Jim2's Running Page

A Personal Stride Rate Test

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There has been a lot of discussion on the Forums in recent weeks, especially Beginners, Competition and Training, about stride rate. A consensus seems to be forming that a minimum of 180 steps per minute is "best" or "optimum", even if it means deliberately shortening one's stride. Several "experts", especially Jack Daniels, have been quoted as recommending this rate as a target to shoot for. Some have taken that to mean that it's what all runners should try to do under all conditions. Although, I have been unable to find a single expert, other than Daniels, who advocates 180 steps/minute as either ideal or minimum for all runners. Most do agree that it's a realistic goal that most all runners should be reasonably close to. With this in mind, I decided to conduct a personal stride rate test to determine the rate that is most efficient for me at a couple of different paces.

Three weeks ago, I measured my max heart rate (HR) at 163 using JD's treadmill test. According to my most recent race results, my VDOT under JD's guidelines is 36 (yeah, I know, I'm slow), which makes my E (easy) pace 10:40/mile at a HR of 122 (75% of max HR) and my T (threshold) pace 8:55/mile at a HR of 147 (90% of max HR).

I had a one-hour upper and lower body weight workout followed by a threshold run (cruise intervals) planned for yesterday. I did the run on a treadmill at my health club, which has a heart rate measurement feature, so that paces and "terrain" would be precisely controlled. Thus, the only variables were stride length and cadence. I ran 10.6 miles as follows: 2 mile w/u at 10:30 pace (slightly faster than E pace), 2x1 mile at 8:57 (slightly slower than T pace) pace, 1x1 mile at 8:48 (slightly faster than T pace), another 2x1 mile at 8:57, another 1x1 mile at 8:48, 2 mile c/d at 10:30. I used 90 second recoveries at 10:30 pace between intervals. I changed my stride rate up and down many times during all segments of the run. For each "test", I counted my stride rate for one minute, then measured my heart rate while continuing to run at the same rate, which took about 15 seconds. Then, I alternated changing my rate up and down as I repeated the test continuously during the run.

During the 2 mile w/u, I started with .8 mile to allow my HR to rise to a stable level. I then tested my HR while varying my cadence (up and down) between 172 and 184 for the remaining 1.2 miles. I performed 8 tests during this period. The results were consistent. With a cadence of 176, my HR was steady at 127. A cadence of 180 and above resulted in a HR of 131-133. Once, I tried a cadence of 172 and my HR measured 129. The 176 cadence was most efficient for my w/u.

During each mile interval, I performed 6 "tests" at cadences ranging from 176 to 184 for a total of 36 tests. The results were interesting. In the first four intervals, a cadence of 176-178 consistently produced a HR of 147 and a cadence of 180-184 drove it up to 150-151. However, in the last two intervals, my HR remained at 151 regardless of cadence. Was it the result of an accumulation of stress after having run over 6 miles at that point? I'll have to explore that one further on another day. During the 90 sec recovery periods at E pace, my HR settled back into the low-to-mid 130's.

Another interesting thing happened during my 2 mile c/d. My lowest HR's occurred at cadences LOWER than during my w/u. My HR was 137 at cadences of 168-172. A cadence of 176 kicked it up to 138-139. And cadences of 180-182 drove it to 141. I can only attribute the decrease in most efficient cadence to one factor. During my w/u, my muscles were "tight" following an hour of weight training. After the intervals and 8.6 miles of running, they were "looser" and more pliable, which enabled a longer, more efficient stride length, thus a slower turnover rate to produce the same 10:30 pace. Also, I'm not surprised that my HR didn't drop back to what it was during the w/u (127-133), even though the pace was the same, considering the cumulative effect of over 8 miles of running.

I think I can conclude several things from this test:

1) 180 steps/minute is not optimum for me at my current level of conditioning, at least at paces of T training and below. Maybe 180 or higher will become optimum for me when I'm better conditioned and faster.....maybe not. Time will tell. Currently, 176 seems to be about my most economical turnover rate, except for cool downs following a hard workout when 170 is best......and that's LOWER, not HIGHER, than all other tested conditions!

2) What "feels" best, probably is. BrianW has said before that he doesn't need a HR monitor to tell him when he is running most efficiently. His body knows. I agree with him. During my test, what the HR monitor told me was most economical was also what felt best to me. It's the way I've run for 16 years and 21,086 miles. Today was the first time I've used a HR measurement....and it just confirmed what I already knew.

3) Each of us has to find what works best for him/her. This is as true for stride rate and length as it is for shoe selection. The most economical combination of stride rate and length for one person isn't necessarily best for another.....or for anyone else, for that matter. If 180 works best for you, fine. But, if 170, 176, 185, 190 or any other number feels best, use it.....as long as you aren't overstriding. (See no. 5 below.) If a person consciously changes his/her cadence dramatically, like from 160 to 180, and feels better, then s/he simply wasn't running economically to begin with. And 180 still might not be best. Maybe something a little higher or lower is. The point is to experiment. Change both ways. But, don't look for a wide variation. We should probably all find our most efficient point to be within 10 or so of 180, regardless of pace. During my test, my pace varied 16%, but my optimum stride rate varied less than 4% (170-176) and the faster the pace, the faster the most economical cadence.....but never was it 180. Although it might be at 180 or above at race pace.

4) I believe that, whatever cadence is best for a particular runner at race pace, forcing that rate for all running at slower paces, especially E (easy) pace, trains one to become a short-strider. Just as we have a "natural" stride rate, we also have a "natural" stride length which is most economical for a given running pace. What's "natural" for us in both cases can be optimized. But, both are best developed through speed and strength training, rather than forced measures. Stride length has a greater influence on running economy (amount of oxygen consumption while running) than stride rate. Therefore, stride length should be optimized for a given pace, which in turn determines cadence, not the other way around.

5) The exception to no. 4 above is in the case of overstriding. We all know that's bad and should be corrected by forcing a shorter stride and faster cadence for a given pace. I think this might be the runner that JD was largely referring to when he said that beginners can often increase economy by increasing cadence.

6) Finally, as all of the "experts" tell us, there is a greater range of variation in optimum stride length than stride rate between runners of all abilities. This simply tells me that the primary focus of most of us who want to improve should be on increasing stride length without inducing overstriding, which means weight training, hill work, speed work and stretching. (The things we all love, right? :)) Stride rate will take care of itself as we become more experienced, stronger and faster runners.

Now, I will admit that I'm an old man. I'm sure my age is a factor in my personal test results. But, that is precisely my point. We all have our own unique factors that determine what is optimum for us. Be it age, weight, percentage of fast twitch fibers, experience in running, whatever. We don't all fit into the same shoebox.

BTW, I was surprised at how easy my test session was. A total of 10.6 miles with 6x1 mile at T pace with 90 sec recoveries and I wasn't completely spent at the end. I'm looking forward to the races this fall. :)