Running Efficiency

Running is something we all do naturally, right, but is our running natural? 

Take a look a very young child running in the park or in a garden. They will typically be landing on their mid-foot and will be taking lots of fast, short strides, their feet will be landing under their centre of mass and it will almost look as though there are toppling forwards. Their running hasn’t been coached into them; this is how they run naturally. Compare this to a typical grown up running through the park. What are the key differences?

  • Heel striking
  • Foot landing in front of centre of mass?
  • Longer stride?
  • Slower leg speed?

The points called out are typically things that change over time primarily as a result of culture and footwear choice and will impact on the efficiency of your running. The young child knows nothing about running theory nor have they been subject to footwear fashion trends etc.

Heel striking is very inefficient as you typically land with your foot in front of your centre of mass and this introduces a braking effect. You need to use energy to overcome this braking and get your centre of mass in front of the foot before the energy you are using starts to push you forwards. The main consideration with regards to heel striking is that you tend to land on the heel with a straight leg, this results in all the shock of landing going through your skeletal system (ankles, knees, hips and into your back) and introduces the risk of injury. If you land more on you mid-foot you tend to land with your feet under your centre of mass – no braking effect – and with a slightly bent knee – introducing natural shock absorption. Think about hopping – do you land on your heel with a straight leg? 

Many people think that a long stride is good for running speed and efficiency and to a degree it is, but you shouldn’t be extending the stride by reaching out in front. As mentioned earlier, if your foot lands in front of your centre of mass it will have a braking effect. You should be trying to land with your foot under your centre of mass, this way all your energy is used to make you move forwards. Think about your foot pawing back slightly as it lands, this will stop any braking effect. Imagine the pedalling action on your bike and your foot hitting the ground just before the bottom of the pedal stoke. You can also help your foot land under your centre of mass by thinking about your posture as you run. Run tall, head up, with your ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles in line. If you lean forward – lean forwards from the ankle not the waist – this moves your centre of mass forwards and is akin to the young child looking like they are toppling forwards.     

We have three gaits: walking; running; sprinting. The main difference between walking and the running/sprinting gaits is the flight phase – this is where the speed comes from – think about race walking vs. running! If we use a longer stride we are typically on the ground longer and therefore slower. There is a natural balance to be struck here as a very short stride will obviously be inefficient also. A longer stride also uses more muscular energy so is inefficient in that respect. Think about how you run up a hill, you take shorter strides and adopt a slightly faster leg speed; this is because it’s more efficient. If you do look to extend your stride do so by pushing/kicking out the back of stride. Watch Mo Farah and look at his kick out the back!

Slightly faster strides are more efficient as you can start to use the stretch reflexes in the muscles to help move you forwards. If we go back to hopping – do one hop and stop when your foot hits the ground then hop again and stop when your foot hits the ground. How does this feel? Now hop naturally, you get a natural rhythm that feels much easier than the first approach. This is because you are using the stretch reflexes in your muscular system to help you. This stretch reflex energy is maintained for approximately 1/3rd of a second, so when running each foot strike should take about that time. If we run for a minute we will end up with about 180 foot strikes per minute – this leg speed is known as the natural running cadence. This may sound fast but try it, when running with this cadence you will find you naturally adopt a slightly shorter stride. 

For triathletes it may useful to note the natural running cadence of 180 foot strikes per minute. If we take just the left foot – that is 90 left foot strikes per minute. If we then assimilate that to revolutions per minute we get 90rpm. When we talk about an efficient triathlon pedalling cadence being 90rpm it is heavily based upon the natural running cadence and attempting to minimise the physiological differences between the bike and run disciplines in a triathlon. This last point is only really relevant to triathlon, not pure cycling, as the cycle part of a triathlon is about going at a speed that enables you to run fast afterwards, pure cycling you don’t have to worry about the run! 

I hope you have found the discussion useful, you will have noticed that all these elements are interrelated so working on one aspect will help with other aspects of your running efficiency.