Running strides are easy, effective, and help you run faster in less than 90 seconds!
What if I told you that there was a way to get faster, to improve your running form, quicken your feet, better prepare for a race, and have some fun, all in less than 90 seconds of work? I’d say sign me up.
The good news that such a thing actually exists. This simple speed development drill is a staple of track and field and cross country teams all over the world. Yet many recreational runners are missing out on a classic tool that can massively improve their running.
It’s called the stride. Or striders, or accelerations, or stride-outs. Lots of names for the same awesome skill. But what it’s not is a sprint or a surge. I’ll get to those a little bit later.
In this post, I’m going to get into why strides are so amazing, what they do for you, and tell you exactly when and how to do them.
If you are a beginner, they are the absolute best way to begin with speed. If you’ve been running a while but have never tried some strides, they can help break you out of a plateau. And if you are a master’s runner, strides are simply the best way to maintain and perhaps even improve your skills and speed as you age.
Running Strides Benefits Every Runner at Every Stage
Now, even if you’ve been doing strides for years, this is a perfect article to reinforce everything you’ve been doing right for your running! And you just might learn a new tip to perfect them.
What Are Strides?
Strides are 20 to 35 seconds of very fast running. It is not an all-out, chased-by-a-tiger effort, but rather 85 to 90% of all out. If you want to attach a race-pace effort, it’s about your mile race pace, but I always hesitate to use race paces to describe the pace of a particular drill like strides.
The reason for that is primarily because most people have no idea what their one mile race pace is. Even if you decided to go find out how fast you could run a mile by heading out to your local high school track tomorrow, that’s not going to be accurate. Why? Because unless you’ve spent weeks or months or even years specifically training for the mile, whatever you run alone on the track is not representative of your potential at the mile.
But even if it was, even if you know precisely what your best mile race pace is down to the tenth of a second, it makes zero difference when it comes to your stride pace. And that’s because strides are not about pace. They are not even about speed.
A better way to think of them is that they are a speed development drill. You are practicing running fast so you can get better at running fast. How fast you actually run a stride is not the point. How well you run a stride is.
But before I get to exactly how you do your strides right, let’s talk about why you should incorporate them into your running in the first place.
Why You Should Run Strides
Strides have a ton of benefits and there are 5 main reasons to use them:
- Strides help you work on running mechanics and excellent form in short little pieces. It’s hard to stay 100% present and focused on running your best all the time. But with 20 or 30 second strides, you can micromanage all the little form details with your full attention. Since strides are done after an easy run or before a hard workout, your body and your brain aren’t too tired to pay attention with laser focus.
- Strides are the perfect introduction to speed for beginner runners. If you are just starting out, the thought of running a mile or two at any pace is challenging, let alone trying an intimidating speed session that you are simply not ready for. Strides are a perfect way to get to know what fast running feels like and they can jump start your progression into speedier workouts.
- Strides add a little spicy speed to the legs of long distance runners. Because most of your runs either need to be slow to build up your aerobic system or at tempo pace to build stamina, marathoners’ legs can feel a bit stale after weeks of training. Strides offer you a great way to inject some speed work into your training plan without having to sacrifice a whole day of training. Just a few strides a couple of days a week can sprinkle in some fast footwork without sacrificing specific training.
- Strides are a perfect drill to add into your warm up routine for your speed days and races. After 10-20 minutes of jogging, add some strides and other form drills before you start your intervals or your race. The burst of speed will remind the legs there is work to do and get the adrenaline pumping.
- And finally, strides are FUN! There’s nothing like flying down the road pretending you are Usain Bolt or Allyson Felix. Running fast is fun and strides make you feel fast. If only for a few seconds.
As you practice strides over weeks and months, you no longer have to concentrate quite so hard, because great form while running fast is starting to feel more normal. And that will eventually translate to more natural fast running on race day.
How Strides are Done
So what is the best way to do strides? Remember I said they are not a sprint and not a surge. So what the heck are they?
What to Do During the Rest
Typically, a set of strides will include 4 to 6 strides, with 2-3 minutes of full rest in between. When you come to the end of your stride, stop completely, catch your breath, and let your heart rate come back down to near normal. Some people stand, others walk, and others prefer to jog slowly back to the starting point.
All of those choices are fine, but if you let me choose, I prefer my athletes not to jog in between. The goal of the rest is full recovery and that will happen better without the jog. With a full recovery, it’s always easier to run faster in any distance and strides are no exception. So set yourself up for success on each rep and get as recovered as possible.
The Three Phases of A Stride
A common misconception about strides is that they are sprints. Let’s imagine elite sprinters racing the 100m dash. They start at zero and explode as fast as possible,reaching their peak speed as they cross the finish line and only slow down when the race is over.
Strides are different. They are not sprints. A better image to keep in your head is a bell curve.
The First Five Seconds
For your 20 second stride, you begin accelerating into your fast pace over the first five seconds. It is important to ease into the pace, and not explode into top speed to prevent injury.
After 5 seconds, you should have reached full speed. This is where you will try to stay for the middle of the stride, or about ten seconds.
The Middle Ten Seconds
During this ten second window of fast (but not all out) running, your goal is to stay 100% present and focused on the important work you are doing. This is where you are practicing your very best running, and it is far more effective if you are paying attention.
In these ten seconds, your body will do its best to find the most efficient way to run fast for you. That will look slightly different for every runner, but there are some universal form cues that you can keep in mind to help this process along.
- Focus on staying relaxed and letting your body do the work. Avoid the natural temptation to grimace or grind your teeth when you are working hard. This wastes unnecessary energy in your face and will be a harder habit to break later if you unconsciously practice this in training.
- A better habit is to keep your face relaxed or even smile. Smiling while working hard is a scientifically proven painkiller and strides are a great place to practice this technique.
- During the stride, make sure your arms are moving smoothly in a forwards and backwards motion. Your elbows drive high behind your shoulders. Any side to side or cross-body movement with your arms is a missed opportunity to propel you forwards.
- Instead of clenching your hands into fists, imagine they are blades of steel slicing through the air.
- Your entire body should have a noticeable lean forward beginning at the ankles all the way up to your nose. The nose should be the first part of your body to cross an imaginary line. Your big toe should cross last.
- Your spine is tall and straight, supported by a tight core and your shoulders are down and back.
Consciously think about landing on your midfoot, not your heel, with your knees driving you forward.
Yes, that’s a lot to think about in ten seconds! But the more you do this practice, the more habitual all this positive reinforcement will be.
But even more important than all of these form cues I just gave you is that you stay relaxed. I know for some people the words “relax” and “fast” don’t go together, but they actually can. In fact, when you can reach the point of fitness where you can run fast and stay relaxed, there is no limit to the possibilities.
Continue to stay relaxed at your top end speed. Gradually, over the last 5 seconds slow yourself to a stop.
Take the next couple of minutes to relax and catch your breath and do it again.
Strides Are Not the Same As Surges
One common misconception about strides is that they are the same as surges. While they are similar, they are not quite the same thing and do not work on the same skill.
Surges are injections of speed within a run. When pressed for time, some runners will throw a few surges into the last mile of their easy run and say that they’ve done their strides. They have not.
A surge practices the skill of running faster when you are tired. It can also be used by competitive runners when trying to shake off rivals in a race. Or it can be used to break up the monotony of a long, flat marathon. These are all good reasons to practice surges, but they are not strides.
Strides, on the other hand, is a speed mechanics tool. You practice running fast in small doses so you get used to running faster in big chunks later. Your body learns its own unique way to be smooth and efficient and soon fast running becomes second nature.
What do you think? Do you practice your strides each week? Let me know in the comments below!