Eilish’s low mileage

Scotland’s Eilish McColgan is the current golden girl of British Athletics. This year she has set distance records, the first occurred in February when she broke Paula Radcliffe’s British half marathon record by 21 seconds in 1:06:26. Then in May, she ran 30:19 to take Radcliffe’s 10K road record and on Monday (June 6th), she ran this time again on the track in Hengelo, Netherlands to set a Scottish record.

The McColgan name is not unfamiliar to followers of running. Her mother, Liz, was the World Champion in 1991 at the 10,000m having already been Commonwealth Games champion in 1986 and 1990 and silver medal winner at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. When she moved up to the marathon distance she won New York (1991), Tokyo (1992) and London (1996) marathons. Eilish’s father, Peter McColgan, was also a talented distance runner who competed for Northern Ireland in the 3,000m steeplechase and 5,000m at the Edinburgh Commonwealth games as well as for Great Britain in the steeplechase at the 1991 World Championships. What a pedigree for Eilish to have!

Not only does she have the genetic advantage but Eilish is also part of a generation of successful female Scottish distance runners. Laura Muir has been the most successful gaining a silver medal at last year’s Tokyo Olympics where she set a British record for the 1,500m in a time of 3:54.50  In 2012, Lynsey Sharp was European champion and competed at the London Olympics in the 800m. She followed this up four years later setting a Scottish record of 1:57.69 while finishing 6th in the Rio Olympic final.


A recent BBC article detailed that this year’s success is down to Eilish undertaking a reduced training load that Liz had to be persuaded would be in Eilish’s best interest. Liz had been running as much as 140 miles per week in her marathon prime.

But this highlights the event differences. Liz was always a long distance runner doing 10,000m and marathons. Following in her dad’s footsteps, Eilish competed in the 3,000m steeplechase for Great Britain at the London Olympics and then the 5,000m in Rio. It wasn’t until 2018 (when she 28 years old) that she began racing longer distances winning the ten mile Great South Run in 54:43. Roll on three years to the Tokyo Olympics and Eilish competed in both the 5,000 and 10,000m. Looking back at her Personal Bests, her time for 800m is 2:07.8 – over ten seconds slower than Lynsey Sharp and her mile is 4:00.97 which is five seconds slower than Muir. It’s clear that although Eilish competes in middle distance races, she lacks the top-end speed to be winner against the best and like her parents is better suited to the longer distances.

So it’s surprising when she talks in the article about how her training increased from 20, 30, 40, 50 miles per week and has only been operating at 65-70 over the last year and a half to two years. It’s not unusual for a world class 800m runner to operate on as little as forty miles per week but Eilish isn’t one. Typically world class 5,000 – 10,00m runners train between 70-100mpw. Given the recent increase in training mileage, it’s no surprise that when Eilish returned to the Great South run last October she was four minutes quicker than three years ago.

There’s no doubt decent mileage is critical to distance running success and Eilish’s approach of starting on low mileage and building up is a good one to follow but far too many runners simply aren’t doing enough mileage to support longterm improvement. Getting the balance right is important and, as Eilish shows, great results can be achieved off moderate mileage.

While I don’t wish to take anything away from how hard I’m sure she’s working in training, it should be noted many road and track records have been broken over the past couple of years due to the innovation of carbon plates in shoes. I am slightly sceptical Eilish would have been breaking Radcliffe’s records without them (at least in the near future); but many past records have been broken due to now-forgotten reasons outside of better athletic prowess. And in the longer term, unless the IAAF backtracks on the use of carbon plates, these records will become the new standard. All power to her – she’s still the best we’ve seen in a long time.

Whatever the reason, I have no doubt Eilish McColgan is going to go on to greater things as she gets the benefit of higher mileages and moves up to the longer distances permanently. At 31 years old, she has potential for another Olympic cycle in her and maybe more. I’m sure she will be looking to emulate her mother by taking on the London Marathon and other Majors.


Bonus content – Eilish is listed in Wikipedia at 1.80m (5’11). In my article on stride length I observed her cadence averaging 172 steps per minute giving her a stride length of 1.97m. It’s easy to think this is because she is tall and to an extent it is. But, as I also pointed out, Eliud Kipchoge (1.67m – 5’6”) has a stride length of almost two metres – about 15% greater than his height.

A quick look back at Paula Radcliffe running mile 5 of her record-setting 2003 London Marathon shows her running with a stride length of 1.67m (186-88 cadence) when she is 1.73m tall (5’8”). It’s a decent stride but it’s shorter than she is!

Update on my 800m training – Oct 2021

The time had come to run another 800m time trial and find out whether JackD’s plan was working. 

A quick recap – last December I ran 2:58 to set a baseline. In April, after following Jack’s plan for a cycle, it reduced by only five seconds to 2:55. I then did six weeks of endurance training and it reduced a little more to 2:53 in early June. This was where I started my second cycle of Jack’s training from. The summer was then spent following the plan as best possible allowing for hamstring strain in July and a fast parkrun in August. I did all but three of the scheduled sessions.

So here I was back at Poole Park and having gone through my usual pre-run routines, this time I ran 2:50, maybe 2:49. Still no significant improvement. This was highly disappointing given I thought I was capable of breaking 2:40. Back in early September I ran 1:58 for 600 in training – that’s 2:40 pace so I should have been faster on the time trial. But it wasn’t to be. Realistically when I got to the October time trial I’d already passed my peak and was on the way downwards hence the poor showing on the day.

There’s no doubt I’ve generally got faster and fitter from the training but it’s not resulting in faster times over 800. If anything all I’ve done is brought the average of training up. I’ve not got significantly faster in the top-end speed – I ran 37-38secs for the first 200m of this time trial, back in December it was 39-40 secs. That two second per 200m improvement simply reflects what’s happened in the time trials.

World class 800m runners are easily capable of running twenty-five seconds for 200m – even the women. I’m nowhere close to that, maybe thirty-five seconds at best. So I’ve got to find a way to improve top-end speed because if you start running 200 quicker then the subsequent sections all get quicker. Even with a drop-off 400 is covered in under a minute and so on.

Endurance rebuild

Following the time trial, I knew I needed to let my legs recover. I spent a week doing very easy jogging. And that’s all it was – jogging. I’ve come to realise that when I’m past my peak it’s because my body has begun switching Intermediate fast-twitch fibres over to anaerobic mechanism and these can only be rebuilt through endurance training – lots of easy running, no speedwork.

My first Sunday run of the rebuild saw my heart-rate barely going over 130bpm during the entire run. Yet it still felt effortful in its own way which always highlights a drop in endurance. In the following days the pace picked up but I was still only barely running 8-min/mile until my legs came back. Yet by end of month I was beginning to see some miles closer to seven minutes and even putting in a couple of 6:50s on Steady runs. My final Sunday long run of the month was close to where I’d been in late August. Theoretically I could have picked up the 800 training again but I want to spend the winter on endurance as all world-class runners have a large aerobic base.

Form drills

Recognising my top-end speed isn’t good enough, I started looking at how to improve my general sprint speed without resorting to hillwork which usually overpowers my endurance. As I detailed in Stride Length, I’ve been thinking about how to improve this and started doing more drillwork – marching, A-skips, B-skips and straight leg bounding – to try and improve my running form. And boy, did it improve.

From the first day of drills I could feel my left glute hasn’t been working, my knees haven’t been lifting enough and my lower legs (the calf) have been inhibited in extending the stride. That inhibition has come from previous attempts to improve form where I looked to get rid of heel striking. There is so much conflicting information out there, most of it by people who are interested in very, long distance running rather than speed.

Given it’s ten minutes after an easy run twice per week, I’ve really enjoyed doing the drill work. I think it’s a new challenge and I can feel it’s going to help. The disappointment of the time trial has quickly gone.

Pistol squats

When I was researching exactly how to do sprint drills I came across heptathete Chari Hawkins doing a pistol squat.

Trying one I couldn’t get anywhere close even hanging onto my kitchen counter! It occurs to me that at the bottom of the pistol squat is very much the sort of position sprinters push out of from the start blocks. Developing it must be useful for getting faster especially as Chari Hawkins can run a 24.4sec 200m.

So I’ve begun doing daily squat work and discovered my left leg is weaker than my right. Much of that is related to muscles around the left hip which has impacted my running stride in the past. Doing the squat work has begun to strengthen this.

Combined with the drill work, my running form has changed massively in a couple of weeks. I’m feeling stronger and more balanced in my running. I’m sure my stride length is increasing simply because I have a stronger push off.

Coming up

The next block of dedicated 800m training is a long way off. I’m going to use this winter to build endurance. I feel that’s also holding me back. The best 800m runners in the world all have big aerobic systems which reflects in their easy runs being in the 6-7min/mile range – currently that’s top end aerobic running for me; not easy. I need to build mine up while maintaining contact with my speed.

I’m hoping to maintain speed through a fortnightly fast parkrun (as well as drills and strides). It’s a long time since I went to parkrun and ran fast regularly. I feel sometimes I’ve got so focused on training that I don’t get the reward of actually racing fast. My first fast parkrun on Oct 23rd came in at 21:20 at Upton House. While it was a four second PB over August, I know there’s much more to come as the legs were fatigued from a big week of running.

The other thing I’m looking forward to is Christchurch 10K in mid-December. While I’m not intending to do any specific 10K training for it, I am focusing on it and will taper for it. After that I will probably look to run a decent half-marathon next spring before resuming 800m training again. It’s all a long way off and yet it’ll fly by!

More stride length – Eliud Kipchoge

Previously I talked about the stride length of 400m hurdlers, 800m runners and 10K runners. I thought it would be interesting to have a look at Eliud Kipchoge – the world’s premier marathoner.

Kipchoge is famed for his excellent running form and economical stride and in Oct. 2019 he became the first man to run a marathon in under two hours. I found footage of the run on Youtube and watched a section from the last kilometre to calculate his stride length.

How to calculate stride length manually

You can skip past this section if you’d rather not get into the details

As we know Speed = Stride Length x Stride Frequency.  We can rearrange that as Stride Length = Speed divided by Frequency. And because Speed is actually the distance covered in a time period (e.g. miles per hour); we can convert it to a Pace (e.g. 15mph is 4min/mile because 60mins / 15 = 4).

We need to find out how fast he’s running and how many steps he’s taking in a set period to be able to calculate the stride length.


Step 1 – Watching the footage I found a section where the camera showed Kipchoge for a decent length of time; the longer the better as it gives a more accurate sample. The particular segment lasted twenty seconds.

Step 2 – I counted the number of times his left arm swings. It doesn’t matter whether you count armswings or footsteps they’re going to match. Generally though I find armswings are easier to count. I counted thirty armswings.

Step 3 – As this was a twenty second clip, I had to triple it to get the cadence for a minute (3×30 = 90). But this was only for the swing of one arm so I doubled it (90 x 2 = 180) to get the total for both arms. Given arms and legs swing at the same rate, it gives the number of steps per minute – 180. Very conveniently it’s also three steps per second.

Step 4 – The marathon was run in 1:59:40 – an average pace of 4:34/mile. I remember Kipchoge was very consistent in his pacing so I’ve got a high level of confidence that his is how quick he was covering the ground.

Now I calculate how many steps Eliud covers in his 4:34 mile. In four minutes he covers 720 steps (180×4) and then in the remaining thirty-four seconds takes another 102 (34×3) for a grand total of 822 steps per mile.

Step 5 – As a mile is 1,609 metres and we know Kipchoge takes 822 steps to cover it, it works out that his stride length is 1.96metres  (1609 / 822).

NB This final step has an implicit conversion from Imperial to Metric measuring systems. I could have gone metric earlier as I know he was running at 2:50/km, so he was taking 510 steps per km (1000/510 = 1.96) to get the same stride length.

Kipchoge’s Stride Length

If you skipped straight down here, let’s recap …. at his marathon pace of 4:34/mile, Eliud Kipchoge is taking 180 steps per minute with a stride length of 1.96 metres. What’s interesting, and defeats those people who say they have little legs, is that Kipchoge is only 1.67m tall (5’6”) – his stride is over 15% longer than he is tall.

I also found video of 18-year-old Eliud Kipchoge winning the 5000m gold at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. His running form looks a little less smooth than these days but he was still able to win in 12min52. I counted steps for one of his 400m laps close to the end of the race – he completed it in a touch under 1min05 – a pace of 4:21/mile. He took 202 steps and that works out to a stride length of 1.83 metres. Surprisingly it was shorter than he ran for a whole sub-2 marathon but may begin to explain why his form looked less smooth.

Nonetheless whichever race you look at Kipchoge’s stride length is bigger than he is tall and that’s worth thinking about.

Stride Length

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.

Paula Radcliffe still getting air time at mile 25 of 2002 Chicago marathon

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 Formula

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.

Garmin stats from a run – avg stride length highlighted

Elite stride length

400m hurdlers

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.

Women’s 10K

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.

Ordinary runners

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.

I wrote another article looking at Eliud’s Kipchoge’s stride length and detailing how I calculated it here.