August 3, 2021
Earlier this year I was having a running session with friend and coach Helen Hall (yes I work with a coach from time to time…so does Roger Federer!) and she commented on the fact that my stride was too short when I was climbing a hill. Deeply wounded, I went to a long explanation about how you need to lean forward and shorten your stride on the up hill because on the slope your foot naturally comes down sooner and you don’t want to over stride blah blah blah. She was very understanding and asked me on the next rep to imagine there was a bit of air (besides all the hot air I was producing!) under my thigh as I climbed the hill and to not lean forward. Low and behold I got up the hill quicker and easier and even more impressive, was not breathing any harder at the top than I had been at the bottom. Besides being pretty chuffed at my new found hill climbing prowess, I was a bit puzzled. Why did I need to change my “exemplary” hill climbing technique which I had developed over the years based on much practice and study? What had gone wrong?
Years ago, I remember one of the main reasons for changing from being a heel striker to a forefoot runner was to reduce BRAKING. When the foot drops down naturally underneath the hip it land either flat or towards the forefoot. I certainly didn’t want to slow my hard earned speed with unnecessary braking so the conversion to forefoot running began. At the same time, I developed a certain antipathy for the long slow stride I’d observed in some runners and developed a running style based on a very quick cadence…over 190 steps per minute. I remember snapping at a fellow runner who commented on how short my stride length was with “how can you tell from behind me!!”
Now running speed is a function of cadence (the number of steps you take per minute) and stride length (how long each step is) Your potential as a runner is the best combination of these elements. If your stride is long but slow or conversely quick but short you probably haven’t found your ideal stride yet.
Of the two elements, it’s my experience that cadence is the easier to improve. Trying to increase stride length often leads to ‘over-striding” where the foot comes down well in front of the hip and produces the dreaded braking effect which is linked to injury, wasted energy and slower running speeds.
What I realized upon reflecting on the session with Helen is that by trying to avoid over-striding I was inadvertently putting my foot down on the ground sooner than needed thereby unnecessarily shortening my stride. For those of you good at math, calculate what 1 inch (2.5 cm) per stride works out to over the course of a marathon…I think it adds up to more than a kilometer!!
Thinking of ‘big air’ (like the snow boarders) under my thigh encouraged me to let me leg float a little longer and thereby helped lengthen my stride without adding any extra effort. And because I was not looking for extra length in my stride by reaching with my foot I managed to avoid increasing braking forces as my foot just dropped underneath me when I ‘ran out of air.” BONUS. The result has been a new found confidence and pleasure with hill running as well as increased speed on the flat. DOUBLE BONUS.