Speed is commonly said to be the product of stride rate x stride length. Running stride rate is the number of strides taken in a given amount of time or distance, while stride length is the distance covered in one stride, during running.
Research has found that optimum stride length at maximum velocity has a high correlation to leg length. It is approximately 2.1 to 2.5 times leg length. So stride rate is how often we take a stride or step, and stride length is the amount of ground we cover with each stride or step length. Experts like to break each element down into smaller phases. But for general application to sport and fitness, this isn’t necessary.
First, the 2.1-2.5 times our leg length statement is impractical. There is a strong relationship between speed, stride length, and stride rate in sub‐elite runners.
In 2000 in The Journal of Applied Physiology, Peter Weyand and his team found that strides were 1.69 times longer at 11.1 m/sec versus 6.2 m/sec, and stride rate or frequency was 1.16 times faster! Keep in mind that this study compared a fast experienced runners to slower ones.
However, there does not seem to be a clear consensus, and studies seem to be split on which one is more important at an ELITE athlete level. For anything less, you want a solid combination of both elements. For example, research on elite sprinters indicates that the best ones spend less time on the ground.
On the other hand, Debaere and his team found that the difference between stride rates between sprinters at the beginning of a sprint was 95% of the stride rate at maximum speed. They compared men and women. Moreover, the difference between stride length was 10.3% initially and then 11.5% at maximum speed, indicating stride length as the dominant feature for faster running.
Another study shows a split between the two. In Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2011, Salo, Bezodis, Batterham, and Kerwin analyzed 11 elite male 100-meter runners from Olympic, World, and European Championships. Seventeen of each runner’s races were assessed and the mean race time was 10.12 seconds! Of the 11 athletes total, 9 of them ran under 10.00 seconds in at least one of their races. Researchers came to the conclusion that some of the runners relied upon greater stride length compensation while others relied on stride rate.
Another study on this topic comes from Majumdar and Robergs in 2011 called The Science of Speed: Determinants of Performance in the 100-meter sprint. They reported that male sprinters rely more on stride length, while females rely on greater stride rate.
Whether it be that some possess greater stride length through phenomenal hip and overall strength and power, or others have incredible muscle recruitment speed which enables a superior stride rate, the permanent suggestion at this level is inconclusive at this point.
Logically, it would make sense that each runner work on their relative weakness to further decrease running times and increase speed. The researchers supported this notion as well. Practically consider whether the athlete in question has greater strength or speed in movement and address accordingly. For example, if they run fast and perform jump plyometrics fast and explosively, but are not as skilled at weightlifting then they would need to focus more of their training efforts on the latter, and vice versa.
Now that we have all of the science out of the way you can clearly see that for anyone who isn’t an “elite” sprinter and that would be less than one percent in the world, everyone else is going to need to hone both products of acceleration and speed to be most successful. With that being said, there are specific drills and ways in which you can focus on each skill to ensure that you are making progress.
Let's start with stride length first. Often times athletes or coaches will falsely assume that you need to initiate extremely fast and short-lived steps at the beginning of the sprint in order to run faster. Unfortunately, this is not true for at least three reasons. First, the force-velocity or “power” curve applies in this discussion of length vs. rate mechanics. At the very start of a sprint, you are starting from a position of literally zero acceleration, and regardless of how fast or explosive you are, the time spent on the ground is going to be significantly longer for everyone at this point, even the elite, so your focus should be on creating long and proper strides without compromising or disrupting proper front and backside mechanics at all.
Here are two of the best drills for remedying stride length outside of just common verbal cues:
Stride Length Technical Drills
Secondly, the length and pre-stretch that you occur during the first few steps are going to ultimately dictate how your posture and form will unfold on the steps that occur afterward.
Athletes will also report a much better flow and rhythm with this approach.
Lastly, all you have to do is purchase or borrow a fully electronic timing unit and do your own research while utilizing different step counts and you will automatically notice that faster athletes regardless of their leg length will take fewer total steps, but create a tremendous amount of power and a much faster stride rate in the process.
Recall that Usain Bolt took four fewer total steps than his competition in Berlin where he set the world record in the 100-meter dash, and we also took a total step count of LaMichael James when he recorded an unofficial 4.27 second run at the NFL combine years ago. We assessed and counted several participants and James was in the low 20s at a height of only 5’9”! It all goes back to power–how much you either have or don’t have if you want to run faster.
And stride rate is generally less of a concern when coaching unless the athlete is getting in their own head and thinking too much or just tired from training. In this case, you just need to build awareness and aim to get the limbs moving the way that they need to be to increase response time.
The other concern is one of eccentric strength. When you watch an athlete attempting to accelerate faster they will be operating from a position of compliance, as it’s called in biomechanics, where the muscle will be under tension at a longer or more stretched position. Similar to a jump takeoff or the bottom of a deadlift, lunge, or squat. In which case they have to be able to effectively oppose higher ground forces, momentum, and gravity within milliseconds to propel themselves forward again and this function repeats itself with each landing and phase cycle of sprinting. Here are a few drills that you can incorporate immediately to help build this rebound effect and improve your stride rate.
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