When I started running barefoot and in minimalist shoes a few years ago, other than the forefoot striking, the biggest thing I noticed about my form was that I was taking shorter steps and more of them. This is virtually impossible not to do when running barefoot – much like heel striking is just about impossible when barefoot.
As it turns out, many sources (Chi Running, Daniels’ Running Formula, Born to Run, 16 Weeks to a Faster Marathon to name a few) recommend that you run at about 180 steps per minute. You might also see this referred to as strides per minute or beats per minute (especially if you’re looking for iPod songs). The reasoning behind this is that fewer than 180 spm leads to overstriding and increased risk of injury. I’m not sure if there’s a downside to going much over 180 spm, other than decreased efficiency. At any rate (well, not just any rate) 180 is supposedly the Golden Mean.
Personally I find that it’s easier for me to keep my spm up when I’m running barefoot. When I’m minimally shod though it is slightly harder to keep from plodding along. One of the tools I use to give myself a checkup on this periodically is a clip metronome like this:
I found this for around $15. I suppose you could clip it on something but I prefer to just hold it. That way you can turn it off and conceal it when others approach to cut down on that weirdo factor (as if forefoot striking or barefooting wasn’t giving you away already). You can of course adjust the volume and the beats per minute. I find that 185 is more comfortable for me sometimes, but mainly the purpose is to keep from falling below 180. Another way you can keep your pace up is by downloading songs to your iPod that have 180 bpm or close to it. Personally I can’t stand all the cords and sweat management issues that come with an iPod so I haven’t tried that. For true devotees, there’s also software that can digitally speed up your favorite tunes to the magical 180.
Although it will add another paragraph to this post, there are varying schools of thought about breathing and stride rate. Some would say one of the great advantages of walking upright is our ability to detach breathing from our stride, i.e., striking the ground doesn’t force us to breathe as it does with quadrupeds. Others say that you should breathe in a 3:1 ratio (3 steps, breathe in, 3 steps, breathe out, repeat). This works pretty good for most distance running, although you can definitely overthink it. I just think about it every once in a while on a run – am I running triplets? You’ll notice that you won’t be able to keep 3:1 up when you’re working harder – either on a hill or at a faster pace. I’m usually going 2:1 there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some correlation between switching to 2:1 and the lactate threshold pace.
Whew! Running isn’t that hard. If you just remember left, then right, you’ll be fine, but running at 180 helps me to run well.