Lots of people will tell you that running, by nature, is hard on the body. They’ll say that running 13.1 or 26.2 miles “isn’t natural,” and that “we’re just not meant to run that far.”But guess what? This is total B.S.!
New theories about early humans (brought to light in Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run) suggest the exact opposite — that humans’ ability to run longer than about 10 kilometers at a time, when other animals could not, was a huge advantage that allowed our predecessors to wear down their prey through persistence hunting.
But if that’s true, and we really are “meant” to run long distances, then how can you make sure that you don’t end up with knee pain, hip pain, and the other problems that affect so many runners?
How you can run relaxed and pain-free
For a long time, I was one of those runners. When I first started running and jumped right into marathon training, I constantly battled shin splints and even stress fractures — so much that several physical therapists gave me the old, “You know, maybe you’re just not meant to run marathons” line.
Thankfully, I was stubborn. I tried everything to figure out how I could run without pain, and lots of things seemed to help a little bit.
But among everything I tried, a single technique stood out. And more than any other, I credit this trick with injury-proofing my stride for good, and allowing me now to run not just one, but many marathons and ultramarathons each year, and almost entirely without injuries.
That simple trick is to take 180 steps per minute while you run.
If you’ve never thought about your stride rate before, chances are you’re doing way less than that. But 180 (or more) is how many steps the most efficient runners in the world take each minute, and it’s not hard to see why.
When you turn your legs over at this rate, you:
- Are forced to take shorter, lighter strides
- Keep your feet underneath you, rather than way out in front
- Strike the ground with your midfoot, rather than your heel
- Spend more time in the air and less time “braking” on the ground
All these factors add up to two big things: Greater efficiency, and dramatically reduced risk of injury.
How to do it
Now, if you haven’t ever tried it, running this way is going to feel weird at first. Especially when you’re running slowly, it’s going to feel as if you’re spinning your wheels, moving your legs very quickly but not going anywhere.
That’s okay. These quicker, shorter strides will force you to use a whole new set of muscles, so it’s to be expected that you’ll feel less efficient until your body and muscles adjust. But trust me, it’ll be worth it, when you’re running injury-free and tackling distances you’ve never before thought possible.
So let’s first get clear on exactly what I mean when I say “180 steps per minute.” I’m talking about the total number of impacts you make with the ground in one minute — that is, count both feet. (Some people call this your cadence and measure the number of times a single foot impacts the ground, so you might hear some people refer to this as a “cadence of 90.” Same thing.)
The easiest way to learn what this feels like is to think of it as three steps each second. Here’s what I recommend you do:
- Get on a treadmill.
- Set it to a brisk but comfortable speed (running really slowly for this is actually harder than running fast, at first).
- Start running, and time your steps so that each time a second ticks, your third step impacts the ground.
So for example, if your right foot lands when the clock shows one second (0:01), then it’ll be “left” then “right” again before your left foot lands exactly when the clock hits 0:02. Then “right,” then “left” before your right foot hits on 0:03. And so on.
Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it’s pretty easy to get into a rhythm. It’s sort of like a waltz.
Now get comfortable with it
It takes a while for this feel normal, but once you’ve done it enough, it will.
Assuming you won’t always be running on a treadmill or staring down at your watch while you run, it’s helpful (if you wear headphones while you run) to find a song whose beat matches this tempo, so that you can just run with the music.
The song I always recommend for this is Eric Johnson’s Cliffs of Dover, which is entirely instrumental but actually a pretty good song to run to (note that it doesn’t get going until about 45 seconds in). But you can find any other song that’s roughly this tempo, or even one that’s half as fast — in that case, you just have to take two steps for every beat instead of one.
Finally, realize that you won’t always need a crutch like a clock or headphones to do this. Eventually this turnover rate will be grooved, and it’ll just be what you naturally do. I still glance down at my watch for two or three seconds every now and then to line my steps up, but if that’s not your thing, you can imagine that you’re running barefoot over broken glass or eggshells to get the image of quick, light steps.
One more thing: what about speed?
More than just about anything else, it’s this tip that compels people to email me and tell me how much this has helped them stop getting injured and run longer. But a question often comes up:
How should this stride rate change depending on how fast you run?
The simple answer is, “It shouldn’t.” Keep this constant turnover rate of 180 steps per minute, and adjust your running speed by changing your stride length. For slow, relaxed runs, you’ll be taking very short steps, and when you want to open it up for a 5K or something even shorter and faster, you’ll lengthen your stride so that you cover more ground with each step. But you’re still taking 180+ steps each minute at all speeds.
Don’t just read this, use it!
It’s really easy to read along, nod your head, and say, “Yeah, that makes sense.” But it’s another thing entirely to put it into action, and it takes a special person to do it.
Be that type of person. Give this a try. As I said above, this is the most important change I made that helped me stop getting injured and become the runner I knew I could be. And it might be that for you, too, but you’ll never know if you don’t give it a try.
So get to work, and I’ll see you soon.
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