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David Roche

David Roche

9:43 AM on Thursday, September 6, 2018   •   Edited

The Seemingly Magic Power of Strides

Some Work, All Play Running (https://swaprunning.com) is Strava's Featured Coach for September and we'll be posting on a training topic each week. Big thanks to Strava for the honor and an amazing service! This week: strides.

Running training is a lot like skill development for any complex task . . . it’s about practice. But practice alone is not enough. You need to practice efficiently. And that’s where strides come in.

Think of piano practice. The process of going from a novice to an expert won’t happen if you just hammer the keys like a drunk uncle that found a grand piano at the wedding reception. Instead, you practice purposefully, learning the basics and progressing from there. The same goes for becoming a top chef, surgeon, or politician (though based on 2016, the drunk uncle thing may work well in politics).

Now think of running training. Many runners just starting out think about logging lots of miles, doing some hard intervals and tempos along the way. In the process, some unfortunate souls are unwittingly capping how good they could become, like the wannabe pianist just pounding the keys. The problem is that the practice isn’t as efficient as it could be. To run fast, you actually need to learn how to run fast and reinforce that skill constantly.

Strides are how practice actually makes perfect. There are lots of definitions for “strides” in running methodology, kind of like how they say there are dozens of Inuit words for “snow.” Here we’re talking about 15 to 30 seconds of faster running with 30 seconds to 2 minutes of easy recovery between each. We tell our athletes to run them at the fastest pace they can without straining, which usually equates to mile/3k race pace for advanced athletes and faster for beginner athletes. Strides can be done on hills, flats, or even slight downhills.

Before getting to why strides have seemingly magical powers, a story might help set the stage. In December 2016, Andrew Skurka had trained his butt off for a couple decades, earning National Geographic Adventurer of the Year honors, finishing 2nd at the Leadville 100, and running a 2:44 marathon PR. At 35 years old, he wanted to lower that marathon PR by the April 2017 Boston Marathon. But how can someone that has trained so hard for so long improve? At 35, hasn’t the speed ship sailed?

Andrew reformulated his training, going from lots of miles and hard interval sessions to an emphasis on strides. A typical workout before might have been 6 x 1 mile at 10k effort. After the change, it might be 10 x 20 seconds fast with 1 minute easy recovery. And with that minor speed stimulus from strides, he noticed a massive change. Not only did he get better at running really fast . . . his aerobic threshold paces got faster too. He added longer workouts after developing the speed skill and went on to run 2:32 at Boston in 2017, lowering his PR another notch to 2:28 at Houston in 2018, all while continuing the ultra adventures he was known for in the off-season.

N=1! We are shouting that at our computer screen so you don’t have to. But that story repeats itself constantly when athletes introduce a speed stimulus like strides, especially for beginners. As coaches, some of the transformations we have seen have been shocking, including from top pros. Why might strides be so beneficial for some athletes?

A 2018 study from the journal Physiology Reports may provide a clue. In the study, 20 trained athletes did 10 sessions of 5 to 10 x 30 seconds fast in a 40-day training cycle. That amounts to just a few minutes of intensity a week. The most interesting outcome is that not only did these athletes get better at running fast for short durations, their 10K time trials improved by 3.2 percent too. On top of that, their velocity at VO2 max improved by 2%.

But here’s the really fun part: their actual VO2 max didn’t improve at all. In other words, all that changed was their running economy. Something about the strides made their bodies use less energy to go the same pace.

Other studies have similar findings. Usually, the pace improvements level out after initial improvement. However, if an athlete turns other knobs on training, they can use that newfound running economy to improve workouts and long runs. Do some more strides off the new fitness base later on (whether it’s 40 days, as in a 2017 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports; or in a future training block, as Lydiard often had his athletes do), and economy can improve a bit more. The fitness snowball can start rolling downhill, a positive feedback cycle that turns you from a beginner to an expert, or from an expert to a world-class pro.

The physiology of the running economy improvements involves so many variables that a full discussion would require a few textbook chapters. For most athletes, you can just think of it like ingredients in a hearty gumbo. There’s a dollop of musculo-skeletal strength from the maximum power generation of each stride; a handful of neuromuscular adaptations as the central nervous system improves power output per stride; a heaping helping of biomechanical efficiency as form improves to handle the new stimulus; a pinch of aerobic development from enhanced cardiac stroke output. There might even be a few other delicious adaptations that are tough to measure, like smooth muscle contractile force.

For our athletes, most will do strides 2 to 4 times a week year round, usually 4 to 6 x 20 seconds fast with 1 to 2 minutes easy in between. As you introduce the stimulus, it may need to be center stage in your workout plan, with just easy running for a month or two, working up to 10 to 15 x 30 seconds fast. Later on, it can be done near the end of normal easy runs. We usually have our athletes slow down or eliminate their strides before longer races to avoid too much of a speed emphasis, though if the strides are done with full recovery and are not at a full sprint, that is not much of a concern.

Harness the power of strides, and you might figure out a magic trick. All along, you thought you were a normal, everyday runner, doomed to slog around. But add strides, and VOILA! You had a speedy superbeast lurking inside your physiology all along.

-Coaches David & Megan

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