Good news: Whether you’ve been running for years or you just started yesterday, the stride you’re currently using — the one that feels the most comfortable and natural — is the most economical for you right now. A new study confirms what many of us felt (or hoped) for years: Our bodies are smart and want us to be comfortable (that’s a relative term) when we run.
“We run at a natural frequency that our body wants to happen,” says Iain Hunter, a USA Track and Field consultant and professor of exercise science at Brigham Young University. He, along with statistician and uber-fast U.S. Olympian Jared Ward, recently published a paper in the International Journal of Exercise Science. Their research looked at the energy expenditure of 33 runners while carrying out various strides during the course of a 20-minute run. Of those runners, 19 were experienced runners, averaging at least 20 miles of running weekly while the 14 inexperienced runners had never run more than five miles in a week.
Not surprisingly, the expert runners had greater stride efficiency, and their running was much more economical, than the novice runners. However, when asked to change their strides — by shortening or elongating their gaits — every single runner, regardless of experience, was the most efficient when running ‘naturally’ versus trying to change how he or she was running.
Hunter, a former middle distance runner and current sub-2:20 marathon runner, says that it’s simply a matter of physics: Our bodies intrinsically know how much spring to put in our step to be the most efficient. As you run more and more, your stride will change as you become more fit and efficient, but it adjusts naturally. There’s no reason to fight to be more economical, you’re already there.
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If you’re not happy with your running as it is now, don’t start with stride correction. “Change your body condition, not your stride,” Hunter explains. That means if you have a nagging injury, a stride correction isn’t the first place you should search for answers. Rather, consider your mobility routines surrounding your runs, assess your cross training and, if needed, consult a coach or physical therapist for suggestions. Avoid randomly shortening your stride because a friend who’s been running a bit longer than you recommends it.
If your coach tells you that a stride change is imperative for your running, make sure you ask for an explanation, and ask him or her to think outside of stride change first. Hunter says that, generally speaking, letting your body dictate your stride will get you farther — you might not be the fastest guy at the track meet (yet) but you’re better off making other lifestyle and training adaptations before trying to change what comes naturally.