Increasing stride length for running

Long Stride? Short Stride? which is best?

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:

  • Lit­tle qual­i­ty evi­dence exists to sup­port the use of one stretch­ing against anoth­er for increas­ing ROM or stride length. Although Iso­met­ric exer­cis­es per­formed in out­er range seem to be the lat­est fad.

  • Evi­dence for chang­ing actu­al mus­cle length at a lev­el of sar­com­eres only exists on rodents and requires weeks of con­sis­tent stretch­ing by which time it would prob­a­bly induce periph­er­al nerve injury and limb paral­y­sis in humans.

  • Per­ceived (tran­sient) mus­cle length is cre­at­ed by short peri­ods of stretch­ing and the effects are only short lived with no guar­an­tee on actu­al­ly chang­ing move­ment pat­terns or function.

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.