Stride Phases: Flight Time vs Contact Time

Stride Phases: Flight Time vs Contact Time

If you’ve ever watched a pro runner like Mo Farah, you will have noticed they look like they’re running on air. In reality, these runners have perfected their flight time versus contact time stride phases. But what does any of that mean? And how can you do the same instead of feeling like you’re running through treacle? Find out everything you need to know to improve your running economy with Lewis Moses, expert running coach and Founder of New Levels Coaching.

Article contents

What are the main phases of a running stride?

Someone with a good running economy will be in the air longer than they are touching the ground. In order to improve your running, it’s important to understand the anatomy of a running stride.

Lewis explains, “The running stride has three main phases. The first is the stance phase, when one of the feet is on the ground. The second is the early swing phase, and the third is the late swing phase.”

Stance phase

The first phase of a running stride is the stance phase, which consists of initial ground contact into push-off. You start with both feet on the ground in the stance phase, before moving onto the next phase.

Early swing phase

Early swing phase, or early recovery, is the second phase of a running stride. This is when your foot hits the floor, which will be either a forefoot strike, midfoot strike, or heel strike. This is when left/right balance becomes important, as weak muscles in this leg will lead to an imbalance and asymmetrical stride. 

Late swing phase

The late swing phase is when you cycle back down towards the ground and the foot is looking to drop back down beneath the body and land on the ground. This then brings us back to the stance phase and completes the stride from one of the stance feet to the other.

What is flight time in running?

There are two overarching phases during running: flight time and contact time. Simply, flight time is when you’re off the ground, and contact time is when you’re on the ground.

Lewis explains, “Flight time occurs during the swing phases, and it can be defined simply as the amount of time we spend off the ground during the running stride. It’s hard to define what a ‘good flight time' is, but what scientists have found here in the UK is that elite runners do tend to spend more time in the air than recreational runners.”

Research conducted at Salford University by Dr Steve Preece, Dr Chris Bramah and Duncan Mason, found that elite runners in fact spend 11% more time in the air than recreational runners. This highlights the importance of our ‘springs’, in this case our legs, and shows they contribute heavily to flight time, which can impact our running performance. One way we can improve flight time is by spending less time on the ground, which is why understanding ground contact time is important. 

Runner by the ocean

What is ground contact time in running?

Ground contact refers to the amount of time each foot spends on the ground during the running stride. It is seen to be the opposite of flight time. According to Lewis, “It’s hard to define a good ground contact time, as the running stride varies so much from individual to individual and we also find that running style affects the time on the ground.”

The way you land can have a big effect on your running stride. Are you a forefoot striker or a heel striker? Lewis explains, “On average, a heel striker is more likely to have longer ground contact than someone who lands mid to forefoot. There is some evidence out there to suggest that we should strive to have a ground contact time of below 300 milliseconds, however faster runners do tend to have a significantly lower ground contact time to this, even as low as 175-200 milliseconds.”

What we do know is that shorter ground contact time can be advantageous when it comes to running performance and there are the added benefits to being able to utilise stored energy if you don’t stay on the ground too long. 

Lewis explains, “With the Achilles tendon, there is energy that is stored and in essence is free to use, but it is only stored there for just less than a quarter of a second before it is dissipated as heat and then wasted. This is why knowing your ground contact time is important, because if you stay on the ground for too long, you won’t utilise that free energy when you spring back off the ground.”

Why are flight time and ground contact time important running metrics?

Most recreational runners won’t record or analyse their flight time or ground contact time, simply because most running watches or fitness gadgets won’t record this data. However, they are hugely important metrics if you want to improve your performance and become a better, more efficient runner. The INCUS CLOUD | RUN shows your average flight time and ground contact time in an easy-to-understand chart, so that you can see where there’s room for improvement. 

Lewis says, “They are very closely linked, so knowing these two metrics will give you a better understanding of how one is potentially affecting the other. Research suggests that ground contact and flight time do impact our performance, so if you can improve these areas then you could become a better and more efficient runner. To improve something, we must first know our scores, so knowing these metrics will help you to understand if there is room for improvement in your running stride.”

How to measure flight time and contact time in running

In short - technology! Most runners now use some sort of device to record their run data, but beware: the way your device measures metrics can impact its accuracy. 

The INCUS device has been through very stringent testing procedures to make sure these metrics are measured as accurately as possible, and what makes the INCUS device even more competitive is that it can measure ground contact time on both legs, individually, so that you can see the difference between the two. This is revolutionary as it provides the runner with accurate feedback associated with both sides of the body, rather than just one metric measured through a watch. 

user looking at phone

How can I increase my flight time and reduce ground contact time when running?

The best way to increase your flight time and reduce ground contact time is with running drills and practise. In addition, strength training is also important, as it will help to build stronger muscles, which will help to generate more force and power off the ground. 

Below, Lewis has put together some drills that he recommends for his coached athletes. Before jumping into these exercises, consider what level you are at with this type of work and whether you have done it before. It’s always better to start at a lower level and build up, so choose your level carefully. 

Beginner (never tried these before or limited practice)

  1. Double or Single Leg hop and sticks - Hopping from one spot to the other and sticking on landing. These small hops can help with control and initial ground contact of landing back underneath the body
  2. Double or Single Leg continuous hops - This is a continuous hop when you look to spring back off the ground. This will help practise quick ground contact. 

Intermediate (have tried some drills before and include them from time to time)

  1. Double or Single Leg continuous hops - This is a continuous hop when you look to spring back off the ground. This will help practise quick ground contact. 
  2. Ankle dribbles - This drill focuses on stepping directly over the height of your ankle, driving down to land on your heel and transitioning through the full length of the foot as you take the next step (dribble) back off the ground.

Advanced (continually perform drills and are confident with progression)

  1. Ankle dribbles - This drill focuses on stepping directly over the height of your ankle, driving down to land on your heel and transitioning through the full length of the foot as you take the next step (dribble) back off the ground.
  2. B-Skips - The B-skip is a great drill to practise the backward motion of pulling/scraping the foot back down underneath the body and onto the ground. 

These drills will soon be available on the INCUS app, so be sure to check them out once they are on there and then have a go at them yourself! 

About the author: Alex Parren is a Freelance Health & Fitness writer as well as a qualified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist.

1 of 3