Most runners are in pursuit of some improvement: running faster, improving their form, and reducing injury risk. While there are no magic bullets, there are some things in running that offer outsized benefits. Running strides will yield significant improvements, for only a few seconds at time. .
Strides certainly aren’t a panacea for all areas of weakness in running. However, they are a valuable training drill for almost all runners. Who can benefit from strides?
- Long-distance runners looking to improve their running economy
- Injury-prone runners seeking to refine their running form
- Runners looking to maintain fitness during base building/maintenance seasons
- Runners returning to training after time off
- Short-distance runners wanting to further develop speed and power
Essentially, all runners can benefit from strides! Strides allow you to maintain your top-end speed – and maybe even increase it – while logging the high volume necessary for endurance training.
The Science Behind Running Strides
Runners and coaches talk about speed and endurance, but another important aspect of running fitness is neuromuscular fitness. The neuromuscular system is exactly as the name suggests – a combination of your nervous system and muscular system. By improving neuromuscular fitness, you train your muscles and nerves to work together more efficiently.
Improved neuromuscular fitness translates to better running form and a higher running economy (how much effort it takes to sustain a pace). You improve not only your max speed but the motion patterns necessary for running that speed without getting injured. Strides recruit every muscle group involved in running – and the nerves associated with those muscle groups. When repeated over time, strides rewire your nerves and muscles to coordinate better for faster stride rates, quicker cadence, and more power in your stride.
A 2018 study published in Physiological Reports demonstrates the performance benefits of strides. The study used twenty-six trained male and female runners – and the training status is important. We all know how much harder it becomes to run faster and set PRs the longer you are in the sport.
Over the course of the 40-day study duration, the runners completed 10 sessions of 30-second strides. Their 10K time was test before and after the intervention, in both regular and glycogen-depleted states. The 30-sec strides improved 10k performance in a normal state by 3.2% and by 3.9% in a glycogen-depleted state. For these runners, these were 10K trials that dropped from 45 to 43 minutes over just 40 days – with the only training change being strides!
Based on how the athletes still performed well in a glycogen-depleted state, the researchers concluded that protein expression in the slow-twitch muscle fibers were responsible for the changes in 10K time trial performance. Strides may be done at very fast intensity, but the way they change our physiology affects slow-twitch muscle fibers – which means their benefits extend to all running distances, even the marathon or ultra-marathon.
How to Run Strides
How you do a stride is more important than why you should do a stride. When done for too long, the purpose of the workout changes – it can shift from a neuromuscular drill to an anaerobic interval in the matter of a few seconds. When performed with poor form such as overstriding, you are simply reinforcing detrimental motion patterns.
To correctly perform a stride, find a flat and smooth stretch of road, trail, or track. You want to have completed either your entire run or at least a thorough warm-up. Accelerate over the course of approximately ~10 seconds while staying relaxed and smooth. Focus on a quick turnover and pushing back – not striding your feet out beneath you. You want to maintain a tall posture and a strong arm swing.
Once you reach approximately mile pace (what you feel you could sustain for 5-6 minutes if racing), maintain this pace for approximately 10-15 seconds, or until it becomes a noticeable effort to maintain. If you begin breathing heavily, you have turned this into an anaerobic workout, not a stride. Gradually decelerate over the course of a few seconds and then rest or walk for a few minutes to recover. The total time of the stride, including acceleration and deceleration, is 20-30 seconds.
The long rests between strides are essential. Much like heavy lifting, it’s not just your heart rate that needs to lower before the next interval of work. Your muscles and nervous system need to fully recover. Don’t rush through the recovery intervals to save time or fit in more strides. It is more beneficial to do only a few properly than to do a bunch without the full benefit.
If you are new to strides, begin with 2-4 strides. Over time, build up to 6-8 strides per session, depending on available time and fitness level. You can include strides after one to three easy runs per week.
Runners with existing soft tissue injuries – especially anything in the Achilles tendon or hamstring – may want to avoid strides until the injury heals. The start-stop motion of strides can worsen any acute muscle strains.
When Should You Do Strides?
When strides are prescribed on their own, they are typically done immediately after your run. This approach works best for athletes who are new to strides. Fast-twitch dominant runners also do well with strides after a run. Some more experienced runners, especially slow-twitch dominant runners, can do strides within the second half of easy runs. This approach also works well for time-crunched athletes. If you take this latter approach, it’s important that you return to zone two intensity in between the strides.
During race-specific training, you can utilize strides as part of your warm-up for intervals or a tempo run. After a mile or two of easy running, include two to three 15-20 second strides as part of your dynamic warm-up. They will prepare your body for faster running by waking up those neuromuscular connections and creating just enough muscle tension to facilitate good power output at those faster paces.
The key to reaping the rewards of strides is consistency. Whether you do them once a week or three times per week, aim for consistency across several weeks.
Common Mistakes to Avoid When Running Strides
Like many things in running, strides have an element of kinesthesia – awareness of how your body is positioned and moves. You may have to do strides a few times before you understand how your body moves during them. It is okay to take time to learn a skill!
That said, there are some common mistakes made when running strides. You want to avoid these if possible, as these mistakes may increase injury risk.
- Running strides on a steep downhill. Ideally, strides are done on a flat surface. Hill strides are also effective, in which you run strides up a hill. However, downhill running places more force on your muscles. Some runners may feel out of control running that fast down a hill. If you are in a hilly area, run your strides uphill.
- Sprinting their strides: As described above, strides are done at approximately one-mile race effort. You are not sprinting – nor are you using an exaggerated sprinting form. Sprinting is a maximum effort over 8-10 seconds. If you run your strides as fast as you physically can, you miss some of the benefits. Sprinting uses different energy production systems and has different biomechanics than strides do. Strides are alactic, which makes them minimally fatiguing when done correctly.
- Poor form: When running strides, you want to maintain a slight forward lean. If you lean back, you will not be able to hit the same peak velocity. A forward lean also keeps your feet beneath you. Overstriding (striking your feet in front of your body) on strides may increase your injury risk.
Should You Be Running Strides in Shoes or Barefoot?
Some coaches advocate barefoot strides, since runners tend to avoid over-striding and shorten their ground contact time while barefoot. Barefoot strides certainly are effective, especially if you have poor form or weak feet. However, for most runners, barefoot strides aren’t practical – so there’s no need to choose them over regular strides unless you really want to.
If you do opt for barefoot strides, be sure to perform them on a smooth grass surface free of any debris. Before jumping straight into barefoot strides, prepare your body with some barefoot drills: barefoot hops (first both feet, then single leg), barefoot bounds, and then very short (~30-50 yards or 30-45 meters) barefoot runs. Once you are comfortable with those, you can progress to strides.
Can Do You Strides on the Treadmill?
There are times when strides cannot be done outdoors. During winter, the cold temperatures and slick surfaces increase the risk of injury during a set of speedy strides. You may not like to do them during very early morning runs, when darkness hinders visibility of sidewalk cracks.
These are scenarios when runners usually opt for the treadmill. If you have strides on your schedule those days, you may wonder if you can do them on the treadmill.
The answer depends on the individual runner. Some runners can safely do strides on the treadmill. For some runners with histories of posterior chain injuries (Achilles, hamstring, etc), strides on the treadmill may place too much strain on those weak spots.
Generally, I recommend that runners extend strides to 25-30 seconds on the treadmill (to adjust for the slower pace increase of the belt) and use a minimum of a 1% incline. If you ever experience pain when running strides on the treadmill, stop.