Once a skill — acquired or inborn — is mastered to the extent that it becomes second nature, it tends to get taken for granted. It is, possibly, an evolutionary trait, meant to free the zones in our brain to pick up new skills and explore new avenues. Walking or running is one such skill. As far as life skills go, it is the most important one humans acquire along with the inborn, instinctive abilities to breathe and eat.
The role of walking, as bipeds, and running, in pushing humans to the top of the evolutionary pecking order, is much studied. They freed our hands and mind to explore things around, aided in the development of the musculoskeletal system, brain and neural network, expanding both human potential and our horizons.
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It works the same for a toddler breaking out. They crawl, walk, run, explore, grow… It is a joy to watch a child run, landing softly, invariably on the midfoot, making rapid strides, so to speak, towards teenage and adulthood. Walking or running becomes second nature and gets taken for granted as they enter professional lives — sedentary for most these days — till one fine day the calling comes: to run. Be it a hobby, for fitness, to manage some physical ailment, or to tick off a few marathons from the aspirations list, running takes precedence suddenly.
Running, the skill, would have remained with them through their lives. However, the neuromuscular connections, strength and balance, muscle memory even, would have waned due to disuse. With obvious, clichéd even, repercussions — inefficient or improper running form, leading to injuries. While runners try many things to manage pain and keep alive the new-found joy in moving, the least looked at factor is the stride itself, the very base of running.
Dynamics of a stride
Stride is not just about taking steps one after the other, working the leg muscles. The movement involved is more complex.
“An efficient stride would require the whole body to work in synergy,” says former international athlete Jithin Paul from Pune. “The role of arms, the core, the hips is equally important in running, along with the leg muscles. Pace is driven by the arms as well, and so when athletes train, there is a focus on strengthening upper-body muscle groups as well — which all work towards making the frame stronger and our runs faster.”
Strides propel and power movement. The cause-effect visual – a runner taking steps, and hence moving forward – is just the start. The propulsion begins from the core, while the arms action, the natural to-and-fro motion of the elbows on the side of the body, adds balance and provides additional push to the hips, which drive the legs forward. The hips should arch backwards and forwards too, a harmonic gyration. This results in a stride, a biomechanical marvel.
Stride length and pace
The popular notion is that the faster you run, the longer your stride length becomes, and vice versa. Well, there is a bit of truth in it. But it is not as simple as that either. The optimal stride length of a runner is not related to pace but the body vitals. A tall runner will naturally have a longer stride. However, a short runner could be faster than a tall one.
“Good stride length should not be hampering the movement of the runner,” says Pushpendra Singh, strength and conditioning coach of Rajasthan FC, which plays in the Indian second division (I-League). “A shorter player, for instance, will have short steps. So, trying to make it longer for him to run faster is an open invitation to injuries. We, instead, focus on analysing what the natural limit is — the person’s longest stride — then cut it back by 20 per cent. That should be the ideal stride for it will allow the person to run and maximise the potential of all the muscles involved. It will also facilitate a soft landing, good ground-contact speed, transfer of kinetic energy forward and good cadence.”
Cadence, or strides per minute, is another key parameter. Once the optimal stride length is hit upon, and aspects such as landing in midfoot softly, the hip and arm movements and the like are put in place through repeated drills, effort could be put in to increase the number of strides per minute.
“This is where strength training comes into play,” says Paul, a 400-metre hurdler, whose trade required him to be a stickler for stride length and cadence. “Increasing frequency requires faster movement of muscles, which is driven by strength. Provided you have got your running action right, and the stride length optimised, focus should be on strengthening the muscles of both the upper and lower body. That, besides running drills, will slowly lead to increase in cadence.”
How and when to do strides training
You may not be a professional runner. However, any form of training should begin with warmups and end with stretches and a recovery routine, say experts. While this routine is a given for pro athletes, laypersons tend to be lax about it in the rush to get to office or other responsibilities.
“This leads to injuries and is one of the biggest reasons why we see a lot of hobby runners needing medical intervention a few months after getting into the activity,” says Paul.
Elaborating on the stride-training routine employed by athletes, he says it begins with understanding the body dynamics. Singh, attached with a football team, can use motion sensors and high-definition cameras to conduct more than a dozen tests to look at various aspects of the kinetic chain in running. For a normal runner, that’s not feasible.
“Hence the need to listen to and understand the body,” says Singh. “After warming up, running at 70-80 per cent of your full pace, if you can manage a good soft landing and momentum that should be your baseline. The aim should be to run efficiently and safely. Pace can be addressed later.”
Paul concurs and narrates the next steps in the training drill that can help enhance the stride, be it by increasing or decreasing the length.
“We employ cones or marked running,” says Paul. “It usually would be for a 100-metre distance. We place cones equidistant, matching the stride length we want to achieve and then run landing on the marked areas. These drills are done twice a week. It is sprint training as the stride length marked would require faster running. But not your full speed. The length marked can be shortened if you feel it is straining your muscles. Other drills that we usually do involve hopping and skipping [mimicking the triple-jump action], which helps in strengthening the muscles. Flexibility and strength are important. Along with running and strides drills, strength training and stretching exercises are a must.”
Athletes or footballers work on their strides only during off season. During the competition period, tinkering will be counterproductive. For a runner who does it for fitness, there is no off season. So, the right time to work on the strides is at the start of the running journey, incorporating it while working on the strength and conditioning of muscles.
In essence, you will be jogging the muscle memory. Relearning to run, conditioning the leg muscles to take the brunt of the physical exertion, and teaching them how to move, working in harmony with the other muscle groups, and, of course, the mind.
The phrase, ‘taking rapid strides’, will then take on a new meaning for the runner in you, one that is quite literal. While it won’t be effortless (running is effort and hence a good workout), it would be painless, and of course, immensely rewarding.
- Running with an optimal stride length, with soft landing on the midfoot while carrying the momentum forward, helps increment pace and prevent injuries.
- Strides training will help in refining technique and set base for increasing cadence, which has a big say in how fast one can run.
- Strides training should be incorporated right at the starting stage of the running journey, alongside strength and conditioning drills specific to the activity.