Strike, Stride and Cadence - What Really Affects Your Running?
Do you heel strike? Forefoot strike? Does it matter? What about pronation - are you over pronating - and what does that even mean? Are you running at 180 steps per minute? Is your shoe supportive enough? These are things runners are talking about, but it might be time to change the discussion.
Let's start with strike pattern - the part of the foot that contacts the ground first - your heel, mid or forefoot. There is a common held notion that heel striking is bad, but this is simply not true. We know that most elite runners heel strike at some point in their run and that forefoot striking may just be a product of going faster.(1) Sprinters stay up on their toes for speed, but that may not be needed for distance running. Does this mean forefoot striking is bad? NO! What we have to accept is that no two runners are the same...period. The strike pattern is just their strategy for absorbing load and what works for them. Forcefully switching strike pattern does not ease the load of running, it just shifts it to a new area. If you are a heel striker and you switch to forefoot striking you are shifting forces more to the foot and ankle - an area that may not be conditioned to handle the increased load.
So what matters when we strike? Research is leading us to believe it is where we strike the ground, not how we strike the ground that matters.(2) Where does the foot contact the ground in relation to the body's center of mass? Many runners hit the ground too far out in front of their center, thus increasing the workload on the body. When the foot hits the ground, the body begins to absorb the energy, conserving it to use at push off. At this point, the runner basically drops into a one-legged squat. Now, try squatting on one leg with the foot way out in front of the body - it's almost impossible.
1.In the first picture note the left foot strike is close to the center of mass (blue line). 2.The right foot strikes further out, in the second picture. This runner has a history of right sided injury. 3. The runner, now running with a 5% increase in cadence (170 steps per minute increased to 178 steps per minute). Note the difference in where the foot lands as compared to the second picture, much closer to the body.
Runners compensate for over-striding by decelerating to pull the body over the leg and then absorb the load. This is a lot of work, especially with running being a sport centered around managing workload. Often, when the runner progresses to the full "shock absorbing" position, their center of mass is still behind the body, making it harder to convert to a good push-off.
This runner is in the "shock absorbing" position but the majority of weight is still back on her heel and behind the mid foot. This may affect her push-off strategy.
In this recent study from the Strength and Conditioning Journal, changing stride length was one of only two running variables that, when manipulated, made running more efficient.(1) The other was limiting vertical movement of the body - decreasing stride length actually improved this variable as well. So it's a win-win, right?
Maybe not. If we tell a runner to run with smaller steps, they may do all kinds of crazy things to make that happen and potentially cause more harm than good. I love to use the analogy of a toddler learning to drink from a cup for the first time. They may miss their mouth several times before finally getting it. They focus on, "put the cup in my mouth", but never analyze their movement or think "I must elevate my shoulder to 90° and turn my wrist 10°", etc. They just focus on the task of bringing the cup to the mouth.
The same can be true for runners. They need task-specific activities to help them learn new strategies that work for their body without forcing a one-size-fits-all pattern. Using a metronome, a device that musicians use to keep a beat, can really help. Setting a metronome to a desired cadence (steps per minute) runners can focus on the task of matching foot strikes to the metronome beats. This will influence a shorter stride and allow the foot to contact closer to the body, but also preserve their individual movement strategies.
The magic number is 180 steps per minute, right? NO!!! Again, this commonly held belief goes back to a one-size-fits-all approach. We know that no two people will have the same cadence, because no two people are the exact same size, shape and structure. This study showed that a 5-10% increase in an individual's preferred cadence may improve efficiency and decrease running related knee pain.(3) To find your individual cadence, just start running and count your foot contacts. I usually count one foot for 30 seconds and multiply by 4. Now take that number and increase it by 5%, set that new number into a metronome app on your phone and run to that beat. One very important point to note is that the pace should stay the same. You don't want go faster, you want to shorten your stride by taking quicker steps.
How often a runner uses the metronome is another individual choice as well. If a runner is injured I may recommend using it on every distance run for about a month. They can have a couple different cadences for different paced runs if necessary. Sometimes changing stride length may be enough to overcome the injury. Other times, it's a tool to keep them running while they focus on improving other aspects of running health. After about 4 weeks the runner can cut back on the amount of time spent training with the metronome.
If someone is not currently injured, I may advise them to put it on for 5 minutes of a run and then just turn it off and run without thinking about it. This gives their nervous system the chance to feel the shorter stride and then use that new movement as needed. Others will do one run a week with the metronome. I believe variability in training can be good for runners, using a metronome can be a great way to add some variability into your workouts and help make you a more resilient runner
Stay tuned next week as I discuss some of the other questions about pronation and shoes, as mentioned at the beginning of the article.
Moran, M. F., & Wager, J. C. (2019). Influence of Gait Retraining on Running Economy. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 1. Retrieved February 10, 2020, from 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000511
Christopher Bramah, Stephen J. Preece, Niamh Gill,Lee Herrington, 2019, 'A 10% Increase in Step Rate Improves Running Kinematics and Clinical Outcomes in Runners With Patellofemoral Pain at 4 Weeks and 3 Months', The American Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 47, no. 14, pp. 3406-3413
Schubert, A. G., Kempf, J., & Heiderscheit, B. C. (2014). Influence of Stride Frequency and Length on Running Mechanics. Sports Health, 6(3), 210–217. Retrieved February 10, 2020, from 10.1177/1941738113508544
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