We were packed like sardines in the start corral for the Soldier Field 10-Miler in Chicago, as a group of five racers whizzed back and forth before joining the herd. The woman in front of me looked on skeptically.
“Um, why are those runners running before they’re going to run?”
It was a fair question. After all, we were gearing up for a 10-miler—why the heck would you want to add more time on your feet?
Turns out, those runners were doing strides, which are quick and super-short accelerated runs. Often, strides are a key part of a warm-up routine. “These warm-ups are vital for preventing injury to muscles, tendons and joints, and prepare the body to run at a faster pace,” says Nicole Gainacopulos, C.S.C.S., a certified strength and conditioning specialist, marathon runner and owner and founder of Momentum of Milwaukee. “It’s preparing the body for the hard work that’s about to occur without shocking the body,” she says.
Doing strides specifically helps to elevate your heart rate and increase blood flow to your legs. And doing a high intensity warm-up like this has been shown to boost race performance, according to one study. Tack them onto a training run, and they also provide an opportunity to work on your form, add speed work and boost variety to keep your workout fresh, adds Gainacopulos.
For those reasons, all runners—both newbies and vets—can benefit. So no you don’t have to be in the elite start corral or a member of your high school cross-country team to do them.
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Stride Right: The Basics
When it comes to strides, it’s not as simple as getting out there and sprinting your heart out. Follow these five golden rules from Gainacopulos and you’ll see the payoff at the finish line.
How long? Each stride should be a distance of 60-100 meters.
How fast? Start out slow and build speed during the stride. Form is important, so if you are breaking form, you may be going too fast.
How much rest? It’s best for your body to fully recover after each stride, which can take as long as one to two minutes.
How many? For those new to strides, Gainacopulos suggests building up slowly. Start with 3-4 strides your first time with a goal of hitting 8-10.
How often? Newbies should aim for 1-2 rounds of strides per week. As your body adapts, you can do them more often. Experienced runners should add them in 4-6 times per week.
When Strides Matter Most
Whether you’re on a one- or six-day-a-week running schedule, there’s a time and a place to hit your stride. Here are the three instances Gainacopulos recommends her runners do strides.
During a Workout
Why: Strides prep your body to transition to more intense exercise.
How: Complete a normal warm-up. (Gainacopulos suggests running one mile at an easy pace, followed by dynamic stretches.) Then follow up with strides. You’re ready for your planned run now.
After an Easy Run
Why: “This will increase your range of motion, improve form and improve muscle recovery,” says Gainacopulos.
How: When you’ve finished your run, don’t just head straight for the showers. On a day that you’re not crunched for time, take a couple extra minutes to end your workout with a few strides to shake out your legs.
Before a Race
Why: Like doing strides before a workout, you’ll get your body ready to work, and it will also sharpen mental focus so you can go after that PR, says Gainacopulos. Just don’t do them for the first time before a race! Give your body the opportunity to adjust by first incorporating them into a workout.
How: Just like with a workout, run one mile at an easy pace and finish with a round of dynamic stretches. Line up to the start—and go get ‘em!
This article originally appeared on DailyBurn.com.