Stride Faults Cost Americans Gold

When American runners Dathan Ritzenheim and Ryan Hall finished 9th and 10th at the 2008 Olympic Marathon at Beijing, there were probably many in the running community who shrugged their shoulders and said to themselves 'Well, what can you do against the Kenyans? They live and train at altitude all their lives and are genetically and physiologically superior'.

But a comparison of their stride mechanics to those of winner Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya reveals two surprising results:

They lost to Wanjiru because he was more efficient. 
They were more fit than Wanjiru.

Let's take a look at what the photos tell us.

Stride Angle

The stride angle is the maximum opening between the front and trailing leg, usually occurring at toe-off.

Samuel Wanjiru ran with a stride angle of 106° on each side.

Wanjiru Left Stride Angle Wanjiru Right Stride Angle

Research we have conducted with runners shows that for every degree you change your stride angle, you change your stride length by 2%. This means a 10° change in stride angle produces a 20% change in stride length.

Dathan Ritzenheim ran with an 88° degree stride angle on the right, and only 78° on the left.

Ritzenheim Left Stride Angle Ritzenheim Right Stride Angle

Ryan Hall ran with an 85° degree stride angle on the left, and an 81° stride angle on the right.

Hall Left Stride Angle Hall Right Stride Angle

It is surprising that elite marathoners would compete with such asymmetrical stride angles. Did no one videotape and measure their stride angles? And if they did, why didn't they at least make them symmetrical?

Secondly, why would they compete in the Olympic marathon with stride angles that are so small?

We can only guess that their training did not include recording, measuring and improving their stride angle.

How much did this cost them in terms of pride and endorsements?

To see how inefficient the two Americans were, we take the average of the two stride angles for Ritzenheim and Hall and compare the average to Wanjiru. Ritzenheim ran with an average stride angle of 83° (88 + 78/2 = 83) and Hall also ran with an average stride angle of 83° (85 + 81/2 = 83). Since Wanjiru ran with a 106° stride angle, his stride angle was 23° larger than the Americans, and he was therefore covering 46% more ground (23 X 2) with each stride!

Here are photos comparing Wanjiru to the American runners.

Samuel Wanjiru Dathan Ritzenheim

Samuel Wanjiru Ryan Hall

Sending American runners to the Olympic Marathon with such small stride angles is like sending unarmed men into combat. It speaks volumes about the poor coaching of American distance runners.

If American sprinters (at least at 400 meters) do so well, why do American distance runners fare so poorly?

The answer lies partially in the selection process. Stride angle is mainly a function of flexibility in the hips. Stiff runners have stiff hips, and small stride angles. In America, the fast, flexible runners gravitate toward the sprints. The slower, stiffer runners are forced into longer distances as they are not competitive at one-lappers and under.

So America sends its stiffest runners to compete at distance events. Stiff runners are inefficient.

Coaches do not see or correct these inefficiencies because both the runners and their coaches believe the only way to run faster is to train harder or 'smarter'. In other words, improve fitness for running.

In Kenya, Ethiopia and other North African countries, flexible runners go out for the longer distances. They imitate the local hero, who is often a World Record holder and runs efficiently. With an efficient stride they dominate longer distances.

Bounce

As runners compete in the marathon, they bounce up and down about 3" with each stride. Since the average runner takes about 1,000 strides per mile, a marathon consists of 26,200 strides. When you multiply 3" by 26,200, you get 6,550 feet, or 1.24 miles. This means a typical marathoner runs more than a vertical mile during the course of the marathon.

This is what makes the marathon a test of endurance. It is not the horizontal distance that is difficult (you can skate, walk or bike 26.2 miles with no trouble). It is the vertical distance of the marathon that makes it a grueling contest of endurance.

When you increase your stride angle and cover more distance with each stride, you reduce the number of times you bounce up and down.

So Wanjiru ran a much easier and shorter race than Ritzenheim and Hall. Since he was covering 46% more ground with each stride, he was theoretically taking 46% fewer strides (the actual number will be less because both Ritzenheim and Hall were overstriding—a common fault with runners who race with a small stride angle). This means he was theoretically running .57 vertical miles, compared to 1.24 for Ritzenheim and Hall.

Yet the Americans were only a few minutes behind the winner.

This leads us to conclude that they were much more fit than Wanjiru. If not, they would have finished much farther back than 9th and 10th.

Overstride

Those of you who watched the wonderful movie on Olympic running Chariots of Fire, may remember the first words out of the mouth of the professional coach 'You're overstriding'.

Everyone in running knows that you should not overstride, but the Americans did it in spades.

First, here is Samuel Wanjiru, a sterling example of how not to overstride, compared to Dathan Ritzenheim and Ryan Hall.

Samuel Overstride Angle Ritzenheim Overstride Angle

Wanjiru Overstride Angle Hall Overstride Angle

Wanjiru has a negative 15° overstride angle. The ideal is 20°, which we have seen in some sprinters. But -15° is unusually good in a distance runner.

By contrast, Ritzenheim overstrides by 17°, or 32° more than Wanjiru. Hall overstrides by 12°, or 27° more than Wanjiru.

Overstriding (reaching out with the lower leg prior to landing on the front foot) is just like putting the brakes on. In fact, if you watch sprinters, you can see that they overstride on purpose after crossing the finish line to slow themselves down.

So why would America's two top marathoners run with such large overstride angles?

The answer is two-fold.

First, runners with a small stride angle overstride in an attempt to lengthen their stride. Unfortunately, this strategy backfires. While they do increase their stride length, they also slow themselves down each time they touch the ground.

The second answer is that they don't record, measure and correct their overstride angle. Chances are good that they and their coaches were either unaware or unconcerned about overstriding.

Flexible runners with big stride angles do not need to overstride. They can easily land with the foot underneath their trunk (as you see above). This minimizes the time that they spend in contact with the ground.

Runners never run at an even pace. They accelerate each time they push off from their back leg. They reach their top speed when they are in the air. As soon as they contact the ground, they slow down because of friction. More efficient runners minimize their contact time by not overstriding. The more you reach out with your lower leg, the more time you spend on the ground, and the less time in the air.

Improving Stride Efficiency

It should be obvious from our analysis, that success for American distance runners will not come from more fitness (they are already fitter than their African rivals), but from improving their stride efficiency.

The first step is to videotape and measure their stride and overstride angles on each side.

The next step is to improve their stride angle.

The fastest way to do this is to release microfibers (scar tissue) that have developed in the connective tissue between their hip and leg muscles from overtraining.

As we release their microfibers, runners make an impressive improvement in their stride angle.

Before Somax After Somax

The runner above increased his stride angle from 95-125° after we released microfibers in his hips. Since he improved his stride angle 30°, he was covering 60% more ground with each stride. When he returned to his high school track team, his coach asked his parents where he got his 'mile-long stride'.

An elite marathoner recently dropped her mile time from 5:38 to 5:09 after we released microfibers in her hips.

Microfibers

Running long distances with poor mechanics overuses the hip muscles, tearing hundreds of the tens of thousands of individual fibers that make up each muscle. Scar tissue forms inside the muscles as part of the repair process, but also forms in the connective tissue between the muscles to immobilize the area so that it can heal. The drawing below shows the relationship of this connective tissue to the muscles of the leg.

Normally, the connective tissue membranes (white) between the muscles (red) are smooth. They allow the muscles to slide past each other, which they have to do in order to stretch.

But when you have even a mild injury (falls on court), overuse (lifting weights, running) or stress , microfibers form as part of the healing process to immobilize the area. Microfibers are nature's internal cast.

Unfortunately, once the area has healed, the microfibers not only do not go away, they tend to accumulate over time, making athletes stiffer with age.

If you force a runner who is already stiff and overstriding to run a lot of mileage, you are only increasing their stiffness day by day.

As they become more fit, they also become more inefficient. Their times stagnate. The response of the coach and athlete is to get in even more mileage, or train at altitude, in order to further increase their fitness. All in the vain hope that they will run faster than the Africans.

Conclusion

For decades, marathoners trained and competed with a 90° stride angle, the smallest stride angle in competitive running.

But those days are gone.

By winning the 2008 Olympic marathon with a 106° stride angle, Samuel Wanjiru has suddenly raised the bar in the marathon, just as Usain Bolt has done in the sprints—with a massively superior stride angle.

Anyone who hopes to beat Wanjiru will have to train and race with a 110° stride angle, formerly the domain of 10K runners. They will also need to learn to run with a -20° overstride angle. This can be done by releasing microfibers and training with frame-by-frame videotape analysis.

For Americans to think that they need to train harder or 'smarter' is just foolish. Our analysis shows that they are already more fit than their foreign competitors.

The days of mindless mileage are over.