You can improve your speed in only two ways – increase stride rate or increase stride length. The goal of course is that while increasing one you don’t decrease the other. Your net gain will be zero. One often avoided topic for distance runners is foot contact time. A decrease in contact time yields faster leg stride rate. And by working on contact time itself you are less likely to adversely affect stride length and fight that net-zero syndrome.
Contact time is described as the amount of time your foot spends on the ground from initial foot-strike to push-off to the next stride.
Contact times range from 160-210 milliseconds. It is an amazing 130 milliseconds for elite sprinters. So that is a .13 – .21 second range for time spent on the ground. World reknowned Finish researcher, Heiki Rusko has shown that almost any runner can improve contact time by .015 seconds. By the way, .015 is a conservative figure, up to a .025 reduction has been shown in some research studies. I know what you’re thinking – 15 thousandths of a second – who cares? Well, you should!
Let’s illustrate it with a marathoner and then with some research results for 5k runners.
A 3:08 marathoner (188 minutes) takes about 184 steps/minute. That is a total of 34592 steps. If that runner decreased contact time by .015 seconds…
34592 steps x .015 seconds = 519 seconds saved by reducing contact time! That is an amazing 8:39 saved on his or her marathon time. Therefore the 3:08 dips below 3:00 to 2:59:21.
Ok, so you’re not a marathoner and you figure that in shorter races that same .015 reduction won’t add up to enough to be worth your effort. Let’s see if that is true.
A 16:00 5k runner takes a slightly higher number of steps per minute. At 190 steps per minute there are 3040 steps from start to finish.
3040 steps x .015 seconds = 45.6 seconds; so the 16:00 5k runner now runs it in 15:15!
Only hypothethical you say? Here are some real numbers for real runners in one study.
Heiki did one study with 5k runners. The average 5k time was a respectable 18:00. The group was divided into 45 mile per week versus 70 miles per week runners. The 45 did explosive drills and sprints, etc. as part of their training and worked to reduce their foot contact time. After 9 weeks there was no change in 5k times for 70 mile group. Despite a 55% increase in mileage (70/45) foot contact time did not change and neither did their ability to race faster. For the 45 mile per week group there was indeed a .015 decrease in foot contact time. And their 5k times dropped to the 17:10-20 range.
What to Do
Merely doing quality work at 5k pace or mile pace is not going to make you intrinsically faster. Though we often refer to 5k pace as an ideal quality workout pace it isn’t true speed work. It is quality that gets you ready for race pace.
However, maximum speed development is even higher quality than our usual speeds. It is about improving factors so that you can run at a speed you have not yet attained.
This is achieved through drills that include explosive power. They can even inlcude plyometrics. Maximum speed runs are run at all out 50-100 meter paces. For distance runners use a running start into these since we are not concerned with “acceleration” like sprinters. Also, since these will force you to use both a faster leg turnover as well as wider range of motion in your legs be careful. A little will go a long way. Do not just jump in and start doing these.
Always be sure you have thoroughly warmed up. Often in doing quality workouts, distance runners jump into their 400 meter reps (or whatever) and only by the third or fourth one start to feel ok with the pace. You cannot take this approach with explosive, high speed runs and drills. I strongly recommend a warm-up more like this: 1-2 miles easy; 3×100 pick-ups (gradually run faster through middle 30 then gradually slow); run 2-4×400 @ 5k pace; stationary leg drills (full range of motion). Now you can do some high intensity stuff!
Along with high speed sprints, coordination drills can help through efficiency of foot strike. Some of these drills include: power skipping (for height, distance, speed); one leg hops (“hot coals”, lateral hops); hurdle jumps (one leg, two leg, alternating legs); cone hops (in-and-outs, 4-direction, one leg, two leg).
Begin with once a week. Eventually progress to two or three times per week especially in preparation for that big breakthrough race!