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You have a choice. You can be a long-haul truck built for endurance or a rally car built for speed. The truck will get the job done and get to the finish line. But the rally car will get there faster if managed properly.
In trail running, training like a long-haul truck means focusing on miles and vert. Training like a rally car means prioritizing the ability to go fast along with the ability to go long.
The distinction is most evident in elite trail racing. Over the last few years, course records have been dropping like flies that accidentally buzzed too close to the liquor cabinet. Those records have mostly been falling to track and road racers—rally cars that put on knobby tires and dominate on the basis of their speed. It goes for less technical trails (Way Too Cool 50K in 2015: Pat Smyth, an All-American track runner at Notre Dame) and more technical ones (Speedgoat 50K in 2013: Sage Canaday, a top runner at Cornell). Speed wins when it is strong enough to get to the finish line.
If you don’t come from that background, how can you maximize your own speed potential? The answer is by doing strides. All of those fast roadies got their start on strides when they were baby-bird runners, doing the workouts regurgitated to them by their mama-bird coaches.
If you don’t have that background (or you have just been neglecting speed recently), you need to start incorporating strides to realize your rally-car potential. Here is what they are, why you need to do them and how to get the most out of them.
Yes, you can do strides with your dog. Photo by David Roche
What are strides?
Strides are 15-to-30-second bursts of speed up to the fastest pace you can go while staying totally smooth and comfortable (it’s not a sprint). For normal runners, this is about the pace you could hold for two to four minutes. For faster runners, it might be closer to mile race pace or a bit slower.
Why do strides?
The primary benefit is improving running economy, or reducing the amount of energy it takes to run fast.
You can think of it in this simple way: If your goal is to run seven minutes a mile at race pace, then six minutes a mile better not feel herky-jerky and uncomfortable or you will be suffering on race day. By doing strides, your brain and muscles get better at operating smoothly and comfortably at all paces—not just stride pace.
Aside from neuromuscular benefits, there are secondary benefits for cardiac stroke output (increasing the amount of blood your heart pumps with each beat), muscle strength (improving power output) and the aerobic system (improving oxygen-processing power).
How should I do strides?
There are a few ways to do strides. Instead of boring you with a treatise on the subject, I’ll give you an overview of what has worked for the athletes I coach.
The overarching principle is that you do strides sometime in the second half of your easy runs, two to four times per week almost all year long, usually on terrain where you can go fast.
So for a serious runner who runs six times per week, with a workout on Wednesday and a long run on Saturday, strides would fall on Tuesday and Sunday (with the option to do more on Thursday and, for advanced athletes, during the long run on Saturday).
Do strides during your run, mixing them into the last few miles, rather than waiting until the very end. That way you don’t miss out on them completely because you remember a work deadline or something similarly dreadful.
From your easy pace, accelerate smoothly and efficiently, reaching stride pace as quickly as possible while avoiding sudden shifts. Then, after 20 or 30 seconds, fall back to your easy pace (be sure not to decelerate sharply or jog more slowly than normal between strides).
For most runners, I recommend 1:40 of normal easy running between 20-second strides. More advanced runners looking for a bit more aerobic stimulus can do 20 seconds on/40 seconds easy or somewhere in between. Do anywhere from four to 12, with eight being ideal.
What will happen if I do strides?
You’ll notice changes. Like that first voice crack when answering the phone at age 11, it will be gradual and a bit strange at first. Strides will get smoother and faster little by little. You’ll feel just a bit more spring in your step during workouts. When going faster, you’ll think, “Hey, this feels kind of like home.”
If you do them consistently enough, you’ll find yourself changing so much that it’s like going from the voice crack to a Barry White baritone. Every pace will feel easier and you’ll be faster at every distance.
Then, you’ll have the big realization: You don’t have to be a long-haul truck if you don’t want to be. Embrace strides, and bring out your inner rally car. Zoom zoom!
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.