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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 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 GoldMedal 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.
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; 11 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 2.5liter 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 22 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.
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