Increasing stride length for running

Long Stride? Short Stride? which is best?

David Barrow

Rehab Guru Co-Founder

The issue of stride length is some­thing that has been bat­tled against for a long time. Usain Bolt has a stride length that seems to eat up ground quick­er than any com­peti­tor can keep pace with, yet many fol­low­ers of the ​‘run­ning re-edu­ca­tion’ com­mu­ni­ty may believe that a short­er stride is bet­ter, pro­vid­ing you can increase your leg speed.

This arti­cle is a some­what fick­le read that only aims to address a small part of stride length. For­get ankle plan­tar-flex­ion range, spinal mobil­i­ty, tho­racic rota­tion, pelvic rota­tion, arm dri­ve, head posi­tion, emo­tion­al resources, body ten­sion etc. This arti­cle will focus pre­dom­i­nant­ly on the hip and specif­i­cal­ly the mus­cu­lar contribution.

Before we get into the weeds of ​‘which mus­cles is most impor­tant’, let’s con­sid­er whether it is even pos­si­ble to change mus­cle length. Mus­cle length is some­thing that has evad­ed sci­ence. I could ruin this arti­cle by invad­ing it with my the­sis on the effects of stretch­ing on mus­cle length and per­for­mance. I can sum­marise these briefly:

So what’s the point of this article?

How can we cre­ate actu­al or per­ceived length in mus­cle, change in ROM or function?

Is it even possible?

What can be done oth­er than stretching?

Stretch­ing has been used for decades with the hope of chang­ing the char­ac­ter­is­tic of a mus­cle from being stiff or short to being flexible.

Stretch­ing may help in the short term to change the effect of a stiff mus­cle but what is the rea­son for the mus­cle stiffness?

Is it advantageous?

Does our voca­tion­al behav­ior influ­ence mus­cle stiff­ness or length?

If a per­son sits for 9 hours at work all day, then strength­ens their abs in a short posi­tion doing sit ups, after which they sit for sev­er­al more hours on the sofa each day, then I won­der if their abdom­i­nal mus­cles might be short.

How strong is the mus­cle in mid or out­er range dur­ing activity?

If the mus­cle has no strength in out­er range, will it ever func­tion well at that length?

Is stretch­ing ever going to change that?

What changes to strength­en­ing and voca­tion­al habits need to occur to allow a change in per­ceived length and move­ment pattern?

Are we bark­ing up the wrong tree by answer­ing the ques­tions of per­for­mance with a mechan­i­cal approach?

In the event that a mechan­i­cal approach has a role to play in influ­enc­ing per­for­mance, which mus­cle you choose to stretch for gain­ing a greater stride length should be method­i­cal in test­ing. Below are a few ideas of mus­cles to assess for both hip flex­i­bil­i­ty and strength before you decide to go for the old faith­ful ham­string and quad/’hip flexor’.

At the hip, exten­sion mobil­i­ty is impor­tant to allow a pow­er­ful for­ward dri­ve and for this the usu­al Thomas test allow for assess­ment of iliop­soas, and to some extent, rec­tus fermoris/​TFL as the knee is also flexed.

A com­mon­ly for­got­ten mus­cle is Sar­to­rius. Hip dri­ve in run­ning occurs with an extend­ed knee so whilst rec fem and TFL are use­ful for ear­ly swing phase they don’t impede hip exten­sion as much as you think.

Sar­to­rius on the oth­er hand, flex­es the hip and the knee, so it will reach max­i­mum length at hip exten­sion and knee exten­sion. It is a lat­er­al rota­tor of the hip so ear­ly lat­er­al rota­tion of the hip can occur if Sar­to­rius has lim­it­ed length. Pectineus and adduc­tor longus may also restrict hip exten­sion or per­haps impede the impor­tant cou­pled move­ments of abduc­tion and lat­er­al rota­tion which are imper­a­tive for hip extension.

To expand on Sar­to­rius, chang­ing its per­ceived length may give a poten­tial advan­tage oth­er than opti­mal exten­sion at the hip. As the leg is able to extend unim­ped­ed, the calf will oper­ate bet­ter as the foot pro­pels through high gears. With exces­sive lat­er­al rota­tion of the leg, the ankle pro­pels through the lat­er­al bor­der of the foot which can be referred to as low gear propul­sion. High gear propul­sion uses pre­dom­i­nant­ly the gas­troc­ne­mius and low gear propul­sion uses pre­dom­i­nant­ly the deep pos­te­ri­or com­part­ment and peroneals.

So what cre­ates short­ness in Sar­to­rius? This may be answered in many ways, all of which may be valid. Dur­ing the run­ning motion we can observe the use of sar­to­rius in hip and knee flex­ion dur­ing the swing phase but this should not be a pre­dom­i­nant­ly active mus­cle. Cor­rect ath­let­ics coach­ing may hold one of the keys to pre­vent­ing exces­sive tone in the mus­cle by encour­ag­ing the biceps femoris (ham­string) to flex the knee, the psoas com­plex is more capa­ble of flex­ing the hip once the ham­string has per­formed its role well. Per­haps poor co-ordi­na­tion and strength of these mus­cles leads to com­pen­sa­tion by the Sar­to­rius? Per­haps a seden­tary sit­ting lifestyle cre­ates short­ness in the sar­to­rius mus­cle? Per­haps poor gluteal strength caus­es com­pen­sa­tion with­in Sar­to­rius for it is also a lat­er­al rota­tor. There may be many more pos­si­bil­i­ties that are out­side the con­fines of this arti­cle and it may be an avenue worth explor­ing in your own practice.

In the oppo­site hip move­ment, flex­ion can be restrict­ed by ham­string flex­i­bil­i­ty as well as the gluteals, but it is pos­si­ble to be more spe­cif­ic than this and there are oth­er mus­cles that pre­vent for­ward swing of the leg.

The ham­string can be sep­a­rat­ed into medi­al and lat­er­al groups. Lat­er­al­ly, the biceps femoris is pre­dom­i­nant­ly a knee flex­or so will have more influ­ence lim­it­ing knee extension.

Medi­al­ly the semi­mem­bra­nosis and semi­tendi­nosis have a main func­tion in extend­ing the hip and this func­tion is sup­port­ed by the adduc­tor mag­nus. The dif­fer­ence being that adduc­tor mag­nus oper­ates as a hip exten­sor above 90 degrees of hip flex­ion. So when try­ing to increased hip flex­ion and a pow­er­ful for­ward dri­ve, the adduc­tor mag­nus is anoth­er impor­tant mus­cle to test for length as well as strength adduct­ing through the full range of hip flexion.

Hope­ful­ly this arti­cle has pro­voked some thought in look­ing out­side of the box when improv­ing func­tion of the hips as opposed to dish­ing out the same exer­cis­es for all patients with low back pain, knee or hip pain. Although tempt­ing to sim­ply work with ​‘recipes’, the pro­fes­sion and our clients/​athletes some­times demand more to find a solu­tion to their obstacles.

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David Barrow

David is a Physiotherapist who has been involved in Professional Sport, battlefield trauma, chronic pain and the NHS. He continues to work clinically alongside his development role in Rehab Guru. David is passionate about Health tech to transform outcomes for patients

David Barrow

Rehab Guru Co-Founder