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How can you run quicker than me when you're such a short arse?

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"How can you run quicker than me when you're such a short arse?"

The term 'short arse' was a little harsh considering I'm 5'8 on a good day, 6' in my HOKA shoes. It is however, an interesting question. If you are short with 'little legs' you have to take far more strides than a taller runner with his irritatingly longer legs. So is it that simple? Do the 'little legged' people just have to move their legs quicker and take more steps?

Stride Length V Stride Rate

Stride length is simply how far you stride. My old running coach used to tell me to stride out and stride a little further. If I could increase my stride length by an inch, those inches would add up to a mile by the end of a marathon!  Stride rate is how many strides/steps you take in a minute. An average runner may take 160-180 strides each minute (most people only count on one leg, e.g. 85 right foot strikes per minute = 170 strides in total).

Do the maths...

If a runner has a stride length of 1.5m and a stride rate of 170, then in one minute they would travel 255m. The maths is really simple:

They travel 1.5m per stride x 170 strides taken per minute = 255m each minute. If this runner wants to go faster they can either:

1. Increasing stride rate (move their legs quicker and take more strides)
2. Increase stride length (travel a little further each stride)

This sounds simple right? We haven't even got started yet and this is where it gets good..

How would you describe 'stride length'?

In it's simplest form, I'd describe it as the furthest distance between my right and left foot when I'm running, so when I stride out, how far apart are my feet? If you are a short runner with little legs, it's likely that your feet will not separate as much as those taller runners with their longer legs. It won't be the case all of the time, but as an average, it's fair to presume that longer legs will naturally result in a longer stride length. So if all of the runners are using the same stride rate (160-180 strides per minute) then the runner with the longest stride would always win.. right?

In fact this isn't the case at all, stride length isn't actually that critical, it's flight distance and flight time which really decide who wins.                   

What's flight distance?

This simply refers to the distance you cover between your left foot leaving the ground and your right foot hitting the ground (or vice versa). When running quickly, after your left foot leaves the ground, you then fly through the air (not being in contact with the floor) until your right foot hits the ground. The further you fly through the air and the greater the distance you cover before landing again, the greater your flight distance.

What's the difference between stride length and flight distance?

Okay, so imagine you have a runner with 'little legs' and when you watch them run and stride out, it visually looks like they have a short stride as their feet don't get very far apart, compared to a taller runner. But imagine they have springs in their heels, so as they push off, they almost bound and travel 2-3 metres before they touch the ground with the other foot. We look at people's legs and how far they appear to be separating to gauge stride length, what we should be watching is the point where they took off and how far do they travel before landing again.

Let's quickly mention flight time...

Without making this whole article too confusing we do have to mention flight time. Let's think about our 'little legged' runner in the example above who appears to have a short stride, but he has hidden springs in his heels, meaning he can fly 2-3 metres each step. What's critical is not just flying 2-3 metres, but how quickly he travels that distance. 

I want springs in my heels... tell me how to get them!!

It's pretty common for world class middle and long distance runners to show fantastic plyometric strength. They can bound a long way and they can do standing long and high jump very effectively, they do indeed have springs in their heels. This plyometric strength is simplest described as using tendons to store elastic energy and then use that energy to propel you forwards. A simple exercise such as bouncing on the balls of your feet involves storing elastic energy as you land and stretch the tendons, then using that energy to take off again.

What's the conclusion to this article?

The main driver behind this article was my dislike at being called a short arse, but it has now 'grown legs' (like what I did there) and developed into a more structured discussion.

The main points I would take from this are:

1. Do not to confuse stride length with flight distance, they are different things (in my head at least)

2. The ability to run quickly is governed by flight distance and time, not by the length of your legs.

3. Plyometric energy return from muscle tendons, plays a big part in flight distance and time.

4. Plymoetric exercises can have a significant impact upon both running speed and economy.

5. Never pick on little people.. we will crush you.

NEXT WEEK we will investigate plyometric exercises further and how they can be integrated into your training plan.

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