In many sports, speed is an important attribute, and improving speed is always sought after. To improve speed, you need to increase the stride length or strike rate. Many athletes and coaches initially concentrate on improving stride length to find that both strike rate and speed decrease. It is more effective to work on strike rate because this increases the leg muscles' power, which in turn increases stride length (Mackenzie 2004).
In several sports (e.g. football, basketball, netball, hockey) the athlete is required to conduct short bursts of effort and is then able to recover by getting oxygen back into the system. There are sports (e.g. running) where a long-sustained burst of energy and oxygen consumption (breathing rhythm) needs to be effective and efficient.
Stride Length and Rate
Exercise physiologists Jack Daniels, PhD monitored the athletes' strike rate and stride lengths in the 1984 Olympic track and field competitions. He found that competitors in the shorter distances had longer stride lengths. Female stride lengths varied from 4 feet 10 inches in the marathon, to 6 feet 8 inches for the 800 metres.Male stride length was 6 feet 2 inches in the 10-kilometre race to just over 7 feet 9 inches in the 800 metres. He found that the strike rate did not vary significantly. Strike rates for all events (male and female) fell between 185 and 200 steps per minute.
Stride length - 100m sprinter
Work conducted by Hoffman (1971) on male 100-metre sprinters (10.4 to 11.0 seconds) indicated that the average stride length was 1.14 times the athlete's height. Similar work conducted by Rompotti (1972) on the best twelve 100m sprinters (11.0 to 12.4 seconds) at Stanford University concluded that the standard stride length was 1.17 times the athlete's height. Despite the differences in the athletes' abilities in each group, the results were somewhat similar.
Further work conducted by Atwater (1973) on twenty-three 100m sprinters (9.9 to 10.4 seconds) concluded that the average stride length was 1.35 times the athlete's height.
The possible reason for the differences in the results is that the work by Hoffman (1971) and Rompotti (1972) was conducted on cinder tracks. In contrast, the work by Atwater was conducted on synthetic surfaces. Using Atwater's results, the six-foot athlete (1.8 metres) has an average stride length of 2.5 metres.
How to improve strike rate
To determine your strike rate, count the number of times your right foot lands during one-minute of running. Repeat these one-minute runs at different speeds. If you are like an elite athlete, you will find that your strike rate is 90, or more per minute (180+ steps) and is similar for various speeds. If your strike rate is less than 90, make a conscious effort to increase the strike rate. To do this, concentrate on quicker, lighter, relaxed steps, but do not change the way your feet strike the ground. I have found that aqua running often helps athletes with a slow strike rate.
Cross country runners need to maintain their strike rate when running up hills by adjusting the stride length. If you let strike rate slow down, you will find that fatigue sets in, and it is harder to get back to the desired strike rate once you are over the crest of the hill.
Exercises to improve Stride Length and Frequency
Perform the following three exercises in the following order:
The high-bench step-up: develop the hamstrings, gluteal and the quadriceps.
One-leg squat: develops the quadriceps and gluteals and hamstrings.
One-leg hops in place: builds strength and coordination in the entire lower extremity, including the foot, ankle, shin, calf, thigh, and hip.
The Breathing Issue
Most elite athletes use a 2-2 breathing rhythm. They breathe in for two steps, and they breathe out for two steps. The 2-2 breathing rhythm means you are taking 45 breaths (assume you now have a strike rate of 90) which is slow enough to allow for a good depth of breathing. It is recommended to practice all kinds of breathing patterns to become familiar with them and note your body's reaction. Try the 3-3 breathing rhythm, 4-4 breathing rhythm and try unequal breathing rhythms such as 3-2 and 2-3. All the athletes I work with (except the sprinters) use either a 2-2 or a 3-3 breathing rhythm. II use the 2-2 breathing rhythm, starting the left foot's breathing cycle. If you use the 2-2 breathing rhythm and you experience stitch, then switch the breathing rhythm to begin on the other foot or switch to a 3-3 breathing rhythm until the stitch subsides.
Long-term analysis conducted by Jack Daniels has found that elite athletes in races up to and including the 10K use the 2-2 breathing rhythm at the start of the race and after completing about two-thirds of the race, they switch to a 2-1 breathing rhythm. For races longer than 10k the 2-2 breathing rhythm is used for the whole distance, perhaps shifting to a 2-1 breathing rhythm in the last minute or two for the sprint finish. The critical point is that your breathing rhythm will tell you how hard you are working and allow you to control how hard you work.
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