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How Your Stride Rate and Breathing

Rhythm Affect Your Running
by Jack Daniels - “NCAA Coach of the Century”

During the many years that I’ve taught
activity classes, coached runners and
conducted research with runners of a
wide variety of ability levels, three
things have fascinated me a great deal:
the stride rate, stride length and
breathing rate that runners use when
running at competitive speeds. In
general, runners don’t think about these
things and, when I bring it to their
attention, most admit to never having
given it any thought. Still, there is a
good deal you can learn just from
observing how elite runners perform
these three functions.

STRIDE RATE, STRIDE LENGTH
& THE 1984 OLYMPICS
Let’s first examine stride rate &
length, because in most cases breathing
rhythms are closely linked with stride
frequency. Whenever I meet a new group
of students for a beginners running class,
the first thing I have them do is count
their steps while running around the
track. When a minute has gone by, I
have them stop and report the number of
steps they took – this gives me their
stride rate per minute. In all my years,
none of my beginner students ever
reported taking up to 180 steps per
minute. However, at the 1984 Olympics
in Los Angeles, my wife and I sacrificed
some enjoyable race-watching moments
to time and count stride rates among
elite male and female runners in their
important Olympic events. We found
that only one, of about 47 athletes
observed, took less than 180 steps per
minute. We were able to study some of
these “subjects” for several days, as they
were involved in preliminary and final
rounds in their event, so the observations
involved more than 47 incidents.
To calculate stride length, simply time
a runner over a given distance (200
meters for example), and count the
number of steps it takes to complete that
distance. Then divide the distance by the
number of steps taken (200/number of
steps), and you have the length of each
stride. In the longer events at the 1984
Olympics, we were able to count the
same runners during several laps of their
race, including the final lap when most
put in a finishing kick. In the 10k, for
example, we made a point of observing
runners who dropped off the pack, and
what they lost in terms of stride rate and
stride length. In all, we counted and
timed Male and Female runners in the
800, 1500 and Marathon, Men in the 5k
and 10k, and Women in the 3k.

THE FINDINGS
The most striking finding was that
stride rate varied little between men and
women, as well as among events of 3k
and longer. This, of course, indicates that
the main means of running at different
speeds is primarily a function of changes
in stride length. There was no question
that, among the studied subjects, the
800m runners used the longest strides
and the highest stride rate. The 1500m
runners also ran with stride length and
rates that were longer and higher than
average. However, beyond the 1500m
distance, stride length was the main
factor associated with differences in
running speed. And as expected, most
distance runners increase both stride rate
and length during their final kick to the
finish line. Nevertheless, one Gold-
Medal winner in a distance race actually
slowed their stride rate slightly during
the final 200-meter kick!
There is no question that elite runners
train and race faster than not-so-elite
runners, so it makes sense that they
would turnover faster and take longer
strides. On the other hand, I have had
elite runners run at a variety of speeds
while I count their stride rates (without
them knowing I was counting) and there
is no question that stride rate changes far
less than stride length. For example, one
group ran several minutes at 7:00 per
mile (230 meters per minute) pace,
followed by several minutes at 6:00 per
mile (268 m/min) pace and finally 5:00
per mile (322 m/min) pace; stride rate
averaged 184, 186, and 190,
respectively. So while speed increased
by about 40%, stride rate increased only
3.2% while stride length increased by
35%.

HOW YOUR RUNNING
IS AFFECTED
Our findings tell us that your speed
lies in your stride length. As a result,
some runners try to increase stride
length in an attempt to run faster, yet
their results are unaffected. This occurs
because stride length improvements
come as a function of being able to
increase the amount of energy available
per minute (or per stride) of running,
and therefore you need to improve your
conditioning to improve your stride
length. On the other hand, stride rate is
much more a matter of just deciding to
turnover at a different rate, and if that
new turnover costs less energy, then that
turnover is beneficial to your
performance. I tell my runners that stride
rate is voluntary while stride length is
something you have to achieve through
improvement in fitness.
In terms of your stride rate, research
has shown that the majority of runners
are most economical (use the least
energy as measured by oxygen
consumption during sub-maximal runs
of a variety of speeds), when running at
their self-chosen stride frequency.
However, that can be misleading - it’s
not surprising to be most economical
doing something you practice day after
day. In addition, I have often had
runners change stride rate, from their
chosen rate to a faster rate, and seen
improvement in running economy
(immediately in some cases). I have
never found a runner who slowed their
stride rate and became more economical,
as measured by assessing oxygen
consumption during sub-maximal
steady-state runs, but I can’t say that is
not a possibility for some individuals. So
the next time you go for a run, pay
attention to your stride rate! Play around
with it a little and see if a faster turnover
at your usual pace seems easier or leaves
you with a lower heart rate, a faster
time, or a lower VO2 during a sub-max
run. While stride length is still the key to
your speed, your stride rate is a quick,
easy, and underrated way to improve the
efficiency of your running! And as
mentioned, working on your stride
length through improved conditioning,
albeit a lengthier process, is also a great
way to develop your speed.

BREATHING RHYTHM
I strongly believe that breathing
rhythm is closely associated with stride
rate, and this association is not exclusive
to runners. In fact, in some sports the act
of breathing is determined very clearly
by the rate at which the legs and/or arms
are moving. Take swimmers for
example; here breathing in all strokes
(except back stroke) is strictly dictated
by arm turnover – you breathe in rhythm
with stroke rate or else swallow lots of
water. In rowing and paddling, breathing
is virtually limited to getting a breath
between strokes. The question for
runners is how many breaths do you
take per stride?
In counting breathing rates of elite
runners, I have found that over 80% use
a “2-2” rhythm most of the time,
especially when running at a fairly
demanding intensity. A 2-2 rhythm (the
first number indicates how many steps
you take while breathing in and the
second number indicates how many
steps you take while breathing out)
means you take 2 steps (1 with the right
foot and 1 with the left foot) while
breathing in and 2 steps while breathing
out. Some will use a 3-3 rhythm when
on an easy run, and often go to a 2-1 or
1-2 rhythm when starting to work really
hard toward the latter stages of a race or
during a hard training session.

THE PURPOSE OF BREATHING
It’s important to understand what
you’re trying to accomplish when you
breathe, and that is simply to ventilate
your lungs. The total amount of air that
you move in and out of your lungs per
minute of exercise is referred to as
minute volume, and is typically
expressed as VE (volume of expired air
that you measure in one minute of time).
VE is the product of breathing rate or
frequency (f), and the average size of
each breath (X) is referred to as mean
tidal volume. Therefore, VE = f X. If,
for example f = 30 and mean tidal
volume (X) = 3.0 liters, this means VE =
90 liters of air being moved in and out
of the lungs per minute. Usually when f
increases, tidal volume decreases some,
because the faster rate doesn’t allow
enough time for the breaths to be as
deep. What you are usually trying to
achieve is to move a good amount of air
in and out of the lungs, with as little
wasted effort as possible, and a rhythm
of 2-2 seems to do a good job of this for
many runners.

UNDERSTANDING
YOUR BREATHING
I want to make it clear that I am not
trying to convince you to start counting
your breathing rhythm every time you
go out for a run, but it can be useful to
monitor it occasionally to gain an
understanding of what is going on in this
realm. A great way to become more
aware of the effects of different
breathing rhythms is to run 5 continuous
laps on a 400-meter track, at a
comfortable pace. During the first lap,
breathe with a 4-4 rhythm (4 steps while
breathing in and 4 while breathing out).
As you start the second lap, switch to a
3-3 rhythm; then 2-2 for the third lap; 1-
1 for lap 4 (breathe in as 1 foot strikes
the ground and breathe out as the other
foot strikes the ground), and back to 4-4
for the 5th and final lap (lap 5 allows
you to compare a 4-4 rhythm with itself
under different conditions – first when
fully rested and just starting to run and
again after having run awhile and
feeling the need to better ventilate the
lungs). Then ask yourself which
breathing rhythm felt best and which felt
worst. In most cases, lap 1 was pretty
comfortable, lap 2 good and lap 3 even
better, but lap 4 quite annoying and lap 5
maybe not possible. If a desirable
breathing strategy is not apparent after
this brief test, I would suggest
completely avoiding a 4-4 rhythm; also
don’t let yourself fall into a 1-1 rhythm,
unless you’re at altitude and have
experience in that environment. Think of
a 3-3 rhythm as possible during easy
runs, but better to use 2-2 for most easy,
threshold, interval and rep sessions.
Save a 2-1 breathing pattern for hard
intervals and during the latter stages of
demanding races. Your running
efficiency is as unique as your
fingerprint, and if another certain rhythm
works better for you, then stick with it;
but be open to trying a new rhythm
during different training, racing, and
environmental conditions.
In terms of your minute volume and
it’s implications on your efficiency, it
may be beneficial to consider some
different breathing combinations of
frequency and tidal volume. For
simplification, let’s assume you’re
taking 180 steps per minute. This means
with a 3-3 rhythm you’ll take 30 breaths
per minute (180/6 steps per breathing
cycle = 30). With a 2-2 rhythm it
becomes 180/4 = 45 breaths per minute,
and if you were to breathe 1-1, then
you’d be taking 90 breaths per minute.
Male and Female runners tend to use the
same breathing frequencies, although
since the average Female has a smaller
total lung volume, the Female’s tidal
volume will be about half a liter smaller
than the average Male’s tidal volume. If
you’re an average-sized Male running
comfortably hard, you might have a 2.5-
liter mean tidal volume when breathing
3-3, which means your VE would be 30
x 2.5 or 75 liters per minute. Increasing
tidal volume, by breathing deeper, to
3.0-liter breaths would make your VE 90
liters/minute. If that isn’t feeling good,
then switch to a 2-2 rhythm, which
might drop your tidal volume back to
2.5, and 2.5 x 45 = 112.5 liters for
minute volume. When the intensity of
your running increases, an even greater
ventilation may be just what the doctor
ordered. For example, sticking with a 2-
2 rhythm and increasing tidal volume to
3.0 would increase minute volume to
135 liters per minute! And while going
to a 1-1 breathing rhythm would
increase the frequency of breathing to 90
breaths per minute, the rapid ventilation
rate would also reduce tidal volume
considerably, probably to less than 2
liters per breath. Therefore, while a 1-1
rhythm may produce a greater VE than
the 135 liters achieved with the 2-2
rhythm, a larger portion of the air
moving in and out of the lungs wouldn’t
be useful air. Each breath would involve
moving the (dead-space) air in the air
passage ways from the mouth and nose
leading to the lungs, back and forth 90
times a minute, reducing the useful air
that is ventilating the lungs by a
considerable amount. In addition, 1-1
breathing can be more costly to the
ventilatory muscles which are now
contracting 90 times each minute. When
elite runners find a 2-2 breathing rhythm
leaving them craving a greater minute
volume, they increase their breathing
rhythm to a 2-1, 1-2, or some
combination thereof that results in 60
breaths per minute (1 respiratory cycle
per second). This is a rate that
minimizes the drop in your tidal volume.
For example, 60 breaths per minute with
a tidal volume of 2.5 liters results in a
VE of 150 liters per minute. Yet always
remember, there is a very broad range of
minute ventilation volumes, both for
Males and Females, and it is not wise to
try to match that of another (even more
successful) runner, in hopes of becoming
better – you may not need as much as
the next person.

HOW YOUR RUNNING
IS AFFECTED
In all my years I’ve witnessed a wide
range of VE levels in both beginner and
elite athletes. I’ve even measured a
minute ventilation of 226 liters per
minute in an elite distance runner!
However, it’s important to realize that a
greater VE does not mean a better
runner – it is not something many
runners need to try to improve on. Some
runners just feel comfortable breathing
harder than others – each runner has a
particular tolerance for the discomfort
associated with hard running and with
the build up of carbon dioxide in the
lungs, and each adjusts their breathing as
necessary. Every now and then, test
some different breathing rates. See what
feels effortless, what feels impossible,
and what feels just OK. By simply
understanding the differences in
breathing rhythms and how your body
responds to those different rhythms,
you’re setting yourself up to perform
more efficiently.

The End

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The End

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