Every so often a runner will ask me, “should I change my stride?” Now, this may be asked in reference to treating or preventing an injury, or it may be from a suspicion that altering one’s gait pattern will result in faster running or greater endurance (or both!).
I can certainly understand where this comes from; years ago I would watch Steve Prefontaine or Jim Ryun racing on T.V. and marvel at their fluid, graceful strides that seemed to gobble yards and yards each step, and with such little apparent effort! If I can look like that, I thought, I can run as fast as they do. And so I would go out with a firm mental picture of the perfect running form, try to imitate it as best I could and…well, obviously you know it didn’t work since none of you ever saw me in the Olympics. Not only did I not run any faster, but I discovered very quickly that I could not maintain that “perfect” form for very long without becoming very fatigued. I was disappointed, but at least I could take consolation in what I thought was the perfect excuse: my legs are so much shorter than those guys’, even if I “look” like they do when I run I couldn’t possibly match the length of their stride, so of course I run slower! Then along comes little Joanie Benoit and out goes that theory.
I suspect many of you have gone through this little scenario yourselves at one time or another and, like me, have found through experience that trying to change your running stride doesn’t really work. Perhaps it will give you some comfort to know that this has been scientifically validated as well. Dr. Peter Cavanaugh, world-renowned Professor of Biomechanics as Penn State, and others have researched the relationship between leg length, stride length, running speed and efficiency. Some of the findings: at any given speed of running, each individual has a stride length that is “optimal” in terms of minimizing the energy needed for running; forcing an individual to lengthen or shorten his/her stride even slightly will result in an increased energy cost of at least 1-2%; contrary to common assumption, tall subjects do not always have longer optimal strides than shorter individuals.
It comes down to this: your body knows what’s best, not only in terms of overtraining and injury as we have seen before, but also with respect to what is most efficient. Listen to it and just run the way it wants to.