Article 1 of 3: Short Stride vs. Long Stride
By: Jeff T. Wight, PhD
***Always check with your doctor before beginning any type of new exercise routine.
Running should feel great. Running should make you feel strong, not break you down. You should be able to run nearly every day free of pain. You should look forward to running, not dread it.
If you had any hesitation while reading these opening lines I recommend you dedicate two months to establishing “safe” running biomechanics. That is the focus of this three article series. I will teach you how to establish “low impact” running biomechanics that make running feel great and allow you to run every day (if you like).
In this first article, I will compare and contrast the biomechanics of short strides and long strides and demonstrate why short stride biomechanics are likely best for most recreational runners. Articles 2 and 3 then teach how you can establish and run fast with short strides in two months. In month 1, you safely establish a short stride. In month 2, you safely establish a high stride rate, or cadence. The high cadence is the means to running fast. So the ultimate goal is to safely run fast by taking short, quick steps. By the end of the second month you should look and feel like you are gracefully “gliding” across the ground and you will be excited to race a 5k. Your legs should feel great during and after runs throughout the entire 2 months.
As a runner, you get to choose whether you run with long, powerful steps or short, quick steps. This is an important decision—your stride length lays the foundation for your overall biomechanics. It’s remarkable how much stride length varies among runners. This is true even within the lead pack of an elite race—some runners using long powerful steps and others using short quick steps.
My recommendation for any runner who is struggling in any way is simple: try short strides! Short strides are “biomechanically-friendly”—they are easy on the body. Here’s why: when you take a short stride it is easy to land softly. Also, your leg lands in a “strong” position.
Interestingly, most recreational runners take long, bounding strides that promote big “collisions” with the ground—this can be very tough on the body and make running unenjoyable. Consequently, most recreational runners can benefit from shortening their stride.
And, yes, you certainly can run really fast with short strides! Lots of elite runners do it and so do many elite triathletes (including recent world champions). Be sure to check out article 3, where I include detailed illustrations of faster paces with short strides. I also include detailed illustrations of stroller running because short strides allow you to comfortably push an extra load.
Long Stride vs. Short Stride
It’s interesting to contrast the biomechanics of long, slow, powerful strides with short, quick, rhythmic strides. The two styles can produce similar results. But long strides tend to be a lot tougher on the body.
In the first example (see below) the runner is taking about 70 long, powerful strides each minute. The runner appears as if she is “bounding” along. The biomechanics are quite intense. To generate the long stride, the runner “reaches” forward really far with the lead foot (picture 2). The foot then lands well out in front of the body—this causes the heel to “smack” into the ground (picture 3) and it generates significant “braking” forces. Then, the landing leg bends deeply as the runner prepares to generate the next big stride (picture 5). The runner then explodes forward by extending the back leg with great effort (last picture). The “arm swing” is also full and explosive (to match the leg motions).
Short quick strides look remarkably different. In this second example the runner takes about 90 short, quick strides each minute (20 more than the first example). The biomechanics are much less intense. The runner avoids bounding. Instead, she “glides” across the ground. Because the stride is kept short, it is easy for the foot to land softly, below the body (picture 3). Consequently, the braking forces are minimized. Once the foot lands, the leg bends just enough to prepare for the next short, quick stride (picture 5). The runner then glides forward by extending the back leg with moderate effort (last picture). The arm swing is controlled and relaxed (to match the leg motions).
The runner in the photos is my wife, Erin. She was a very competitive varsity high school runner who naturally ran with long, powerful strides and big arm swings. But she has run very little since high school because, frankly, it began to hurt (especially her knees). A few months ago she tried short, quick strides. She felt a little awkward on the first couple runs. But she had no problem completing 2 miles at a slow pace—it felt easy on her legs. On her third run the short strides began to feel pretty comfortable. After a month it became “subconscious” and she began to feel like she was gracefully “gliding”. After 2 months she raced a 5k and did great—she established a comfortable rhythm during the race and finished a minute faster than she expected! Third in her age-group!
The Biomechanics of it All
There are three potential problems with long stride biomechanics:
1) Violent collision. The long stride promotes a “violent” collision between the foot and ground. The impact can be tough on the joints, muscles, tendons, etc. In contrast, the short stride allows the runner to land softly.
2) High muscular effort. To generate the long stride the runner must extend the leg with great effort. This can fatigue and/or strain muscles such as the glutes, hamstrings, and/or calves. Landing the long stride is also tough on the legs—the runner lands with the lead leg outstretched in a vulnerable position. Then, the leg must bend deeply (like when landing a jump or completing a lunge). This can fatigue and/or strain the quadriceps (and/or IT band). In contrast, the short stride is generated by pushing forward with moderate muscular effort (far from maximum effort). The landing is also much easier on the legs.
3) Joint range of motion. When taking long strides, the legs travel through a great range of motion. Take another look at the last picture of the runner taking long strides—when pushing off, the runner generates a tremendous amount of hip extension. This stretches the quadriceps and hip flexors near their limits. Any time you stretch a muscle in this manner it is vulnerable. In contrast, examine the last picture of the runner during short stride running—the hip range of motion (and muscle stretching) is minimal.
The bottom line is that short strides keep your leg muscles in their “wheelhouse”—the stretching and intensity of contractions are well within the muscles’ “comfort zone”. This is why running with short strides feels good. It’s also why short striders need minimal warm-up. I am a short strider. I need just a few minutes of warm-up to feel ready to run pretty hard. In contrast, the long striders I run with need about 15 minutes of warm-up to feel comfortable running hard. That style of running requires extreme muscle stretching and high effort contractions—the muscles must be very loose to feel comfortable running hard.
Running with short strides is not a perfect fairy tale. Taking short, quick strides requires a lot of oxygen! So when you run with short strides you will likely notice that you are breathing hard. And your limiting factor will likely be your lungs, not your legs. But that’s OK because breathing hard feels pretty good. I’d much rather breathe hard than suffer with burning legs! And soon you won’t be breathing so hard; your cardiovascular fitness will improve quickly.
I would expect the timeline to be similar for you: a month to “subconscious” and another month to establish “racing fitness”.
Next, read Article 2 to learn how to establish safe running biomechanics in a month. Then, read Article 3 to preview the second month of training. In month 2 the goal is to run fast (with your safe running mechanics).