Rhythm and Running: Hitting Your Stride

– Derek M. Hansen – August 14, 2008 –

I was having a discussion with a running client of mine recently, and she mentioned how she didn’t like to wear her i-Pod when running. She said that running for her was a time where she could be free and able to listen to her body. She felt the music interfered with her running experience. I thought about this for a while and agreed. My personal experience with running and listening to music has been similar, although there were times when my body was not feeling great and the music actually distracted me from the experience of forcing myself through the pain and discomfort. Hard, classic-rock seemed to work well for me, particularly Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix.

The more I thought about it and other experiences with sprinting and athletic performances, the more I kept coming back to the importance of rhythm for running. The concept of an internal metronome, whether for fast running or slower-pace running, seems to be a common thread when examining good, fluid running performances. And, like musicians, better athletes seem to have a good grasp on keeping rhythm and not rushing the movement. Does this mean that musicians, particularly drummers, make better runners? No, not necessarily. I believe that rhythm for musical pursuits is somewhat different than rhythm in running. But I can see a connection with music playing from an i-Pod disturbing, or at least interfering with, the rhythm of a runner – particularly a runner that is very intuitive and aware of their body.

So what does this connection between rhythm and running mean for instructing someone how to run and enhancing their overall running performance? From my experience, rhythm, as it relates to running, should almost come from an autonomic part of the brain, much like the beating of our hearts. Runners are not counting in their head (i.e. one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi…) while executing a performance. The concept of “Feel” is critical and focusing efforts on other areas of the body seems to yield the best results. An example would be simply concentrating on breathing in a relaxed fashion and allowing the performance to flow from there.

We know that rhythm is important in executing a sprint, as the right combination of stride frequency and stride length must be employed for different phases of a sprint. Inappropriate rhythm at any given phase could result in tightness, over-striding, premature depletion of energy and many other performance limiters. Over longer distances, rhythm will determine efficiency and running economy. Over terrain that is varied, combining up-hills, down-hills and flats requires careful manipulation of rhythm. This is especially true for cycling, where the achievements of Lance Armstrong demonstrated that rhythm or, in cycling terminology, cadence can determine performance, particularly over long-distances and steep climbs.

With athletes who are working on developing fast acceleration abilities, I often encounter individuals who either rush their strides too much (overly high stride frequency) or athletes who push too hard on their individual strides resulting in long strides with a rhythm that is too slow. In both cases, muscle tension is too high, fluidity of motion is not present and the athletes are working well below their acceleration potential. John Jerome, an author who wrote many books on sports including “A Sweet Spot in Time,” presented a theory whereby all top athletes had greatly developed their “sweet-spot” for biomechanical movements in their sport – whether it was a golf-swing, baseball pitch or tennis shot. Finding that sweet spot for your running rhythm is a critical step in the skill-development process.

How do we determine what is an appropriate rhythm for an athlete or recreational runner? In all cases, optimal rhythm must be achieved in a “relaxed” state, where tension is managed in a way that the performance flows and does not lead to unwanted fatigue. Additionally, technical execution is critical, as good biomechanics will almost always lead to optimal rhythm and frequency. A good coach will be able to spot flaws in technique for cyclical activities by identifying disturbances in rhythm. One stride or series of strides may be interrupted in a manner that results in a loss in velocity or force application. A good friend of mine and one of the sharpest technical coaches I’ve ever met – Charlie Francis – was always critical of over-analyzing video because of the limitations of 30 frames per second yielded by most modern video cameras. He always felt that running technique would be “smoothed over” as critical frames would be missing. Watching someone with the naked eye always yielded more information from his perspective with the video camera serving only a supplementary purpose.

My personal experience has yielded similar results. When analyzing running performances, I’ve shifted towards moving way back from the athlete in an effort to take in the movement as a large sampling of strides as opposed to looking at one or two strides. I liken the approach to stepping back from one of those pictures that have a hidden pattern or picture within them. If you stand to close to them, you don’t see the pattern, just the individual pixels of color. However, if you move back and almost allow your vision to glaze over, the picture suddenly appears. This is how I look at running performances. The “real” picture appears only when you don’t look for it.

For runners who are analyzing their own rhythm, the process is one of trial-and-error. You must take the time and effort to free yourself from distraction, employ different levels of effort and cadence, and determine the effect of such changes. Sometimes the result will be visible with the stop-watch, your heart rate monitor or the video camera. While other times, your changes to rhythm will simply result in an improved “feel.” While the i-Pod may bring you hours of joy with your favorite tunes, it will not match the sheer excitement of finding that optimal rhythm when you run.