Stress fractures: reducing stride length and the role of muscle


As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


A couple of interesting studies about stress fractures in the December issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

First, researchers from Iowa State University looked at the effect of stride length. Basically, the idea is that if you shorten your stride, you’ll have more footstrikes per mile (and thus more impact jarring your bones) but each footstrike will be a little gentler. So which effect predominates? The researchers had 10 runners run at their normal stride length, and with a 10 percent reduction in stride length, measuring the relevant forces with motion-capture cameras and force plates. They then used a computer model based on bone damage and repair mechanisms to estimate the risk of stress fracture for both groups. The conclusion: shortening your stride length by 10 percent reduces stress fracture risk by three to six percent!

The clinical implications for these results are clear [they write]. Those runners wanting to decrease their likelihood for stress fracture can do so by reducing their stride length by 10%. This reduction would also allow for runners to run an additional 2 miles [per day] and maintain the same [fracture risk].

In general, I’m not a big fan of trying to meddle with your running form, thanks in part to studies like the one I wrote about here. But overstriding is apparently a pretty common issue, and prominent coaches like Jack Daniels have advocated increased cadence (and thus shorter stride) as a way of running more efficiently. So maybe there’s something here…

In the same issue of MSSE, researchers from the University of Minnesota examined the bone strength and body composition of 39 female distance runners, (slightly less than) half of whom had a history of stress fractures. To nobody’s surprise, the tibia bones in the stress fracture group were smaller by seven to eight percent, and weaker by nine to 10 percent. What’s interesting, though, it that the bone differences were exactly in proportion to the size of the muscles in the same area, and there was no difference in bone mineral density. What this suggests is that the best way to avoid stress fractures is to make sure you have enough muscle on your legs — presumably by doing weights and (it goes without saying) eating enough.

3 Replies to “Stress fractures: reducing stride length and the role of muscle”

  1. Yet another great article! I suffered from two fibula stress fractures at the distal end in University – no doctor could find the cause, but you may have hit the nail on the head – I was trying to run too fast, thus increasing my stride length and impact. After having two kids I now run much slower, and haven’t had a problem with stress fractures.

Comments are closed.