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Every runner knows how important form is. From helping to prevent injury to improving your pace, making sure you're running efficiently—whatever that means for you and your body—is pretty key. Experts have opinions on everything from where your foot should strike to the ideal gait, but advice and research in the area aren't *always* consistent. That can make it tough to know who to listen to, especially when you're new to the sport. (Related: 10 Ways to Improve Your Running Technique)
But according to a new study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science, there's one area of your technique that you can stop worrying about: your stride. It's the one part of your running form where what comes naturally is the way to go. Researchers from Brigham Young University worked with a group of runners at various skill levels—from "experienced" runners (averaging at least 20 miles per week) to "relatively inexperienced" runners (those who have never run more than 5 miles in a week). Each person was put through a series of running tests, where they were told to run with their natural stride, a stride longer than their natural stride, or a stride shorter than their natural stride.
Their oxygen intake was measured while they ran, which gave researchers information about how efficiently their bodies were working during these runs. In the end, they ended up finding that all runners' "preferred stride" was the method that used the least amount of energy, meaning they could theoretically go longer and stronger while using that stride. Seems like this another reason to simply listen to your body. (Side note: If you're wondering when you should wear minimal running shoes, we have answers.)
But is this something running coaches already use in practice? "I absolutely agree that most runners, left to their own devices, will naturally adopt an efficient stride over time," says Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., a registered clinical exercise physiologist and founder of Running Strong Professional Coaching. She adds that past studies in this area had similar results but were only performed on experienced runners, so it's encouraging to see that those same results were achieved in those who didn't have as many miles under their belts.
Plus, the length of a person's stride isn't commonly the problem with their running form. "It is very rare that I'll push one of my athletes to change their stride length," says Hamilton. "The only time I'll go down that path is if I am absolutely convinced that the way they're running is contributing to an injury pattern or that the change I'm going to make is going to make them more economical." Even in cases where she does feel that altering someone's stride is warranted, she asks them to focus on cadence and rhythm for a more gradual change rather than straight-up going immediately longer or shorter.
As for her advice for those who are looking to improve their running form overall, Hamilton's perspective has largely to do with the flow. "Relax and let it happen," she says. "Think 'tall, light, easy,' and don't focus on how your foot hits the ground, where your arms are swinging, or whether you're heel striking or mid-foot striking. You run the way you run because of how you're built, the terrain you're on, the speed you're running, and your unique strength and flexibility and biomechanics. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle, and reflexes do a phenomenal job of orchestrating this complex movement and making it as efficient as possible." In other words, as long as you're injury-free, *do you,* and your pace and endurance will reap the rewards.