Adventures in Counting

It was a fateful day a decade or so ago when I picked up “Daniels Running Formula,” a systematic approach to training distance runners penned by well-known physiologist/coach/guru Jack Daniels, and read the following:

“Elite distance runners tend to stride at about the same rate, almost always 180 or more steps per minute. This means they are taking 90 or more steps with each foot per minute, a rate that doesn’t vary much even when not running fast. The main change that is made as a runner goes faster is in stride length; the faster they go, the longer the stride becomes with little change in rate of leg turnover. Quite different from elite runners is the rate taken by many beginning runners […] In fact, some turn over as slowly as 160 times per minute.”

Inspired by this quote, the next day I went out for a run and instead of using the stopwatch function on my Casio, I switched to timer mode, setting the timer to count down 60 seconds. After several minutes of easy running, I pushed the button and began to count my strides, incrementing my count every time my left foot touched down. Exactly a minute later, the timer alarm went off just as my count reached 80.

My first reaction was basically ‘what the hell?’ — a count of 80 meant that I was taking barely 160 steps per minute, a rate that Daniels all but identified as the lower bound for beginning runners and 20 below the number taken by elites. Of course, I needed to try it again. Surely my sluggish turnover was the result of being insufficiently warmed up. So I reset the timer and started again, trying to be a little quicker on my feet. When the timer reached 0, there I was stuck on 80 again. I tried several more times that day, trying to really focus on quickening my arm action, taking short and dainty strides, and doing everything else I could think of to change my cadence. I managed to record an 82 before giving up my experiment for the day. Among other effects, trying to change my stride was really tiring!

Over the next few months, I continued my experiments in counting my steps. I counted and counted, all the while attempting to vary my stride in such a way as to increase my cadence. I found that I was able to “settle” on a stride rate of about 82 (164 steps) per minute; that is, I could maintain this rate for an entire run without having to think about it every moment. I found that if I really focused on taking short, quick steps, I could sometimes hit 85 strides (170 steps) per minute. This was not sustainable, however, at least not at normal run pace.

Although Daniels had claimed that runners do not increase their stride rate as they speed up, I discovered that for me, at last, there was a strong correlation between stride rate and running speed. It was very difficult for me to take 170 steps per minute without speeding up, and speeding up seemed to bump up my stride rate without any other conscious efforts to change my form. (Later, I saw a different study that compared the change in stride rates for elite 5000/10000m runners when they kicked at the end of the race. The conclusion of the study was that runners used different “strategies,” with some lengthening their strides and others increasing their cadence. That seems to suggest that Daniels was overstating things when he said that there was little change in the rate of leg turnover as speed increased.)

Experimenting on myself made me curious about other runners. I started paying more attention to leg turnover patterns for other runners in my club. Most of my friends seemed to have stride rates similar to mine, but the one exception was Terry, whose quick turnover was definitely in the elite range. I would sometimes jog behind Terry in warmups and try to mimic his steps. Even at a slow warmup pace, his steps were rapid and efficient, and I couldn’t match his tempo.

I also discovered that running barefoot changed everything, and that I was capable of achieving much higher stride rates with much less mental effort. On the other hand, I only ran barefoot for very short periods of time, so I don’t know what would happen if I ran any sort of longer distance barefoot.

Over the years, I’ve gone through periods of renewed interest in my stride rate. All told, I’ve spent many, many hours practicing to develop that elite turnover that Daniels described. Unfortunately, I’ve largely failed. I went out for a run the other day and, having nothing better to think about, switched on the timer and began to count. I wasn’t doing anything special to make my stride short or quick, but it was still fairly discouraging that when the timer went off, I had just counted “80,” no different from my first experiment over a decade ago.

But the effort has not been a total waste. For one thing, I have become very good at counting. I have learned to count in a variety of patterns, counting every other step (one stride at a time), every sixth step (three strides at a time), and various other exotic patterns. I can begin counting, think about something completely different for nearly a minute, and then switch back to my count whcih has been going on without me being aware of it. This is downright spooky, and if you don’t believe it’s possible, I recommend you try counting your steps for ten years and see what happens.

For another thing, I have discovered I have access to a very accurate timing mechanism — my stride — and I know that if I count the number of times my feet hit the ground, I also know within a second or two how much time has elapsed. Since I also have a pretty good sense of pace, I have a quite accurate way of measuring distance without need of GPS watch or Google Maps.

That’s some consolation for being, in stride rate terms, a rank beginner within the running world.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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One Response to Adventures in Counting

  1. ankit says:

    “That’s some consolation…”

    Is it though? You could still do all that with a higher stride rate…

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