Natural stride... This expression is cropping up more and more often in conversations about running - and that's great news! In the world of running, as well as in athletics and other sports, people are starting to hear about natural stride and its benefits.
But what exactly is natural stride? To help you understand the principle behind it, how it benefits you, and how to do it, we've put together a bunch of explanations and testimonies from researchers, athletes and physios.
As its name suggests, natural stride consists in running in the way that most closely resembles how you'd run if you were barefoot.
The fact is that, with conventional sports shoes, most runners tend to strike the ground heel-first. This heel strike, which amongst other things allows you to extend your natural stride and save energy, is made possible by the shoe's heel-to-toe drop; that is, the height difference between the front and back of the shoe. On a conventional sports shoe, the heel is several millimetres higher to provide cushioning. So what's the problem? Let us explain:
If you run barefoot just for fun, for instance on the grass, to really feel the ground under your feet, you'll soon realise that you strike the ground with the front or middle of your foot. This is known as the mid-/forefoot strike. That's because when you're barefoot, your heel can't absorb all the impact and vibrations of running. So you instinctively strike the ground with your mid-/forefoot instead.
For natural stride, therefore, your equipment (in this case, your shoes and particularly their soles) and your running technique have to be adapted to allow you to get as close as possible to the barefoot running motion.
The other, much less convenient solution, is to limit yourself to running barefoot on the grass…
Why? Because heel-strike running doesn't allow you to absorb the vibrations of impact. The impact therefore propagates throughout your body, particularly affecting your knees and lower back.
And that just about wraps up our simple, quick description of natural stride. To delve a little deeper into the subject, we now give you a testimony by Maxime, our researcher at SportsLab.
SportsLab is our research and development lab specialising in the study of the human body. It's here that Maxime has been studying natural stride for the last ten years or so:
“Our approach is based on the principle that the body is sufficiently well-built and that it already has everything it needs to run. If we don't give it extra cushioning at the heel via the shoe, the body will adjust its running stride. The strike will then be done with the mid-/forefoot, which brings about a change in muscle activity. The muscle group along the back of your legs, from the calves to the lower back, is made to work much harder and therefore it gets stronger. The aim of natural stride is to reduce the effort required of the knees and back.”
Indeed, the advantage is that, by reducing the amplitude of your stride and striking the ground with your mid-/forefoot, you put the load of the first impact on your ankles and hamstrings: these are the muscles that absorb the vibrations and then produce energy to propel your forwards again.
But if this type of stride is natural and good for the body, then why do most people run with a heel-strike stride? Simply because your body adapts to whatever methods you give it. So a shoe with a high drop leads you to adopt a heel-strike stride:
“To adapt, the body puts all its sensory receptors into play. And the foot is a sensory receptor. If, during the learning phase, the sole of the shoe acts as a filter, then the body loses out on information, which is a disadvantage in the development phase.”
The body also adapts to how much energy expenditure each type of stride demands:
“Your body quickly gets lazy! Since the heel-strike stride requires less energy, the body forgets the natural stride.”
We've seen that adopting a natural stride entails going through a learning - or rather, re-learning - phase that can take some time, especially for adults. Natural stride does indeed put more strain on the muscles along the back of your legs (calves, hamstrings, lumbars); these muscles also have to work harder in order to propel you forwards again.
Although the transition is a gradual one, it brings real long-term benefits, not the least of which is the prevention of joint injuries. Etienne, physiotherapist and natural stride enthusiast, agrees:
“These days, more and more of my patients are runners and I'm seeing more and more injuries. People always want to do more, to go faster. If you look at the scientific research, you won't find many studies that say you need a 10-millimetre heel-to-toe drop and a 500-gram shoe with reinforcements all over it. And if you look at other sports, such as trail running for example, you'll see there are a lot of well-known athletes running with 0-drop shoes, with very little cushioning.”
If you want to change to a natural stride, you'll need the right kind of running shoes. Here are the main criteria:
- A 0-drop, which means a flat sole, with no height difference between the forefoot and heel.
- A flexible sole that makes it easier for you to bend your foot so as to strike the ground with your mid-/forefoot.
While you may find the lack of cushioning awkward at first, you'll also find that the flexibility and the shape, closely resembling that of your bare foot, help you change your stride:
“Shoes with a 0-drop and little cushioning are not a problem for me at all. I'd go as far as saying you need even less cushioning. It's just a matter of adaptation: Your body is capable of adapting to any kind of stride. It's just that for adults, this takes longer: children learn much faster because their capacity to adapt is 10 times greater.” Etienne, physiotherapist.
So, the most important thing to remember if you want to adopt a natural stride is to do it gradually. Your transition will therefore depend on the length and distance of your outings, as well as what kind of shoes you choose. But don't worry, you don't have to go straight from a 10-drop to a 0-drop in one go. Shoes with an 8-, 6- or 4 -drop allow you to adapt your stride little by little, gradually discovering new running sensations as you work your way through this period of adaptation and strengthening.
Absolutely! The other aspect of your transition to natural stride hinges around the drills and exercises to strengthen the muscle group along the back of your legs so as to prepare them for a different kind of workout. While this transition phase may take you considerable time, it's also a good opportunity to set yourself new goals, approach your running in a whole new way, progress, and increase the long-term benefits of your sports activity.
Want to find out more? Discover our exercises to work on your natural stride.
What about you, what's your style of running? If you're discovering natural stride or you've already adopted it, don't hesitate to share your experience and tips with us!