Your cadence – the frequency of your steps – is inversely correlated with your stride and is perhaps the key to maximizing your potential as a runner. No one ever talks about this, though. Instead, grab your nearest running book and it’s about the psychology of running, how upright you need to stand, how many fartleks you need to do in order to prepare for the next race.
But your stride length is critical to everything. To illustrate, imagine your body as a bicycle. When you go downhill or you’re on flat smooth ground, you crank up the gears because you can go faster with a given amount of energy. You let the topography of the land work to your advantage. You don’t want to go down a steep hill in first gear and have the pedals whizzing all over the place while you struggle to control the bicycle. Rather you move to a bigger gear. Similarly, when climbing steep hills, you go to the smaller gear, spin the pedals faster and grind on up. You won’t go as far with each rotation, but when you are working against the grade, it is a more sustainable strategy than trying to stand up on the pedals and crank on it with a big gear.
The same is true when you go running. When you’re feeling good, on the flats, trying to grab a few extra seconds, or flying down a hill, feel free to stretch those legs and let your stride length work for you. And when you’re having a rough day, need to last a long time, or are climbing a hill, shorten it a bit. You’re not going to set any land speed records but you will be able to sustain your effort for a longer period of time.
Dogs do this subconsciously. When they are excited and full of energy, they bound forward with powerful force but when they are tired, they simply trot alongside you with short rapid steps.
We started off this discussion by talking about cadence. And that is how we will finish it. The key to all this is actually not to vary your cadence – the frequency with which you step – all that much. The key is to vary your stride length so you don’t have to vary your cadence on long runs. On shorter runs when you are going as fast as you can you want to maximize both. But on longer runs, a consistent cadence with consistent energy output will necessitate variety of stride length.
So don’t fight it. Let the hills work for you through stride length modification. Keep the tempo high and rhythmic and you’ll see two things happen. Your times will fall and you will feel less tired at the end of a run.
(Image credit: MuddyRace)