How changing my running stride saved my season

Changing my running stride

Who needs to think about their running stride? After all running is easy. Right? I mean we have all been running since we were kids. Back then if we wanted to get somewhere quicker then a walk, then all we had to do was pick up the pace. We didn’t care about our stride, shoes or which part of our foot was striking the ground first. We just wanted to get moving a bit faster.

I might be considered a late bloomer to running. I didn’t run track or cross country in school. I didn’t take an interest in it until my mid to late 30’s.  I just wanted to get a bit healthier. Fast forward a decade, and I am now running long distances consistently.

I tell you all this to give you a little context. And maybe to ask a little forgiveness. You see I have been aware that I should be training a bit differently, maybe “differently” is not the correct word, “smarter” is probably better. What do I mean about this? Well I have known and written about the benefit of having different training days. And I have even mentioned the importance of rest. But I have neglected to even consider that my stride needed more attention. Well, it does!

The Symptoms

disclaimer – I am not a doctor, even though I like to self diagnose, if you are experiencing pain go see a professional.

I am going to continue pleading ignorance in this post. You see I thought it was normal to have constant joint pain. In fact, I thought I was just being a wimp if I even mentioned it. So, I kept my mouth shut, more or less, and tried to take the pain. Claiming that at least I earned it. But, for years my knees have been sore after runs. The kind of sore, where you have to grit your teeth to go up and down stairs. The kind of sore that wakes you up at night or causes you to cringe if you sit improperly. Sounds like fun right?

For me, the pain was mostly in my knees. My IT band was fine, so are my ankles ( although that is another story), my hips are/were tight but I also used to sit a lot at work.

Why change your running stride?

After running for a decade with pain, I was simply fed up.

I am training for a 70 mile ultra-marathon this summer and the increased work load was beginning to make me take stock. My knees were such a concern that I booked time with a massage therapist earlier in the year. This helped immensely. And I have been a rolling, stretching freak since. Just trying to stay ahead of the game.

This seemed to work for awhile, but about a month ago I was forced to take a week off from training just to let some things heal.

It still  is amazing to me, how time away can add clarity. In this case, I had suspected for awhile that I overstride. My cadence, as recorded by my Suunto Ambit 2 and by Strava, has always been a bit low. Not drastically though, and this is probably why I had chosen to ignore it. But, with time on my hands and a HUGE desire to figure this out. I decided to look a little closer.

So what exactly is overstriding?

There are a lot of different descriptions, but to keep it in plain english, overstriding is when your foot hits the ground well ahead of your hips. For me, I was not much of a heel striker but most overstriders are. What is even more detrimental though, is the fact that most overstriders strike the ground with the knee straight and locked out.

In case this is unclear, landing with a straight leg is not desirable. It sends shock waves up your leg and greatly increases the chance of injury.

Earlier, I mentioned my cadence. Which is the number of times your foot hits the ground in a minute. Overstriders make contact with the ground less, which may lead you to think that this would be good. After all, less foot strikes means less shockwaves. However, with overstriders locking out their leg the impact for each foot strike is considerably more.

What is the ideal cadence?

First of all you need to figure out what cadence you are running at now. If you have a newer GPS watch it is entirely likely that it will do all the hard work for you. But, if you don’t it is still easy to check. All you need to do is count how many times one foot hits the ground during 1 minute of running. Then double that number to get the total for both of your feet.

There is much talk about an optimum number being 180, and I think that is a good benchmark but it will undoubtedly change from person to person. For me, I was close to 180, averaging in the high 170s but I was still just on the low end of things. If you are hovering around 160 or lower you are more then likely an overstrider.

What exactly am I doing?

Steve Prefontaine quoteLike I said, my cadence was not that far off. But, I believe I was not in my sweet spot. I am currently working on increasing my cadence, and consciously not overstriding. I sometime use a mantra, “DO NOT OVERSTRIDE” , I say this again and again in my head just to help keep me honest.

A couple of things I did notice. First, it feels awkward. Uncomfortable even, at least at the beginning of a run. I seem to settle in after a few kms. Secondly, I am a bit slower. I think this is because I am consciously shortening my stride but not necessarily working on my cadence. Over the next month I will be giving this more attention though.

So far, the results are positive. My knee pain is greatly reduced, in fact shockingly so. I have also noticed my recovery time feels quicker, I don’t have enough data yet to confirm so this is just a gut feeling. Anyways, at this stage I am going to strongly recommend that all runners at least pay attention to their stride, as even a little overstriding can lead to big problems down the road.

 

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