The Key to Improving Your Running Speed

Ashley Lauretta
by Ashley Lauretta
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The Key to Improving Your Running Speed

There are multiple terms used to talk about the number of steps you take in a minute when running; though you may not have known it, stride rate and leg turnover actually both mean the same thing. When talking about these in terms of speed, a new term — stride length — is often introduced, meaning the distance between your steps.

STRIDE RATE AND LEG TURNOVER

Having so many terms for this aspect of running can get confusing, but when it comes to speed, your stride rate/leg turnover is what makes you faster, versus the actual length of your natural stride. That’s because leg length plays a role in stride length and this can vary based on the individual. So, two runners of different heights take different length steps, but they can still run the same speed based on the number of steps they take. Confused? Holly Johnson, director of SRQ Running, which offers training for runners in Sarasota, Florida, explains further:

“The ideal [stride] rate is about 180 steps per minute, which can be easily calculated by counting your right foot’s steps for 60 seconds and then doubling that number,” she says. “That being said, this could vary between 175–180+ depending on natural stride [length].”

As Johnson puts it, the faster your leg turnover is, the faster you will run. You get a faster leg turnover, she says, by keeping your steps light to minimize the length of time they spend on the ground and avoiding stomping or slapping your feet against pavement, trail or track.

WHY THIS MATTERS

By working to increase your stride rate, you will not only get faster but you can also minimize injury. This is, in part, because you are minimizing the impact on your feet (and therefore other parts of your leg).

“[The] average impact for every step a runner takes is 300% of bodyweight. [For example], a 150 pound runner’s body impact for every step is about 450 pounds,” Johnson says. “By having light feet and faster foot turnover, it actually lessens the impact. The easiest way to feel this is to over-exaggerate a longer stride and feel that hard pounding versus shortening your stride and having faster foot turnover to feel less impact.”

After hearing that, you may think you need to solely focus on changing your natural stride to increase leg turnover, but Johnson says it actually comes down to one place in your body: the hip flexors. Doing stretches to loosen hip flexor muscles that may have become tight — from common things like sitting throughout the day — helps your range of motion and makes it easier to focus on your form.

Johnson shares that the motto ‘you need to be able to run efficiently slow before you can run fast’ is important to speed. To work on building up your leg turnover, she suggests the following workout:

LEG TURNOVER WORKOUT

  • Count foot turnover by counting the right foot’s steps for 60 seconds and then doubling this number.
  • Warm up for 10–15 minutes.
  • Try 3–5 rounds of foot counting for 60 seconds with 2–3 minutes ‘normal’ running after each minute. Then repeat.

“If you’re under 180 steps, see if you can get the foot turnover higher until you get to 180,” she encourages. “It will take a few weeks to get used to it, but it will greatly help [your] ability to run longer, farther, faster and prevent injuries.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

As Johnson said, though there is an ideal stride rate, it will vary based on the runner and their body. Even the tightness of your hip flexors can impact your stride rate from day to day — it is likely it won’t be a consistent number every single run. But by knowing your number and focusing on the impact your feet have with the ground, you can get faster.

“Every training program and stride is unique to the individual. Some people will naturally have a faster foot turnover,” concludes Johnson. “But if your stride is under 170 steps per minute you will more likely have difficulty sustaining anything longer than a 3-mile run (and are more likely to incur injuries if you do). Working with a coach and/or having your running gait evaluated is a great place to start.”

About the Author

Ashley Lauretta
Ashley Lauretta

Ashley is a journalist based in Austin, Texas. She is the assistant editor at LAVA and her work appears in The Atlantic, ELLE, GOOD Sports, espnW, VICE Sports, Health, Men’s Journal, Women’s Running and more. Find her on Twitter at @ashley_lauretta.

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