Running is the most popular form of rigorous physical activity in the world. We use it in sports, exercise, and play. Prior to cars, running was the fastest mode of transportation. We have a deeply rooted and diverse history of running to accomplish tasks.
Yet, the majority of recreational runners suffer an injury each year from running. More than 50% of collegiate runners sustain at least one bone stress-related at the competitive ranks each season.
So why the high injury rates? The answer is multi-level and isn’t too black and white, unfortunately. Most runners get hurt from:
- insufficient strength
- poor biomechanics
- improper step counts
The easiest of these is to fix the step count. Any athlete can run with quicker steps. Being comfortable with it throughout a race is the challenging aspect.
Research on Step Counts
Research shows differences between experienced vs. novice runners in step count. More experienced and advanced runners tend to have higher step counts than slower, novice runners.
There are several reasons for this. First, higher step rates are associated with lower injury risk. Experience is a great teacher. Without realizing it, runners will adjust their step rates over time to reduce stress on the body. The body’s nervous system is incredible at making compensations and corrections to avoid injury. Increasing step rate is a trait that develops with experience. How long it takes is unclear. Separate ten and 12-week training programs improved novice runners’ efficiency, but not step rates, indicating this is a trait learned over many months, perhaps years.
Another reason has to deal with running economy. Running economy refers to the efficiency of running. A distance race has to do more with running economy than who is in the best shape at the elite levels. Elite-level runners are usually pretty equal in terms of conditioning. What separates 1st and 2nd place is who can be the most efficient with their energy. Even if an athlete is in better shape than the other, the one with better running technique and stride efficiency is likely to win. Endurance sports are all about energy conservation. And for running economy, higher step rates are proven to offer better performance.
Most athletes and coaches think longer strides lead to faster times. For shorter races, they do. However, at slower paces for longer distances, the trade-off is better with shorter strides. Long strides are fast, but they cost too much energy in the (literal) long run. Long strides are great for sprinters but cause too much fatigue at cross-country distances. This leads to reductions in speed at the end of races, resulting in poorer performance. Shorter strides, though slower, allow the athlete to keep a more steady pace that endures the entirety of the race. Think of the story of the tortoise and the hare. The hare takes off fast initially, theoretically with a lower step count and a longer stride. The hare quickly fatigued and was unable to win the race in the end. The tortoise keeps a higher step count, is steady in pace, and wins the race. Research backs up the tortoise philosophy as superior for both performance and reducing the likelihood of injury.
A Word of Caution
Though most athletes would benefit from a higher step rate, this is a learned behavior and is difficult to coach. Similar research tells us it is best to let the athlete learn on their own to adjust their gait cycle. Overanalyzing can lead to other compensations, leading to worse performance. The gait cycle is incredibly complex. Telling an athlete to change one particular aspect of their stride can create numerous other compensations elsewhere, leading to more problems.
Coaches should simply cue the novice athletes to take more steps, demonstrating what that means and looks like. Keep it simple. Don’t let them think about five things, just one. Time their runs each time and see if it leads to better performance.