Improve Your Stride Without Trying
By Matt Fitzgerald
Branded running techniques such as Chi Running and the Pose method have become quite popular. But are they effective? Many runners who have read the books, watched the DVD's and/or attended the clinics say they are, and no doubt they do yield results for some runners. But do they represent the best way to increase stride power and efficiency and to reduce the stride anomalies that cause injuries in most runners?
There is no scientific proof that this is the case. In fact, quite the opposite. For example, a 2005 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences reported that the running economy of 16 high-level triathletes was actually reduced (meaning the athletes became less efficient) after 12 weeks of practicing the Pose running method.
Another study of the Pose method was performed at the University of Cape Town, South Africa a few years ago. Ross Tucker, PhD, who led the second phase of that study, has told me that it had to be halted because the Pose method was causing calf strains in many of the subjects (a common complaint among Pose customers).
There is a newer theory of running biomechanics which holds that the stride is best improved unconsciously instead of consciously. It is well-known that stride efficiency and power increase automatically through subconscious processes in response to different types of training. It is not known whether consciously manipulations of stride form can be beneficial, and if so, which specific changes are beneficial for which runners. Therefore your efforts to improve your stride should consist primarily if not entirely in training methods that stimulate "automatic" gains in power and efficiency.
Here are three such training methods:
Giant Walking Lunge
Fast running requires good hip mobility. You need to dynamically achieve a high degree of hip flexion and extension to take the large strides that speed requires. The giant walking lunge is an effective exercise to develop hip mobility. To do it, simply walk forward slowly by taking the largest strides you can and lowering the knee of the trailing leg to within an inch of the floor on each stride. Focus on reaching out ahead of your body as far as you can with the striding leg. Complete 10 lunges with each leg, alternating the striding leg as you would with normal walking.
Studies have shown that plyometrics training (or jumping drills) improves running economy by reducing ground contact time and increasing the capacity of the legs to capture and reuse energy absorbed through impact. Few runners care to make time to add plyometrics workouts to their training regimen. But you don't have to. Instead, incorporate some single-leg running into one or two of the runs you're already doing every week. Start by running on just your right leg for 10 strides and then on just your left leg for 10 strides. Gradually increase the number of strides you do on each leg until you reach 30 strides per leg. You will notice that it gets easier to go longer on one leg, which is a sign that your legs are adapting to the stress and your stride is becoming more efficient.
Steep Hill SprintsIf you have never done a steep hill sprint before, you should not leap into a set of 10 of steep hill sprints the very first time you try them. These efforts place a tremendous stress on the muscles and connective tissues. Thus, the careless beginner is at some risk of suffering a muscle or tendon strain or another such acute injury when performing steep hill sprints. Once your legs have adapted to the stress they impose, steep hill sprints actually protect against injury. But you must proceed with caution until you get over the hump of those early adaptations.
Your very first session, performed after completion of an easy run, should consist of just one or two 8-second sprints on a steep incline of approximately six percent. If you don't know what a six-percent gradient looks or feels like, get on a treadmill and adjust the incline to six percent. Then find a hill that matches it.
Your first session will stimulate physiological adaptations that serve to better protect your muscles and connective tissues from damage in your next session. Known to exercise scientists as the "repeated bout effect," these adaptations occur very quickly. If you do your first steep hill sprints on a Monday, you will be ready to do another session by Thursday--and you will almost certainly experience less muscle soreness after this second session.
Thanks to the repeated bout effect, you can increase your steep hill sprint training fairly rapidly and thereby develop strength and stride power quickly. First, increase the number of eight-second sprints you perform by two per session per week. Once you're doing eight to 10 sprints, move to 10-second sprints and a steeper, eight-percent hill. After a few more weeks, advance to 12-second sprints on a 10-percent hill. Always allow yourself the opportunity to recovery fully between individual sprints within a session. In other words, rest long enough so that you are able to cover just as much distance in the next sprint as you did in the previous one. Simply walking back down the hill you just ran up should do the trick, but if you need more time, take it.
Most runners will achieve as much strength and power improvement as they can get by doing 10 to 12 hill sprints of 12 seconds each, twice a week. Once you have reached this level and have stopped gaining strength and power, you can cut back to one set of 10 to 12 hill sprints per week. This level of maximum power training will suffice to maintain your gains through the remainder of the training cycle.