How to Achieve a Personal Best

Article | January 2015

How to Achieve a Personal Best

Win the race against yourself.

Speed training is like putting together a workout that will improve your bottom line. As you attempt to achieve your personal best, keep this equation in mind: Stride frequency + stride length = speed.

Every exercise you perform should connect to one or both parts of this equation. Here's what you can incorporate into your current exercise routine to improve your speed and make every run better than your last.

Triple flexion: Producing greater force

Triple flexion occurs during the front side of sprinting, when there is flexion in three joints: Hip, knee and ankle. Acceleration is a critical component to any training program to become faster. You need to be able to apply force into the ground as you run to increase your acceleration.

For example, if you wanted to step on an orange and crush it flat, how would you step on it? In order to generate the most power, you wouldn’t lift your foot merely an inch or two above the orange. Most people would raise their leg as high as they could, with a bent knee and their toe flexed to the sky.

In raising your foot about twelve inches over the orange, you would actually flex your ankle at the same time, unknowingly creating triple flexion. The same is true with running. You have to have your foot in the correct position to be able to apply force to the ground to accelerate.

Triple extension: Reaching from hip to toe

Triple extension occurs when the ankle, knee and hip joints are all extended. Triple extension is often overlooked or neglected when trying to increase speed. Triple extension and acceleration are driving forces to gain ground (stride length). Triple extension also affects triple flexion. The greater range of motion achieved with extension will allow for optimal flexion at the hip. This will allow you to apply more force to the ground. Again, think about creating power to step on an orange and crush it.

Balance: Staying centered

The better you are at maintaining balance and your center of gravity, the faster you can become. This is because, when sprinting, you're actually balancing on each foot for about 1/100th of a second. When most people think of balance, they envision a person standing on one foot. This is a type of balance known as static balancing. Runners benefit more from learning how to maintain balance dynamically during movements. If you can't balance well, your body will lack the stability to transfer speed from one leg to the other. Improving your balance will make you more stable with each stride.

For example, if you have trouble standing on one leg, you'll use a lot of energy trying to stay balanced. Leaning to the left and flailing arms are all wasted energy. The same principle goes for running. Your body uses a lot of energy to stabilize. As you improve your balance, your body uses less energy with each step. Balance training two to three days a week will help improve your speed.

Stride length: Far but not too far

Optimal stride length helps the runner gain ground. When you reach maximum speed, your stride will be 2.1 to 2.5 times the length of your leg. But it's also important not to overstride. Overstriding is when you place your front leg further than your center of gravity. This is also known as braking. Runners often think this will help them to gain more ground, but it decreases their speed. Overstriding can also lead to lower back pain as the heel hits the ground first and applies excess force to the lower back. What's more, you can't have triple flexion if you overstride to gain more ground. Recording your running stride and playing it in slow motion is a great way to see if you're overstriding.

Stride frequency: Like riding a bike

This is the number of steps a runner takes in a given amount of time, or over a given distance. To achieve optimal stride frequency, runners generally use a cyclical motion, similar to riding a bike. The combination of optimal stride length and stride frequency will lead to an increase in speed.

Upper body running mechanics: Arms and legs in sync

The absence of optimal range of motion and flexibility in the upper body also decreases the range of motion during sprinting. That’s why practicing upper body speed mechanics is important in a speed training program. While running, the arms and legs move in unison. This is the body's way of trying to find its center of gravity to maintain balance. It also allows for optimal range of motion in the upper and lower body during triple extension and triple flexion. The hands should be relaxed and the fingers slightly curled, as if they were carrying a light bulb.

While running, think of "cheek to cheek." Keep your front arm at a 90 degree angle toward your face by your cheek. Your back arm should be at 120 degrees with your elbow bent and your hand by your backside cheek.

Practicing these areas can help improve your running form and increase your speed. Practice them together, because one is not more important than the next. They'll all help your bottom line equation to becoming faster.

Remember, stride frequency + stride length = speed.

Lieberman, D, Warrener, A, Wang, J, Castillo, E, Effects of Stride Frequency and Foot position at Landing on Braking Force, Hip Torque, Impact Peak Force and the Metabolic Cost of Running in Humans, Journal of Experimental Biology 2015 218

Jones, J, NASM Chapter 12 – Speed, Agility, and Quickness Training, June 4, 2013, http://www.thehealthygamer.com/2013/06/04/nasm-chapter-12-speed-agility-and-quickness-training/

Dunne, J, Running: It’s All in The Hips, January 8, 2013, http://www.kinetic-revolution.com/running-its-all-in-the-hips/

The information provided is for educational purposes only. It is not intended as medical advice. Always consult your doctor for appropriate health advice and guidance, including prior to starting a new diet or exercise program.