When watching professional and elite athletes run, one thing you’ll notice, aside from their incredible speed, is that their running form makes them look like they are effortlessly gliding through the air. Look carefully and you’ll see that many of them have impressive stride lengths, very little bounce, and smooth transitions from foot to foot.
There are many characteristics that elite runners share, but one variable that is most strongly correlated to performance is Ground Contact Time (GCT), which is the amount of time your foot is in contact with the ground on each step. A corollary to GCT is flight time, which is a measure of the exact opposite — how much time you spend airborne between your steps. High-performance runners tend to have very short ground contact times and long flight times.
Performance = Minimal Ground Contact Time + Maximal Flight Time
One of the sure fast ways of increasing your running performance is to reduce your GCT and maximize your flight time. This is because your body is able to move much farther through the air than it can on the ground. When your foot is grounded, the distance you travel forward is limited to the length of your actual foot as you roll off of it, as well as the flexibility of your hip flexors (we’ll talk more about this shortly).
In the air, however, with a forceful push-off off the ground you can launch your body forward and travel much farther with only gravity working against you. Again, having flexible hip flexors can also help you with your reach in the air.
Another way to think about this is to visualize your foot absorbing ground impact on each step. When your foot hits the ground, your body experiences something called braking, which is the change in your horizontal velocity. In other words, each step you take temporarily slows you down until you push off of your foot again to propel your body forward to pick speed back up. Minimizing the amount of time spent on the ground on each step can help reduce your braking and help you improve your running speed.
Reducing your GCT is also important in terms of improving your running efficiency and reducing your risk of injury as well. Most injuries occur when your feet, legs – particularly knees – and hips are loaded with your body weight upon impact with the ground. Reducing the amount of time spent in contact with the ground, as well as landing correctly with your feet directly under your hips can help reduce your risk of injury and improve your running efficiency.
Conceptually, it is quite easy to grasp the importance of reducing ground contact time to improve your running performance. However, it’s a challenge putting that into actionable training items. Here are some factors that influence your ground contact time to better understand how to tackle this measure:
Cadence – increasing your cadence will quicken your steps, and help reduce ground contact time as you have to lift your feet up more often.
Stride Length – having too long of a stride length, or overstriding, will land your foot in front of your center of mass causing you to brake more and increase your ground contact time.
Powerful push off – focusing on strengthening your glutes and practicing quick and forceful push offs help to launch you forward and decrease the amount of time on the ground.
If reducing your ground contact time is difficult to envision, try focusing on increasing your flight time, which addresses the same issue. Similar to when you want to increase your stride length, the key to increasing flight time or decreasing ground contact time, is in your gluteal muscles which drives the most power for a strong push off.
In addition the strengthening drills for your glutes that we introduced in our previous post on stride length, here are a couple of extra stretches and exercises that help you decrease ground contact time and increase your flight time.
Hip Flexor Stretches
Your hip flexors, a mysterious muscle ground in the front area of your pelvis, are an important part of your stride because your flexibility here determines how far back your leg can go for your triple extension that powers a forceful push off.
Photo from Yoga International
Check out this great article on Fitbody HQ for 12 great stretches for tight hip flexors. Our favorite is the Dropped Knee Psoas Stretch with Rotation which we introduced in our post on pelvic rotation.
Plyometrics is a fun and intense exercise that works on increasing your power, or speed-strength, quickly. It’s a type of exercise in which your muscles practice exerting maximum force in short intervals of time. As a runner, these are great exercises to do for powerful, meaningful steps that give you more flight time. Here’s a great explanation of why plyometric training is important for long-distance runners by competitor:
Since you utilize mostly slow-twitch fibers in distance running, plyometrics teaches your body to also rely upon fast-twitch fibers. When you maximize muscle recruitment, you’re able to turn your legs over faster and push off harder.
Taking part in plyometrics once or twice per week can help with increased running efficiency and faster times.
Our favorite is the Leg Bound, where you practice an exaggerated push off, jumping forward onto the next foot with good forward running form for about 30 meters. Repeat this 2-3 times.
See more exercises at Six Plyometric Exercises For Runners
With similar logic to why you should be incorporating plyometric training into our weekly regimen, doing sprints also helps to train your body to recruit these newly strengthened “short-twitch” muscles in our long distance running.
Matt Fitzgerald, a running coach and author of 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster By Training Slower, has a set of great sprint drills specifically for reducing ground contact time. He recommends:
Once a week, after completing an easy run, do a set of short sprints—say, 6 x 60m at full speed. To minimize the risk of pulling a hamstring, do these sprints on a steep hill, if possible. Also include regular submaximal running in the 5K-1500m race pace range. At least once every 10 days, complete an interval run with at least 2 total miles of running in this pace range (e.g. 6 x 600m @ 3K race pace with 400m jogging recoveries).
Read more at Ground Contact Time and Running Performance
Learning to recruit these muscles for bursts of power on each step is the best way to reduce ground contact time and help you improve your running time when running long distances. Lumo Run measures and tracks all of your important running metrics like ground contact time, braking, stride length, and cadence and provides coaching tips during and after your run to help you run faster and farther.
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