Why I Shortened My Running Stride

I wanted to high five someone.

Fish leaped from the water on my right. Moss covered the forested hillside on my left, inching its way down the embankment to the edge of the rocky trail. It was a perfectly crisp fall day — no clouds for miles, the temperature just warm enough to keep one’s breath invisible — and I was at one of my favorite places: Moran State Park on Orcas Island. I crested the final hill, accelerated, and covered the remaining steps in a sequence of short, choppy strides that still feel foreign to me. I tapped the stop button on my watch. My stats: 8.7 miles, a smidge over a thousand feet of cumulative elevation gain, and a 9:22/mile moving average. I stopped only to take a few photos along the way, never to walk.

It was my furthest, fastest trail run in recent memory. And it wrapped up a week in which I logged the most miles of any week in over a year, a measly 19.2 miles. And I felt great!

At the car, while family members continued their stroll around Mountain Lake, I peeled my sweaty shirt off, kicked free of my running shoes, and basked in the lakeside sun, tentatively embracing a return of familiar skin.

A gorgeous strip of trail at Moran State Park, on Orcas Island.

Birth of a Habit

I used to be fast. Decades ago, in what is best described as a prior life, I used my legs to run myself onto a collegiate track team, Division I, with an athletic grant.  In that prior life my name earned a spot in school record books, both high school and college. With a body some thirty-five pounds lighter than the one writing this,  I ran. And ran. And ran. I wasn’t elite — someone whose love of running is equaled by their love of beer and Egg McMuffins can never be — but I’m told those records still stand.

Photos show me having a gorgeous stride. Lean, muscular legs attached to airborne feet, rear leg extended far behind, pushing off as the front one searched for ground so far in front of me, it may as well have been foreign soil. It was a stride that drew no criticism, only praise. It worked for me in the 800m, the 1600m, and in the 8k and 10k cross-country races I grew to hate in college. In an odd twist, it even adapted to my forays into marathoning several years later.

About to make my move down the backstretch during the Patriot League 800m Championships in 1995. Having spent the entire season training in a pool due to a stress fracture, this was the only race I ran that season.

It was a beautiful stride and I could spin it like a DVD. For years I ran with that same motion some four, five, or six days a week, often averaging up to sixty miles per week.

That stride was me. That stride was all wrong.

Why Do I Keep Hurting Myself?

What do you do when something you love not only ceases to love you back, but causes you pain? In reviewing my own experience with this issue, I can pinpoint three approaches:

  1. Seek help.
  2. Ignore the problem until you forget the suffering, then return, only to be hurt again. Repeat.
  3. Search for a new love.

Having worked through each of these steps in what I can confidently say was precisely the exact order one should NOT follow, I will now reveal how I got back to doing what I loved. But first: what was the problem? You have to ask? Even after that wonderful segue I did up above, before the sub-header? My stride was the problem. No, that’s not right. My stride was the cause.

The problem was that I kept spraining my ankle. Or rolling it. Or tweaking it. Call it whatever you want, it hurt like hell and would undoubtedly leave me limping for miles. Each and every time I entered a trail race. Whether it be Orcas Island, Yakima Skyline, or Deception Pass, I always came across the finish line hobbling. And each time it happened, I’d kick my shoes off, throw my arms in the air in disgust, and curse the running Gods for my weak ankles, as if there were such thing.

So I’d swear off running, my original love, and go back to mountain biking. Mountain biking is fantastic fun. It’s more of an adrenaline rush, something I often do socially, and there’s always beer waiting back at the trailhead — and sometimes in our packs during the ride. But nearly every year, usually with the arrival of fall, I’d start running again, having forgotten the pain it brought me. I’d inevitably roll my ankle once or twice on the trails around home, but stick with it through the rainy, muddy season (it’s less of a hassle to go running during the Pacific Northwest’s “wet season”). Then I’d enter a race and end up injured all over again.

You may recall this past spring that I limp-ran my way through a half-marathon on the trails at Dash Point State Park with a strained calf. I didn’t screw up my ankle — my injured calf didn’t grant me the speed needed to hurt myself further. But enough was enough, it was time to see a doctor.

Shortening Up to Go Long

My friend Ben owns a thriving physical therapy practice and though he personally no longer accepts new patients, he was willing to take a look at me. So once my calf healed, I went to see him. He recorded video of me running on a treadmill, inspected my ankles, feet, and legs, and had me perform a number of exercises in front of him. Long story short: the calf tightness/strains I was having were likely related to over-training on soft trails in shoes that were well past their expiration date. Ben rolled my sneaker into a ball, tucking the toe inside the cuff, and gave me a look. It was the look you give someone who ought to know better. He also taught me a number of exercises to help stretch my calves throughout the day and provided me with a foam roller.

When it came time to review the video, it was clear that I had a bad habit of over-striding. Ben is the co-developer of the RunCadence app and had been thinking long and hard about the effect of running cadence (steps per minute) for quite some time. I don’t use the app — it’s still iPhone only?!? — but I run with a Garmin Fenix 3 watch which also monitors cadence. Ben believed that if I shortened my running stride, thereby increasing my tempo, I would not only reduce the risk of rolling my ankle on trails, but I’d lessen the impact on my knee and the strain on my calves and feet as well. He told me to aim for at least 160 strides/min on trails (the inevitable walking sections reduces average cadence) and closer to 180 strides/min when I run on the roads, something I try not to do often.

So I went home, put on my new shoes, and went for a short run using my normal form, and saw that my cadence was only 135 strides/min. Oh.

My cadence is now routinely on the order of 157 strides/min, a 16% increase over where it was before my chat with Ben. I haven’t exceeded 160 yet, but I’ve been running for a month now without injury (or really any discomfort at all). There have been a couple of instances when my foot landed awkwardly on a rock or tree root that I didn’t notice, but instead of rolling over and causing injury, my shorter stride left me in a better position to recover. Instead of nearly breaking my ankle, I barely broke pace.

I feel fixed. All because someone finally told me to shorten it up.

Further Not Faster

My wife and I are headed down to Arizona in December to run a 25-kilometer trail race, an excuse to spend some travel points and visit one of the eleven remaining states I’ve yet to see. I enjoy the 25k distance (just a couple miles longer than a half marathon), but know that I’ll be envious of the folks in the 50k and 50-mile races, wishing I too was heading deeper into the mountains on a more epic course than those doing the shorter races. And that’s why we’ll also be entering the lottery for next year’s Sun Mountain 50k, in Winthrop, WA. If it goes well, I may convince myself to enter a 50-miler next fall.

My last 50k was some 15 years ago, a snow-covered tune-up race before the 2002 Death Valley Trail Marathon. I had a great race at Death Valley, winning my age group by over thirty minutes that year… but I haven’t run half as far — or half as fast — since.

I continue to wince when I hear sports announcers talk about athletes “losing a step” or “being too old” at an age that still feels like yesterday, but I’ve long since accepted the reality that I’ll never be as fast again as I once was, at any distance. Fortunately, speed has nothing to do with why I want to rebuild my base, regain my form, and spend more time running. No, it’s because of the allure of wild terrain.

I’ve joined multiple Facebook groups that fill my feed with inspiration. Photos of runners on alpine ridges, scrambling up impossibly-steep terrain, or gliding through leaf-lined forests. I was invited to accompany an acquaintance on an 18-mile loop in Olympic National Park recently. I wasn’t ready for that kind of challenge just yet, and turned him down. The photos — and his 18 bear sightings — had me kicking myself for days. Why did I let my fitness drop? Another friend just returned from the Grand Canyon, having spent 19 hours running back-and-forth across it. Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim: 47 miles and 11,000 feet of elevation gain.

I want to do that. Clearly, 19 miles a week won’t suffice.

Trail races, usually capped at just a few hundred people (and often far fewer) are fun, intimate affairs (with tons of food!) that offer a sense of camaraderie that I don’t often get in my work-from-home, run-alone lifestyle. But they’re not about speed and medals and podium finishes for me. Not anymore. The race is just the carrot, an excuse to push myself a little (or a lot) further than I have in recent years so that I’ll be ready for the real reward: regaining the fitness needed to attempt the longer routes I dream of completing.

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