Monday, 4 July 2011

I can make you run faster...


Lose weight, run intervals, run hills, do tempo runs, do higher mileage. They are probably the five most common pieces of advice on how to speed up your running. They all work too, either because they gradually get you physically and physiologically 'acclimatised' to faster running so you can maintain a faster pace on race day; make it easier for your body to propel you (in the same way that you could throw a cricket ball further than a shot put) or gradually improve your running form so you become more efficient.

Good though they are they are not what I'm advocating today though.

I'm going to suggest something that is mentioned in almost all running coaching books but that rarely gets more than a few sentences: stride rate, or how many steps you take each minute.

Put simply the speed we run at is a product of stride length and stride rate. Logically, if you increase either of these you run faster.

Maria has recently had some success using Audiofuel downloads. From what I can see they contain music that has set beats per minute in different intervals and that these beats drive differing stride rates, and that the faster stride rates equate to faster intervals.

There are a range of different plans that can be bought from Audiofuel and they look to have cleverly created a market niche for an aural training tool. I am certain that following their plans will deliver some improvement but only from the gradual physiological and psychological benefits that could be gained from any interval training or even doing the odd fartlek session.

Bob Glover, Danny Dreyer, Jack Daniels and Matt Fitzgerald, for example, will all tell you your stride rate should be as close to 180 strides per minute as possible. Audiofuel too, utilise that number but in a very different way.

The coaches tell us its the magic number for everyone, elite or not. Some people will run slightly faster (probably because they are shorter) and some a few less (if taller) but all will be as close as possible to this number irrespective of how fast they are running.

If you watch a race on TV the elite runners will all run at more or less the same stride rate of 180 per minute BUT they'll run at that rate regardless of whether they're running faster (e.g. 5k) or slower (e.g. a marathon), and they'll maintain the rate irrespective of whether they're doing a slower middle lap or a fast last lap.

So, coaches advocate (and elites demonstrate) that speed is increased by stride rate remaining constant while stride length varies. Audiofuel ostensibly encourages the opposite: that stride length stays constant while stride rate varies. I say ostensibly just because I suspect that in traditional intervals style the Audiofuel intervals will have an extremely gradual effect of speeding up base stride rate.

When an elite, or just an efficient runner, lengthens their strides they do it not by trying to reach further with their leading leg but by hitting the ground harder, getting more rebound energy, and floating in mid air for further between foot strikes. That's very different to many of us, who are encouraged by our footwear to run in a different way, but I'll come back to that later.

So far all I've done is ramble on about stride rate and elites, whilst raising a couple of doubts over what has become a popular product, when the title promised rather more.

So, here's what I propose, and like me its very simple:

  1. Order yourself a small plastic clip on metronome. They are about 3cm square, designed for clipping to music stands and can be set to beep at various rates. They cost less than £10 and can be bought from Amazon.
  2. Get your stopwatch and set it to bleep after counting down for one minute. Run this minute in the middle of a run and at your normal pace. As you do so count how many strides you take.
  3. Now you know your current stride rate and you know that you should be running at 180 so you need to close the gap.
  4. Set your metronome to a few bpm higher than your current rate and for the next week run to that rate. If you came in at 160 you might set it to 165 etc.
  5. The week after increase it again and keep doing this until you get to 180.
Don't try and run any faster though - you need to keep this up for the whole run and not just a short interval. To do that you need to shorten your stride not maintain its length. That's the key difference to Audiofuel.

This will result in your running at the same pace as normal but with a faster stride rate and it should mean you actually feel its far, far easier and not harder to run at that stride rate. It should feel like you're shuffling along. You won't be but it will feel like that at first. That's a good sign. If it feels tiring then you are trying to run faster and maintaining your old stride length - you must shorten it.

The reason it should feel easier is that many of us overstride - we use a bounding stride and reach forwards with the leading leg with the heel striking first, in front of the body. This has two big problems. Firstly there is a lot of wasted energy propelling us upwards rather than forwards, and secondly (as any GCSE Physics student would tell you) Newton's third law comes into play so that as the foot impacts with the ground in front of us there is an equal force pushing us backwards. So, each step has a braking effect - rather like trying to drive the car while repeatedly just touching the brake it'll limit your speed, limit your economy and 'components' might wear out more quickly.

A shorter stride, by contrast, encourages a footstrike beneath the body. This reduces wasted upwards motion and eliminates the braking effect. With a shorter stride achieving the optimum stride rate is pretty easy and it will leave you a faster, more efficient runner for what will certainly feel like less effort.

Not sold yet? Still think 180 sounds like it'll be too hard?

Let me give you a real world example: a (then) 40 year old who had been running for about 3 years; who couldn't run more than 20 miles/ 3 times a week without lower leg injuries, who had a (flat course and cool weather) 10k PB of 53:01. Me.

I was filmed by a coach and when she replayed the video she showed my slow, bounding, heel first gait and said this was the only thing holding me back. From memory I was running at somewhere in the upper 150s for stride rate. She advised the approach I've given above.

I did so and started to increase my stride rate. The very first time I did this I ran 10 miles and found had it been a race I'd have broken my 10 mile PB and afterwards didn't feel in any way out of breath and the next day felt none of the usual soreness or fatigue.

A few weeks later I had got up to 180 stride rate and ran a 10k on a humid day on a far from flat course that finished with a last mile that went relentlessly up hill. I ran 46:03.

That's seven minutes off the PB and all done quickly through shortening my stride and through doing so increasing my stride rate.

Give it a go!


~Jessica~ said...

Argh, the science is blinding me! Just so you know, I had to read this post three times before I could even begin to get my thick head around it, and even then I had to squint a bit.

When I did finally get into my skull what you were saying, it made a lot of sense. I've always worried that I don't seem to leave the ground much when I run, that I do rather shuffle and certainly don't 'bounce' upwards at all as a lot of other people do. It looks a bit ungainly but perhaps it's actually better, according to your post? It's just how I run naturally though, and you know how I'm a zen (haha) runner rather than a scientific/actually pay attention to what you are doing runner. With the length of my leggies, I bet I'm probably at 200 strides or something like that ;)

Sarah said...

Thanks for a really informative post. I don't know a lot about the science behind running, would what you said really made sense.
Although I'm still a novice, I will give your tips a try at some point.

Maria said...

Thanks for this (and I agree with Jess- I had to read it twice!!)- I remember before you mentioned about buying a metronome for running with (and I had visions of running along with the big pyramid shaped one that we used to have on top of the piano). You are right about the heel striking, and that was what always confused me before about the 180 steps per min being optimum, but those elites will have a proper running style. I think my average is about 165/170 per min, as thr 155 and 160 sections of audiofuel feel very slow, and that must be because I am short that I take small steps. But I like these tips- might even look up a metronome later.

Laura said...

Very interesting post... I'm so crap at trying to do this, I always lose count before the minute is up or get distracted day dreaming or something :S gonna bookmark this anyway will have to try it properly!