It all started during the Sydney 2000 Olympics, when I observed that runners in the middle and long distance track events all seemed to be racing at three single steps each second, which projects to about 180 steps per minute. It wasn’t until last track season that I thought to analyse the Vets to see if they were also stepping that quickly, and wasn’t surprised to see that some were, and others were running at a much slower tempo.
Would it help the slower tempo runners if they tried increasing their tempo, I wondered? After some research and some testing out of ideas, here are my thoughts:
- As runners tire in a race, they often try to maintain pace by extending their stride. This is a mistake. Far better to shorten the stride at this point, trying to maintain tempo.
- Many novice runners tend to over-stride, but with practice they can shorten their natural stride length and so run faster.
- If you discover that you run at considerably less than 180 steps per minute, you should work on reducing your stride length and increasing your tempo.
- An over-long stride will add tension to the calf muscles and the hamstrings, and takes more effort than a quicker, shorter stride does.
- A short stride allows you to pick up your feet more quickly off the ground, and run more lightly over the ground. A slower tempo and longer stride length means that you are in the air longer, you hit the ground harder, the footfall is heavier, there is more shock to your legs as you land, and you experience a deceleration effect.
Music via ipod or MP3 player is ideal for managing this process of getting the legs to turn over more quickly. A free “Beat per Minute” analyser which we have been using for song selection for this purpose is available at http://www.mixmeister.com/.
A quick optimal tempo means you run lighter, you feel like you are skimming over the ground rather than ploughing into it, you are able to propel yourself more rapidly forward, you respond better to pace variations in a race, your foot is below your body sooner and stays on the ground for a shorter time. And you look good!
Ever since first floating these ideas, I started hearing stories of runners who listened to what I had to say and were trying out the "three steps per second" recommendation, only to discover that it works. An example is the club member who is currently among the fastest women running the monthly 6k "Jogalong". She had run about 40 of them and recently managed to improve her race PB by twenty seconds, while focusing on maintaining the three steps per second tempo the whole way.
A second example is the club member who is currently not among the fastest men running the weekly 6k "BBQ Stakes". During a recent run he tried keeping three steps per second going for the whole distance, managed it, and “out of the blue” ran a twenty second PB. He had run about 70 of these races.
So there are two case histories demonstrating that it can work! For some who are already running at their optimum tempo it may not be effective, but for others, particularly the over-strider, I recommend you try it.
What about my longer distance running, I hear you ask. (I have very good hearing). What running tempo should I adopt when I want to extend my training distances without slowing down too much? In what I am about to say, I am supposing that you run about as quickly as you can over the shorter distances, but when you start running for a longer time, the distance takes its toll and you tire very quickly. Or perhaps you have two speeds, as some have volunteered to me: sprinting and crawling! You want to know what approach to take when extending your runs to take in much longer distances, because you understand that going further gives you a better fitness base than what you have been doing? How do you run further at a decent pace without self-destructing?
Well to start with, it is certainly true that more longer runs (to a point) make you fitter, and equip you to do better over shorter races.
Secondly, the approach I recommend is similar to that which I have suggested helps you run faster! Here it is: to run further, yes you allow yourself to slow down; but you slow down by
- shortening the stride (again), and
- keeping up that fast tempo that you have been using for shorter distances.
The result is, you are actually running more slowly, but the legs are turning over at the same rate as usual. And you can do this right up to the marathon distance.
Do remember, as you tire in a long run, it is important to do the same thing you should do as you tire in a race; try and keep that three steps a second (or whatever that optimum tempo is for you) going for as long as possible.
This comes from my own experience: when I first started marathon training back in the 1970’s that is exactly what I did. I came off a background of specialising in the 800m, and the only way I could survive training runs of 20k or longer was to change my style so that the stride became much shorter. And it was the only way I could develop marathon strength while keeping most of my 800m speed. It worked: despite focusing solely on marathon training at the age of 40, and although I raced few 800s any more, I did manage a 2:02 800m “out of the blue”, which was within five seconds of my pb run 20 years earlier.
So you CAN do long running in the track season, and lose very little of your short distance racing speed, provided you don’t just jog at a slow tempo all the time.