. More commonly this is quoted as a formula of Speed = Stride Length x Stride Frequency. I first learned about this in the mid-1990s but never really thought about what to do with it.
On the stride frequency (cadence) side there’s a lot of talk about how the magic number of steps to take is 180 per minute. I’m not going to dig into that here today as it’s much discussed around the internet, only to say there is no magic number to achieve. It’s the Stride Length side I’m currently interested in.
What is Stride Length?
Around the time I learned the formula, I started to hear about how the great 400m hurdler Ed Moses had a stride length of 2.70 metres which enabled him to take thirteen steps between each hurdle.
When I looked up what a stride was it, it was defined as two steps e.g. right foot then left foot or vice versa. So by that definition your stride length would be how far you cover from when your left foot hits the ground to when it hits the ground again. That would suggest each single step by Moses was only covering 1.35 metres yet when I did the calculations that didn’t seem right.
It turns out when runners, coaches or commentators talk about stride length they’re using the term interchangeably with step length. For runners, stride length is the distance you cover with one step. If you stand with both feet together and step onto the right foot, it is the distance you’ve covered in this step.
If you’re going to try measuring it, remember to measure consistently from the heel-to-heel or toe-to-toe. Often though you can find out from the stats produced by GPS watches – if they’re capable of measuring cadence.
Elite stride length
I said that Ed Moses is famous for his 2.70 metre stride but it’s not just him. When I was watching the Tokyo Olympics over the summer, I switched onto the final of the women’s 400m hurdles. The commentators were discussing how Sydney McLaughlin – the world record holder – runs 14 steps between the hurdles until the final one when she increases to 15 steps because of fatigue shortening her stride. I found out the distance between the hurdles is thirty-five meters making her long stride is 2.50 metres and drops down to 2.35 metres when she tires. That’s big and it’s stunning.
Measure out 2.50 metres and you’ll realise why I still harboured some doubt about whether I was understanding what stride length is. Were elite runners really covering the length of a small car in one step? Or was their stride the technical ‘two step’ definition? I went looking for direct evidence.
David Rudisha – 800m
I found some decent Youtube footage of David Rudisha running the 800m at the London Olympics. It’s the race where he set a new world record. As he crossed the line he was well ahead of the rest of the field and there was a good angle on it.
And below he is one step before! It seems unimaginable how he will go from toeing off at the red triangle next to the Olympic logo and ending up on the finish line but he does.
Here’s a combined picture to make things simpler. We can see it’s quite some distance.
Rudisha is recorded as being 1.88m tall so let’s put some lines on the photo and estimate how long his stride is.
He’s not standing fully upright so the yellow line is around 1.75m. The red line is just above his knee and, fortunately as I’m the same height, I can estimate it to be around 70cm. That’s a total of 2.45m.
The exact measurement doesn’t really matter, what’s important is we now have visual proof that a world class runner takes well over two metres with a single step.
Finally here’s a look at his last two steps, he’s easily covering the better part of five metres. His black shorts make it harder to identify which leg is forward or backwards but if you look at this shoulders there’s no doubt about it. And you can also see how far his body moves over the top of his support leg as he pivots from landing up to toe-off.
So far I’ve talked about the stride length of the 400m hurdler and 800m runners. These shorter distance track athletes always have a longer stride than distance runners because the speeds they run (around 3 – 3min30/mile) are that much quicker.
Last weekend the BBC were showing the Great Manchester Runs. A friend who was watching the women’s 10K race messaged to point out the difference in running styles of the two lead ladies – Eilish McColgan and Meraf Bahta.
It was clear McColgan has a long, bouncy stride with a high back kick – probably because she’s still doing shorter track races – whereas Bahta’s stride was shorter and flatter. By flatter I mean she’s staying more level with the ground, less bounce.
Rewatching footage from the second kilometre I counted their respective cadences. McColgan was running at 172 steps per minute, Bahta up at 200. It’s a notable difference and knowing that they were running together slightly faster than 3min/km (4:45/mile) you get an indication of their stride lengths – McColgan’s is 1.97m and Bahta’s 1.70m.
McColgan is impressive but it’s Bahta who really makes the point. Even for a high cadence runner, she still has a stride length far above that of most runners. Most of the ordinary runners I know have short stride lengths according to their Garmins. If it’s much over a metre on a general run that’s unusual. Of course you can’t big stride all the time but I doubt many have the strength and technique to extend their stride out when required.
My 10K races have an upper end value of something like 1.4m when I’m fresh and usually drop into the 1.30s by the end. I’m sure I’m not unusual in this respect and of course I’m not running world class pace so it’s naturally going to be shorter at my slower race paces.
Most ordinary runners work on their cadence with no thought for improving their mechanics or top-end speed to create a longer stride length. This is a mistake because as we’re seeing with someone like Bahta, that longer stride length is still beneficial when you have a high cadence.
The way you develop a decent stride length is by pushing off more powerfully. You don’t reach out in front of you, you launch yourself forwards through the air with each step. Think of it like being on a pogo stick using the spring to load up and travel forwards for as much distance as possible. As a runner when your leg is behind you, you extend your hip, your knee, your ankle to push forwards. Learning this technique is best done during strides or hill sprints. Short efforts where you’re not concerned about running out of energy or fatiguing.
One last picture of David Rudisha to marvel at. It’s during the flight phase of the last step. His foot is a good half metre or more before the line and looks like he will land there yet somehow he travels on., His effort at toe-off propels him forwards the extra distance before his foot hits the ground. It happens quickly and horizontally. There is very little drop which is what the white line is there to help see.
The white line is lined up with the word “Kenya” on his vest and level just above the black tape by the finish. Take another look below at the finish line photo and you can see he’s only dropped a matter of inches to now be level with it.
When he was in the air, he wasn’t actually high off the ground. His effort goes towards pushing him forwards not up into the air. If you watch slow runners they use a lot of energy bouncing up and down rather than going forwards – this is bad.
If you want to marvel at Rudisha’s running, here’s the video of his 2012 Olympic run. There’s a good, slow motion close-up at the 7min10 mark.