Could Shortening Your Stride Be the Key to Better Running? | Sports Medicine May 2012

Minimalist shoes, initial contact (heel, midfoot, or forefoot), chi running—we’ve all heard numerous techniques for the safest, most efficient way to run.

It’s true—there are multiple factors to consider when developing an efficient stride. Harvard’s Daniel Lieberman and Christopher McDougall, author of Born To Run, believe we need to run barefoot in order to strike the ground with less force.

However, according to a recent study from Bryan Heiderscheit, a physical therapist and PhD from the University of Wisconsin, reducing your stride length and increasing your step rate may be a better alternative that will substantially reduce the load at the hip and knee, and may prove beneficial in the prevention and treatment of common running-related injuries. Ultimately, this increased step rate may be the common denominator we all have been searching for when finding running efficiency.

Physical therapists have been adjusting gait patterns for many years. When your knee hurts, they can show you how to walk with less pain. When you run with pain, they can correct your mechanics, allowing you to run pain-free. Running barefoot in small increments is an excellent and historic technique when learning proper form, ut there is a risk based on your body’s tolerance for running barefoot. Increasing step rate, on the other hand, seems less risky.

Consider these points:

For each action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. According to Heiderscheit, increasing your step rate by 5 percent and 10 percent can reduce energy absorption load at the knee by as much as 20 percent and 50 percent, respectively. The reduction in vertical displacement of the whole body’s center of mass that accompanies a shortened stride length produces a significant decrease in mechanical energy absorption, particularly at the knee. Maybe this increase in step rate is the reason forces were lower for barefoot runners?

Practice makes perfect. A recent study by James Becker from University of Oregon’s Department of Human Physiology compared shoe runners and barefoot runners and found foot-strike pattern is a poor predictor of impact loading. Therefore, a runner with a large-impact load does not correlate to the runner being a heel-striker; nor does the alternative of a runner with a low-impact load correlate to a midfoot- or forefoot-striker. It is difficult to change one factor without inducing change in the other. Naturally, changing from one’s preferred pattern can often times lead to increased oxygen consumption and decreased performance. Instant gratification is not common, and change takes much diligence. On the other hand, retraining painful biomechanics is easier due to compliance and performance.

Run more, hurt less. Continued research will help narrow down these multiple factors (initial contact, barefoot, minimalist shoes, traditional shoes, or step rate) to which is the greatest. In the meantime, increasing your step rate seems to be simple and safe, and best of all, there is little energy cost. A 5 to 10 percent increase in step rate has been shown to have little change in oxygen consumption. One hundred eighty steps per minute is an efficient step rate, according to well-known distance-running coach Jack Daniels.

Searching for your efficient stride is a lifelong lesson and changes with age. If you decide to try a new stride, then be careful. The wise runner listens to their body.

Andy Bowen

Andy Bowen

Andy Bowen MS, PT is co-owner of Green Mountain Rehabilitation & Sports Medicine and the new Green Mountain Running Medicine Shop in Burlington. He loves playing in the beautiful Green Mountain state with his family and friends. You can contact him through greenmtrehab.com.