Advanced versions of strides and accelerations for runners

When runners ask online about ways to improve their running form or increase their footspeed, a common response is “add some strides.” It’s assumed or implicit in such a response that everyone knows what strides are and how to do them optimally.

As with many things in training, it’s worth spending some time to dig into what constitutes “doing strides,” and how we might incorporate them into training in a more thoughtful way. 

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not going to focus on strides as part of a warm-up for a workout or a race. For some thoughts on warm-ups, including strides, see my article on getting the warmup right.

First, let’s start with some working definitions. Strides (occasionally called “striders” by old-schoolers) are short repetitions of ~8-40 seconds of running at a fairly fast speed (almost always 5k pace or faster). Strides can be distinguished from speed workouts in a few ways: first, the goal of strides is not to induce high levels of fatigue; second, the number of repeats is limited; and third, and the recovery is neither very short nor very long. It is typical, though not mandatory, to do them after an easy run.

I distinguish strides from accelerations (sometimes also “buildups” or “accels”) by how each repetition is paced. Each individual stride (e.g. a 25sec repetition) within a set should be at a constant pace. If you build up speed within the rep, this is more appropriately called an acceleration. Both have a place in training.

For both, the duration is capped at 30-35 seconds to avoid generating fatigue from prolonged use of the body’s glycolytic (anaerobic) energy systems. Ditto for the walk/jog recovery between repeats. For much more detail on the specifics of these energy systems, see Chapter 1 of my book.

Why should runners do strides and accelerations? 

To improve at a motor task, you need to spend time doing it. Strides aim to improve running economy at faster speeds (via more efficient muscle recruitment), improve your comfort level at faster speeds, provide a light training stimulus to fast-twitch muscle fibers (which otherwise do not get much of a stimulus on easy runs), and serve as a precursor to doing “true” speedwork, if that will be part of your subsequent training.

Accelerations provide a bit of a different stimulus in that you spend less time at any given speed. The upside, though, is that you can carefully creep right up to the edge of the fastest speeds you are comfortable with. In some cases for some athletes, this might mean you’re able to very briefly touch on your absolute top speed–something that’s not always advisable for a continuous stride. 

Strides and accelerations for beginners

Before talking about more advanced versions of strides, let’s outline what the most basic version looks like for a beginner. After an easy run, you’d do some light stretching and/or drills, then do 4-6 repeats of 100-150 meters, with the first repeat at 5k-3k pace, and the pace gradually descending to around from mile pace to 400m pace (how fast you should work down to is a point of debate; see below). Take an easy jog or walk back to the start between repeats. 

Accelerations work very much the same way, in that you do 4-6×100-150m repetitions. Instead of holding a constant pace for each repetition, though, they should start at a moderate pace, and gradually build up speed. holding the fastest speed you reach for between 10 and 30 meters. The top speed you build up to should also get progressively faster from rep to rep. If you did five repeats, the fastest speed you built up to at the end of each rep might be 3k – mile – 800 – “conservative 400” – “optimistic 400” (in that order). 

The top speed you build up to at the very end of your fastest acceleration should also get progressively faster over week to week: you should not touch on your absolute top speed at the end of your very first set of accelerations in the summer or winter. 

However, after several weeks of gradually increasing the fastest speed you reach, you can work your way up to close to, or at, your top speed for just a few seconds at the very end of a session of accelerations. In this way, accelerations can serve as a good precursor to more structured sprint work later in the season.

Having the right mindset for strides and accelerations

Knowing the purpose of doing strides also helps you adopt the appropriate mindset and approach to doing them. Since you are aiming to foster efficiency and economy of movement, it is a mistake to ‘force it’ by running these aggressively. Instead, it is better to focus on maintaining a smooth, efficient stride, with no wasted motion or extra tension, even if it means you have to go a bit slower.

This brings us to the point of controversy I mentioned above: I am of the opinion that it is better to err on the slower side when doing strides, since becoming able to run fast but relaxed is the way to improve your footspeed. 

Other coaches argue that you should put deliberate effort into pushing out the boundaries of the speeds you are comfortable running. I prefer doing this in accelerations, since the gradual buildup in speed lets you approach the edge of your comfort zone, then carefully venture beyond it while focusing on smoothness and efficiency. Even then, I think the focus should be on staying controlled and ensuring that all of your energy is being directed towards forward motion with no wasted effort. 

How often should runners do strides? 

A session of strides or accelerations can be incorporated 2-3 times per week. They are best done on non-workout days, as you already get a strong stimulus to your fast-twitch muscle fibers and your neuromuscular system when doing faster workouts. 

Some coaches advocate doing strides following long runs or high-end aerobic runs to practice recruiting fast-twitch fibers when you’ve already fatigued your slower-twitch fibers, but I usually discourage this because you’ve already put a lot of mechanical stress into your legs in sessions like this, so the additional mechanical loading of strides could lead to injury. 

Since one of the aims of strides is to facilitate economy of movement through efficient motor unit recruitment, I think it is best to do strides after easy runs that are on the shorter side of your usual run duration. If you double, running your strides after your shorter run of the day is slightly preferable for this reason. If you are an evening person, you might also find that you feel smoother and more efficient if you do strides in the afternoon or evening, as opposed to in the morning.  

Incorporating advanced strides into training

Having mastered the basics, there are some more advanced variants of strides that you can incorporate into training once you’ve been doing strides on a regular basis for several weeks. I have used the following sessions in programs for athletes I have coached, ranging from JV high schoolers to NXN-caliber cross country runners to post-collegiate marathoners. 

Strides and a VO2max run

Example: 

3-8 miles easy, then drills/light plyometrics + 1-2 sets of 4-6x150m strides + 1 set of 4-6x150m accelerations, then 2-4min at ~5k-3km pace (the “~” here meaning “approximately”). Recovery is an easy jog back within the sets, 4-5 min walk/jog between sets of strides and accelerations, and 3-4min walk or jog before the 2-4min segment. 

Explanation: This session, which I colloquially call a “strides workout,” is something I got from the training philosophy of John Kellogg. The rationale is (1) doing more strides helps you rack up more time at high speeds, which is how your nervous system learns new motor tasks; and (2) tacking on a few minutes at your vVO2max (i.e. the running speed that elicits maximal oxygen intake) helps stay in touch with the ability to reach maximum oxygen intake during base training. 

This session is great for early base training in the summer or winter (for fall/spring peak races) and is also useful in the first couple weeks after returning to training after a marathon or ultramarathon, since speed and maximal oxygen uptake both get neglected a bit (intentionally) in the final weeks of marathon preparations. 

Usage: Once every 10-14 days or so in summer or winter for HS/college runners, and during the first month or two of a new training cycle for road runners coming off a long road race. A strides workout works great as a secondary session for higher mileage runners, e.g. AM 8mi easy, PM 4mi easy + strides workout.  

Precautions: Don’t blast the 2-4min VO2max run. Your 3k pace in July is not your 3k pace in May when you PR’d at your conference meet. Don’t blast the strides, either. Do not skimp on the 4-5min recovery between sets; your phosphocreatine system needs that time to regenerate so you’re fresh for the next set. This is also more mileage than it looks like at first glance – be sure to count it.  

Added benefits: Doing drills and some light plyos before is a nice way to integrate the motor patterns you practice while doing drills with the motor patterns you use while running fast, and can serve as a foundation for more focused plyometric training later in your season. 

Light fartlek in the middle of a run

Example: 30-42min of (30sec fast, 2min30sec at normal easy run pace) during an easy or moderate run of 50-70 minutes

Explanation: This workout comes via the training schedules of Renato Canova, an Italian coach who works with many of the top Kenyan and Ethiopian runners. His athletes often do sessions like this 1-2x per week on non-workout days. They also encourage you to avoid slogging on days where you feel a bit sluggish. I believe, but can’t really prove, that these sessions are also helpful for HM/M runners who will be doing workouts in the future with fast recovery segments.   

“Fast” here is intentionally vague; you don’t want to do these as fast as you might do 30sec strides at the end of a run, and you’ll want to work your way into these, with the early 30sec segments being slower than the later ones. If you need strong guidelines, I would begin as slow as 10k pace and work down to 3k pace or so by the end of the fartlek session. 

Usage: Here’s a snippet of a schedule showing how you might use this type of session:

Sunday – long run at moderate to strong pace

Monday – 40-65min easy

Tuesday – 60-70min easy to moderate with 30min of (30sec fast starting every 3min) in the middle

Wednesday – workout

Precautions: The non-fast portion of the 3min segments are supposed to be at your usual run pace, not a slow jog. These sessions can be a bit inconvenient if you often run with friends or teammates who are doing strictly easy runs. 

Added benefits: I have found these very useful as a way to get your legs feeling snappier and fresh the following day for a workout, especially in the days following long, tough workouts.

Flying 30s

Example: 2-4mi easy, 1-2 sets of regular strides or accelerations, 5-6x30m at 98-100% of top speed. Recovery after each 30m should be at least 2-3 minutes of walking. 

Explanation: Flying 30s are a good early and mid-season session for long sprinters and true middle distance runners (800m-mile specialists), and also good for very occasional and targeted use with 3k-10k runners.

Usage: For a high school middle distance runner: 20-30min easy to moderate + drills and mobility + 5x100m progressive accelerations, then 5x30m at 98-100% of top speed with at least 2-3min of walking between reps. An advanced HS runner or a collegiate runner could do: AM 20min tempo run, PM 15-30min easy + 6x150m accelerations + 6x30m at 98-100% top speed.  

Precautions: It is extremely easy to overdo these. If you are not used to sprinting you can really trash (or downright injure) your hamstrings, even with as few as 2 or 3 reps. You should have several weeks’ worth of experience doing accelerations approaching top speed. These are also  not advisable on the day before a workout. I tend to think flying 30s are not worth the risk for half marathoners and marathoners, since high speeds incur so much damage on the major load-bearing tissues of the body, and sprint speed is virtually irrelevant at these distances. Notably, runners who have good footspeed should be particularly careful, because higher speeds mean greater stress on your body per step.

Extra benefits: As a coach, you can time your athletes to figure out who to throw into the 4x400m. When I was coaching at Edina, we discovered several few 50.x late-blooming 400m runners among high schoolers we’d originally had pegged as 3200m specialists thanks to doing flying 30s and timing them to compare athletes.  

Recap

Are strides the secret to distance running success? No, the only “secret” is consistent, careful, high-quality training that improves your aerobic fitness.

However, taking a more advanced methodological approach to doing strides can improve your running mechanics, provide a training stimulus to your fast-twitch fibers, and improve your ability to feel comfortable and efficient at high speeds.

All of these contribute to your overall performance level and, when gradually improved over the course of several months or years, can yield significant improvements in your fitness. If high-quality aerobically-oriented training is a soup, think of strides as part of the salt and seasonings.

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