Metric Monday: What Your Step Length Tells You About Your Running

For one last time in 2020, it’s Metric Monday!

In this series, we take an in-depth look at a range of metrics which impact your running and one by one, detail their importance, what they mean, and how understanding and working to improve on each metric can help you in your running performance.

By understanding and working on these metrics for those crucial, performance-boosting marginal gains, you can improve on the key aspects of your form and technique and become a consistently better runner.

As we wrap up this series for this year, we’re examining your step length and how finding the right balance can get more from your running.

With many of the metrics that we’ve covered in this series, the importance of recognising that every runner will have different statistics and data has been stressed – and when it comes to analysing your step length, it’s no different.

Understanding your step length can help you get more from your running, unlocking that extra boost of speed, keeping your form more consistent and efficient, while simultaneously keeping your movement less at risk from potentially harmful injuries.

What is step length?

Your step length is the length between your front foot and your back foot with every step you take and is a metric that’s typically measured in centimetres.

You’ll often find discussions of step length alongside conversations of stride length – but these are different metrics and produce different results that runners should be aware of.

Where step length measures the length of your step between both feet, stride length takes into account two steps – one from your left foot and one from your right.

This means that your stride length is double that of your step length, as it takes in twice the amount of data (as long as your step length for your left and right feet are similar).

Why is it important?

Your step length is used to provide more detailed analysis on your running to help you maintain form and ensure you’re getting the most speed out of your performance. It’s a key metric in gait analysis and helps runners learn more about their style, form, and efficiency.

Your running speed is a combination of both your step length and your cadence, with the optimal ratio between the two to get maximum speed differing for every runner.

Therefore, improving upon your step length means you’ll get more out of your running, becoming more economical and efficient on top of running in a safer manner.

How can I improve my step length?

Take caution with attempting to increase your step length. There are risks that come with increasing it without precaution, as doing so can halt your momentum and, in some cases, result in injury.

When you reach further forward with bigger steps, you’re putting your body off balance. With that, your forward striding foot will hit the ground in an unnatural manner that can cause braking – which, of course, isn’t ideal if you’re trying to improve your speed, efficiency and form.

Much of this is to do with overstriding (the angle of your lower-leg on-ground impact, measured in degrees) which plays a big part in influencer many various factors of your running, from your ground contact time, cadence and, of course, you step length.

When you overstride, your front foot is reaching too far forward ahead of your centre of mass, weakening your performance and putting yourself at risk of injury.

Overstriding is also responsible for throwing your cadence off too, as you’re overstretching as you reach for the next step and therefore altering the number of steps you take per minute in a negative manner.

Taking longer steps is what creates overstriding so you need to maintain caution when working on your step length to not overdo it and detract from other areas of you movement.

On the other hand, if you aim to decrease your step length, it’s important to remember that by taking shorter steps, you can create under striding, which is effectively the opposite of overstriding and, again, can have a negative impact.

With under striding, your body is again off balance because your front foot is not reaching far forward enough. As a result, you’ll have a higher cadence, decreasing your speed and causing your performance to potentially falter.

There’s also the risk of injury that comes from displacing your centre of mass as your fore-foot lands, and the manner of your footstrike, although data on what specifically causes injury is still being researched.

As such, the ideal aim for most runners should be to find the sweet spot between under and overstriding.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, but once you’ve got the balance right in your step length, you’ll notice your form will become more consistent, you will be able to generate more speed, and your movement won’t be halted by unnecessary braking.

One thing to consider is how you generate speed, which you can figure out through combining your cadence and step length metrics. This will tell you where your speed is coming from and what you need to alter and train in order to improve – be that a lower cadence or smaller step length.

Another way to train your step length is to consider how fair your trailing leg is from your front foot, rather than focusing on how your front foot leads. By doing this, you have a better chance to reduce your overstriding, as you won’t be displacing your natural centre of mass as you forward striking foot won’t change.

Many coaches also recommend strength training your legs to better increase the amount of durability in your leg muscles. Working through some strength-focused running drills or some interval training could do just the trick.

That spot between over and under striding is something that requires a bit of training to spot on, but through a bit of hard work, it can improve your running performance tenfold if done correctly.

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