Five years after the fall of the minimalist trend in running shoes, the voices prescribing what is a “good” stride still echo around the running world and in many of our heads. We’ve all heard variations of them in some way in recent years: “Don’t overstride. Land on your forefoot or midfoot. Take quicker steps for a higher cadence. Run tall with good posture. Lean slightly forward.” And so on.
Competing with those oft-repeated calls to action are the scientific studies and articles that say changing your stride won’t make you more efficient or prevent injuries. What’s a runner to think? Heel, midfoot, forefoot: Is there really a sweet spot? What is a proper stride length? Can you actually change how your foot hits the ground? What does running with proper cadence mean? What does good running posture look like?
Every Body is Different
Here’s the truth: Experts—from coaches to biomechanists to physical therapist to podiatrists, even Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman who wrote the original “Born to Run” Nature article that started the minimalist brouhaha—agree that there is no one perfect running form for every runner in every situation. Every body is different in myriad ways, from limb lengths to joint tightness and relative muscular strengths. The beauty of the body, however, is that it isn’t a machine, requiring perfect parts in perfect alignment to function in one prescribed way. Your nervous system recruits muscles as needed out of many possible patterns to find the most efficient movement path for your specific body, creating your own unique stride signature. That signature stride might land on the heel, your cadence might be slower, or faster, than the “ideal” 180 steps per minute, one arm might swing out farther than the other to compensate for an irregularity in another part of your anatomy. And, as long as you’re able to run well, that’s all fine.
If this is the case, should we think about our stride at all? The answer is both no and yes. No, we don’t need to think about our landing pattern, ground contact time, the angle of our shin, vertical oscillation or even our cadence. These elements of stride are results of mechanisms farther up the kinetic chain. They are the result of your body finding the path of least resistance, given the body you have today. Trying to consciously change them usually leads to a less-efficient train wreck.
That said, the answer is also yes: Most of us could benefit by working to improve our strides. Instead of focusing on learning a new technique, however, the path to a better stride is by improving your mechanics. Finding your best stride requires restoring the mobility, balance and muscular strengths you had as a child, before the modern world compromised your body. (And keep in mind, too, that the more aerobically fit you are also has a lot to do with how efficient you can be, even amid your own uniquely compromised mechanics.)
How We’re All Compromised
While everyone is different both genetically and in life experience, some elements of modern life are fairly universal. One of those is the prevalence of sitting. From age 4 or 5 onward, we tend to spend most of our waking hours sitting. This wreaks havoc with our strides in two ways: our hip flexors (on the front of our hips) get short and tight, and our glutes (on the back of our hips) get underused and weak. This is unfortunate, in that the body’s most powerful, fatigue-resistant stride pattern uses the glutes to drive the leg backward from the hip.
At the same time, most of us also spend hours and hours hunched over a computer, or phone, or a book. When we’re not hunched over devices we’re driving, which involves both sitting and forward-reaching. This hunching tips our heads forward and down, rotates our shoulders inward, tightens the muscles in our chests while weakening those in our backs, and throws off our balance. Many people can no longer swing their arms behind their bodies naturally, or, if possible, it is a painful, contrived motion. A powerful, effective arm swing is all about driving backward: If your arms don’t move behind your body, neither will your legs.
As a result of our sedentary lifestyles, most of us never get fully upright and balanced over our hips and feet when standing. We maintain a kind of sitting posture even when running, and, since our tight, rotated hips won’t let us drive our stride backward, we have no choice but to reach forward and pull the ground toward us. To improve our form, the overriding goal is to get taller, more balanced, and more connected while moving our stride from in front of us to behind us so it can efficiently and powerfully push us along.
The steps to achieving this include:
- Finding a new balance over our feet
- Rotating our hips back to neutral
- Stretching our shortened hip flexors
- Activating and strengthening our glutes
- Stretching and strengthening to bring our shoulders and arms back to neutral
These steps can and must happen simultaneously. We can’t rotate our hips or hold the position very long if our hip flexors are too tight. We can’t activate our glutes if our hips are forwardly rotated. We can’t get our balance right if our arms are stuck in front of us. As we work on all of them, however, everything will come together, and each will make the others easier and more intuitive. This work involves stretching the muscles in the front of our hips and chest, and activating and strengthening those in the back—glutes and shoulders—until we’ve restored our mobility and made an upright, balanced posture easy, natural and sustainable for the length of our runs.
Rewire the System
Once we’ve started improving our mechanics, we still need to trust our bodies to find our optimal movement patterns. Years of compromised posture and mobility, however, have created neuromuscular pathways that we will repeat unless something shakes up the system and encourages rewiring. Getting injured and having to start over is one way. Less drastically, you can introduce a wide variety of new movement patterns and challenges to your workouts. Find drills that take you out of your normal range of motion; spring up short, steep hills; incorporate barefoot striders; fly down technical trails; even just try to keep up with a faster running buddy once in a while. All of these can be catalysts for your body to recruit newly-strengthened muscle groups and find new, more efficient patterns. Those patterns will likely be different in different setting and at different speeds; remember, you’re not working toward a “perfect” stride for every situation. You may not look like elite runners Shalane Flanagan, Kenenisa Bekele or Tirunesh Dibaba—you’ll look like you—but a you that is smoother, more balanced, more powerful and more robust.