To recap from previous post on running stride, strong hip extension, good hip mobility, knee drive and leg spring stiffness powers the running stride. To improve the stride most runners intuitively extend the leg forward to cover more ground. However such intuition leads to overstriding and can result in knee and ankle injuries.
Training to improve the stride requires the runners to work in a structured manner, and that would involve:
- Running drills
- Mobility drills
- Strength training
Running drills are versatilie and very effective at muscle activation, improving running strength, speed, balance, and coordination. Running drills wire us with proper running form, and also strengthen muscles and joints for faster running.
Running a steep uphill requires that we have to fight gravity, and helps us to train muscle recruitment, force generation and build strength required for running. Increased force generation helps in improved stride on level ground.
- Pick a steep hill (grade more than 4% if you are using a treadmill). Run 20s-30s all out while going up the hill, with a recovery jog/walk down the hill.
Strides, also known as pick-ups, improve running form and mechanics for effective stride. Strides exaggerate running movements such as hip extension, and knee drive. Strides are typically done after or as part of finishing kilometers of an easy run.
- Run fast for 20 to 30 seconds at about 85 to 95% of maximal effort. Keep a good running form, as you try to push off from the ground strongly on every step. Recover for about 20 to 30 seconds and run again. You can add 5-8 strides after an easy to run.
A-Skips and Power A-Skips
A-Skips involve learning to coordinate your legs and arms better, move the feet quickly and landing efficiently and stabilizing on midfoot. Power variation of A-skip will help training the full hip extension and while training to lift the knee high up. Here is a short video of Coach Hari showing how to do A-Skips and Power A-Skips.
Single Leg Hops
Single leg hops are an effective plyometric drill to improve the leg spring stiffness and explosive strength in leg muscles. It also helps in addressing strength imbalances runners might have between left and right parts of the body.
- Start with shifting your weight to one leg and lift the unsupported leg off the ground. Descend to a quarter squat position on the supported leg, and drive upwards and jump, and land softly on the same leg absorbing the impact with the hips, knees and ankles. Repeat it on both sides.
Goal of mobility drills is to improve the functional range of motion of key joints and muscles involved in running. Mobility drills involve working on the controlled motion through joints and help reduce the imbalances. Here are the key drills to improve mobility for hips, quadriceps and hamstrings.
Prone Scorpion Reaches
Prone Scorpion Reach is very effective at activating the glutes. It stretches hip flexors at the front of the hip and quadricep muscles.
- Start with lying on the floor with your chest down and legs and arms extended straight. Swing the leg back and across your body to touch the opposite hand. Movement should come mostly from stretching the hip flexors and quads and not by rotating the torso. Repeat the movement with the opposite leg. Keep the shoulders on the ground through the movement.
Couch stretch is super effective at opening up the hips, and one of the best to improve the hip extension required for powerful stride. It also works on the quadriceps.
- Bend your right knee and position shin along the wall. Place your left foot in the front, aligning the knee above the ankle. Push your back to the wall till it touches the wall, while keeping the hips square. Repeat the same with left. Here is video of Coach Gayathri showing the Couch stretch.
Hip Flexor Stretch
Tight hip flexors are common among most runners, because of sitting on chairs throughout the day. Hip flexor stretch opens up the hip flexor muscles or psoas.
- Start by kneeling on the floor. Move the right leg in front of you, such that the right thigh is parallel to the floor. The left knee is on the floor, aligning to the left hip. Place your hands on your hips and, while keeping your back straight, shift your hips forward until you feel the stretch. Repeat on the opposite side.
Power is the key factor in improving the running stride, strength training is increasingly seen as an important part of runners’ training. Strength training improves our ability to recruit as many muscles as possible. Strength training also helps in reducing imbalances, and improves coordination.
These workouts are good to start with especially if you are a beginner to strength training.
Forward Lunge Walk
Forward lunge walk is a compound movement and helps with improving the knee drive and hip flexion.
- Stand with feet shoulder width apart and holding dumbbells in each hand. Step forward with your right leg and lower into a lunge position. Drive your hip forward while maintaining straight back. Return to standing position and repeat with the other leg.
Box step-ups have similar mechanics as Forward Lunge Walk, but demands more from the legs. Weighted box step-up is excellent for building strength in the quadriceps and also glutes and hamstrings.
- Choose a box or step with the desired height for the step-up. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and holding dumbbells in each hand. Step up with the right foot, and press through the heel to stand up on the right leg. Lift the left foot up the top of the step. Step down with the left foot, then lower the right foot down to the ground. Repeat with the other leg.
Jump squats or Squat jumps are very effective to build a strong hip extension and add the required spring in your legs.
- Stand with legs hip width apart, lower into a squat position. Jump straight up vertically. Return to squat while coming down.
These workouts are suitable to those who are regular at strength training and have a good base.
Single Leg Squats
Single leg squat is a targeted workout to improve leg strength.
- Start in a seated position on a box or chair with a dumbbell in your hand. Extend the right leg straight out in front of you, put your weight on the heel of the left leg. Keep the back straight and raise your body from the chair. Keeping the leg lifted, lower yourself back down to sit back in the chair.
Box jump is a highly explosive plyometric move that strengthens all the lower-body muscles glutes, quads, calves and hamstrings.
- Stand in front of the box with feet shoulder-width apart. Bend into a quarter squat position and then jump up off the ground. Land on the box softly while engaging the core. Stand up straight on the box and then jump back down.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Bulgarian split squat is a variation of a single-leg squat.
- The back leg is elevated on a bench, chair, or a box. Focus is on building the quadriceps, while also helping to build strong hip flexors and glutes.
Stride Length and Training
There is no silver bullet to improve the stride. Gains in stride come gradually with training, more importantly being consistent at it. Trying to improve stride length intentionally often results in overstriding, reduced running economy and leads to injuries. As long distance runners, it is also important to note that stride length is not the only way to improve running performance. There are other tools available to us such as improving aerobic fitness, muscular endurance, running mechanics, pacing awareness and more.
All the videos referred to in this post are available as Youtube playlist here.
Aravind is a techie, running geek, and a marathoner. He is a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. He loves all things technology and technology in running, with special interest in running form analysis.
With inputs from Coach Hari. Hari Babu is the founder and chief coach at CrossFit ZOH, and is certified NSCA CPT/ ACE CPT. He was national level competitive runner and Black belt (Shidoshi) at Bujinkan Ninjitsu.