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Study suggests inefficient runners are really hard to spot

A new study finds that a funky stride doesn't always mean poor running economy

Runners often ask about their stride and efficiency. Are there ways they could improve? Would a small gait adjustment make them better? These questions are often asked to coaches or advisors, but a new study from the European Journal of Sports Science suggests that this might be the wrong place to go. The study asked 121 coaches to rank athletes based on video footage of their stride from least to most efficient. The results? The coaches were really inaccurate. 

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Running economy refers to the amount of energy expended to maintain a particular speed, and it is important for successful distance running. The less effort to run fast, the better.  

The study found that coaches were able to list the factors that go into an economical stride, but they weren’t able to identify in practice. This gap in knowledge is significant. Factors coaches correctly listed as poor for running economy were bounce, lateral movement across the body, arm carriage, forward lean and over-striding. However, they couldn’t accurately identify these factors in the runners they watched on video. The coaches had a wide range of backgrounds, from high school level to international-caliber, but their backgrounds didn’t really change the accuracy of their findings. 

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A funky stride doesn’t necessarily mean poor running economy, and coaches should be cautious to recommend changes to someone’s stride based on appearance alone. Researchers wrote, “Running economy should be considered a measure of many factors interacting in concert, with no single factor likely to create a substantial change in running economy.” Basically, like in all things running-related, the answer is likely multifaceted.

If runners are experiencing a persisting injury, then a strength program coupled with gait retraining can be effective. However, as the old adage goes, don’t judge a runner’s economy by their stride (alone). 

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