A simplistic approach says to improve speed you need to increase stride length and/or stride frequency. Many athletes and coaches have concentrated on improving stride length and have found both stride frequency and overall speed decrease. It is usually more effective to work on stride frequency because this increases the power in the leg muscles that naturally increase an athlete’s stride length.
The easiest way to determine your stride frequency is to count the number of times your right foot lands during one minute of running. Each time your right foot lands is a cycle. Repeat the one-minute runs at different speeds from an easy jog to 1600m pace. If you find that your stride frequency is 90 cycles or more per minute (180 steps) and is similar for various speeds then you are in the range most elite athletes are. If your stride frequency is less than 90 cycles per minute then make a conscious effort to increase your stride frequency. To do this, concentrate on quicker, lighter, relaxed steps, with your feet landing under your center of gravity.
Cross country runners need to maintain stride frequency when running up hill by adjusting the stride length. If you let stride frequency slow down you will find that fatigue sets in and it is harder to get back to the desired stride frequency once you are over the crest of the hill. Remember, stride frequency is neuromuscular, so the more you practice this the less you’ll have to think about it. Next time you are feeling tired and want to increase your pace, try concentrating on increasing your frequency; you may be surprised how easily you can speed up without increasing perceived effort too much.
The original Farm Team Coach, Jeff Johnson, had his athletes do stride frequency tests on occasion. While running relaxed at 1600m pace for 60 seconds athletes would count their cycles. Less than 90 (180 steps) suggested the need to work on increasing frequency. Jack Daniels book Daniel’s Running Formula also suggests using the 90 cycles (or 180 steps) number when gauging stride frequency. While Jeff Johnson of the Farm Team did 1-minute reps many coaches use shorter durations to work on stride frequency. Another popular drill is to run 3 or 4 “20-second counts” during an easy warm-up run. You can count right foot touchdown, so the 90 cycles figure was equivalent to a count of 30 for this drill. If you want to do ten seconds, you would want 15 cycles to equal 90 cycles per minute. A good time to do this is while doing strides before a workout.
One benefit of this drill that I did not anticipate came in racing. Some runners have told me that when they got to a tough part of their race where they had trouble keeping their rhythm, they would count off 15 or 30 quick strides like they’d done in this drill.
Others said they felt it helped to think about turning over when trying to close the gap on a competitor. So this simple drill that adds zero extra time to a normal workout or run resulted in another way to get through the tough part of the race for many.
Stride frequency is often overlooked in our never-ending desire to take our fitness to higher levels. I have seen these drills make a remarkable difference for high schools kids at summer running camps for years. It’s amazing the progress they make in a week when they warm up twice every day with stride frequency drills. It’s not as glamorous as a 400s on the track or mile reps on the cross country course, but this is something that can help you race faster. Remember, a workout doesn’t have to have you wasted from fatigue to help you get faster. Give it a try next time you’re warming up or doing strides.
Tony Kauke has coached at Piedmont High School, City College of San Francisco, and the Impala Racing Team—a post-collegiate women's training group based in San Francisco. He's also a co-founder of the newly formed Bay Area Track Club (http://www.bayareatrackclub.