by Dr. Reed Ferber, Ph.D. CAT(C)
Recently, there has been a recent surge in research, magazine articles, and blogs about stride rate. Let’s take a look at the science behind this commonly misunderstood biomechanical factor.
How fast you run is a function of two factors: (1) the length of your stride and (2) the frequency at which you take those strides—known as your stride rate. To run faster, either factor has to increase. For the past 30 years, the magic number of 180 steps (beats) per minute (bpm) has been discussed as the goal. This arbitrary target number has been seen as a method to increase running economy and potentially reduce joint loading during running.
The value of 180 bpm comes from the 1984 Olympics, where coach and author Jack Daniels conducted some observational research. Daniels counted the stride rates of every athlete competing in every distance from 800 metres upwards and concluded that they all had a stride rate over 180 bpm (except one who was 176 bpm). Several other studies and observations have since been published that corroborate this finding and confirm that elite, Olympic-level runners generally have a stride rate greater than 180 bpm. However, for the vast majority of runners, it is clear that there is nothing special about 180 bpm.
I asked my research staff to query our research database to find out the average stride rate for the 5000+ runners for which we have scientific biomechanical data. The results show that recreational runners have a stride rate between 165 and 168 bpm, while competitive runners have a stride rate between 168 and 171 bpm. We also published a recent research study using wearable technology to investigate running patterns for competitive and recreational runners—it found that recreational runners had an average stride rate of 163 bpm and competitive runners ran at 171 bpm. These results strongly suggest that the average recreational or competitive runner has a stride rate well below 180.
A colleague of mine, Dr. Bryan Heiderscheit from the University of Wisconsin- Madison, has published some interesting research on this topic. He first recorded data from 45 healthy recreational runners during treadmill running at their preferred speed and then altered their stride rate by 5% and 10%. He concluded that a 10% increase in stride rate reduces loading to the hip and knee joints during running, which may prove beneficial for the prevention and treatment of common running-related injuries. He then published a second study showing that increasing your stride rate will cause the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius muscles to increase their activation during the swing phase of running. These muscles activate more muscle fibres in order to prepare the foot and leg for the impact from landing, which could also prove beneficial for injury prevention.
However, the tradeoff here is that if you increase muscle activation, demand also increases and the muscle can become fatigued more easily. His third study confirmed the results from the first investigation and showed that increasing your stride rate by 10% is an effective strategy to reduce knee joint forces, which could help to treat and prevent runner’s knee (also known as patellofemoral pain or PFP).
Overall, this is fantastic research showing that manipulating one running biomechanical variable can be an effective way to treat and/or prevent injury. So, let’s figure out how to best implement this change and determine if it’s right for you.
My recommendation is to simply use wearable technology and/or count the number of steps you take in one minute while running at your desired pace. Certainly there are a lot of wearable tech devices that can give you accurate step rates. For example, we recently published a study that validates the biomechanical data derived from the Garmin Forerunner 620 device. Once you figure out your stride rate, determine what a 10% increase will be, and find a song that corresponds to that particular rate. One option is the AudioStep app for the iPhone, which allows you to select the songs that correspond to a specific stride rate of your choosing.
A word of warning, though: prior to changing anything about your running mechanics, I highly recommend a biomechanical analysis by a trained professional so you can determine the best approach. For example, I stated earlier that increasing your stride rate will increase muscle activation (demand) on the gluteal muscles. Unless you have sufficient gluteal muscle strength to begin with, an increase in stride rate will result in faster muscle fatigue and potentially an injury. So, make sure you have an expert guiding you through the process. Happy step counting!
Dr. Reed Ferber is the director of the Running Injury Clinic, a world leader in running-related research and 3D gait analysis technology. For more information, visit www.runninginjuryclinic.com.