Nutrition, training, recovery. These three pillars of training are non-negotiable, and most athletes work hard to optimize them. However, there may be smaller tweaks you can make in running technique to reach higher levels of performance if you’ve hit a plateau.
Running cadence may be the next tool you can use to achieve a new PR.
The Importance of Cadence
Music has tempo. Songs have a unique beat you feel, a strong vibe to which you can’t help but nod your head.
Runners, like music, have tempo–called cadence.
Cadence, also known as stride frequency, is the number of steps taken per minute while running. While stride length refers to how long each particular step is, cadence measures the number of times your feet hit the ground.
Cadence is a highly-researched topic in sports science. Given its influence on many aspects of running (like injury risk, foot strike patterns, and oxygen consumption), cadence is something you should learn to train and optimize in order to reach new running levels.
How to Determine Running Cadence
Finding natural running cadence is simple, and can determine whether you might benefit from an increased or decreased step frequency. All you need is a stopwatch. Many running watches now come with a function that measures cadence for you, removing the need to count steps on your own.
While running with a natural cadence, count the number of steps taken in one minute. At the end of 60 seconds, the number of steps taken is your cadence. Another option is to count how many times your right foot contacts the ground in one minute, and multiply by two.
Don’t try to artificially manipulate your run cadence during this test; find your natural cadence. You can even repeat this measurement as you run at different speeds. This allows you to observe stride rate changes as you run faster or slower. Measure cadence on different runs, like a long tempo or a quick interval workout, and see the difference from a recovery run.
180 Steps per Minute: The Gold Standard?
Anyone familiar with running has probably heard of the long-held belief that 180 steps per minute is the ideal stride frequency, developed by legendary running coach Jack Daniels. Daniels observed that, on average, the elite runners typically run at a cadence of ~180 steps per minute. Since runners love to mimic what the elites do, it comes as no surprise this number was accepted as cadence dogma.
This number may represent an optimal cadence for some, but doesn’t serve as a rule of thumb for running cadence. Running cadence is influenced by a multitude of individual factors, and runners at all levels will have varying cadences, even at the same speed. Don’t stress if your running cadence isn’t near the magic number of 180 steps per minute.
Cadence can even depend on footwear. One study compared running cadence in a barefoot condition and a standard shoe condition, finding that cadence was around seven steps per minute greater (184 vs 176 steps per minute) when barefoot than in standard running shoes.
World records and Olympic medals have been achieved in various distances with cadences as low as 170 and as high as 212. Individual variation in cadence exists. However, there probably is an individual optimal frequency for each runner. Finding and training this cadence can occur with practice and a bit of fine-tuning.
Running Cadence and Performance
Given the large variation even within a single runner, a simple measure of steps per minute might seem to have no performance relevance. Isn’t increasing stride rate just a matter of running faster? Turns out, running cadence has more of an impact on physiology and running form than you may think.
Sub-optimal running cadence can negatively impact performance.
A run cadence that is too low results in long strides and a greater risk of injury. A cadence that is too fast leads to choppy strides and sacrificed efficiency.
Efficient use of oxygen during endurance sports is critical for performance. Even though freely-chosen cadence is found to be efficient for most, any shift closer to optimal leads to a reduced V02 (oxygen cost) at the same running speed. Efficiency increases along with running cadence.
Studies found most recreational runners self-select a running cadence resulting in an increased energetic cost of running. Basically, runners aren’t self-optimizing cadence. When forced to run the “optimal” cadence, running cost for novice and elite runners was reduced around 1% - 5%.
An optimal cadence also minimizes heart rate at the same speed, suggesting a lower energetic cost and effort of running. A study suggests that runners who increased their running cadence above their self-chosen cadence can immediately reduce HR. In this study, 164 steps per minute was found to be the most efficient.
Synchronizing Cadence with Heart Rate to Improve Efficiency
The idea that running efficiency (and hence performance) can be improved by coupling stride rate to the heart rate during exercise is known as “cardiolocomotor synchronization.” Essentially, it means timing your foot strike to occur in line with the contraction and relaxation of your heart.
Timing the foot strike to occur during diastole (when the heart relaxes) is hypothesized to improve blood flow, reduce stress on the heart, and lower the energetic cost of running. Elite male distance runners who adopted cardiolocomotor synchronization reduced their heart rate when their foot strike occurred during the relaxation phase of the heart, compared to a foot strike during contraction.
Direct timing of these two processes may require invasive measurement, however, studies have shown most trained distance runners approach a 1:1 ratio of cadence and heart rate.
There is direct evidence that synchronization works for performance enhancement. A pilot study of runners who synchronized cadence to heart rate led to an average improvement of 35 seconds in a five-kilometer race.
Fatigue Impacts Cadence
You’ve experienced the feeling of muscle fatigue in the late stages of a race. While hurtful to performance, muscular fatigue can also impact running cadence.
Studies in which participants have undergone “fatiguing” treadmill runs observe a decrease in stride frequency as runners become more fatigued.
These findings highlight the importance of cadence awareness. In the race’s final miles, it may be important to mentally note stride rate at various points to see when you might unconsciously decrease cadence.
Manipulating cadence reactively when tired can prevent performance declines brought on by fatigue. When the number of steps you take starts to decline, take notice and change your running form.
Running Cadence and Injury Prevention
Runners sustain injuries, many of which stem from biomechanical factors related to cadence. These include stride length (overstriding) and problems that arise because of large loads placed on joints, tendons, and muscles that lead to overuse injuries.
Overstriding refers to the foot landing too far in front of a runner’s center of gravity. Some definitions propose that running form categorized by overstriding occurs when the landing foot spends too much time ahead of the center of gravity. Overstriding reduces running efficiency and places greater loads on joints and tendons, increasing risk of injury.
As cadence increases, stride length decreases; a quicker cadence is a way to prevent overly-long strides.
This is one of the ideas behind barefoot running, which naturally reverts runners to a quicker stride rate. Studies have indicated quicker cadence (even in normal running shoes) may mimic some of the beneficial effects of barefoot running, including shorter stride length and a foot strike closer to the center of gravity.
Light on Your Feet
Reductions in total load placed on the foot (plantar loading) were observed in runners who modified cadence to be 5% faster than preferred stride frequency.
With each stride, parameters such as stride length and knee flexion undergo significant variability. Small changes in running technique can occur even within a single long run. For optimal efficiency, runners need to coordinate the movements of each individual leg component during all gait phases.
Inconsistency in gait coordination (higher variability) is seen in neuromuscular disorders and is also associated with higher incidence of running injury. Increasing running cadence has been shown to decrease measures of coordination variability (a good thing),
The Bee’s Knees
Manipulating running cadence to be 5% - 10% faster results in less mechanical energy absorbed at the knee by 20% - 34%, with lower loads correlating to increased cadence.
How to Train Your Running Cadence
Should you change your running cadence? It depends. Many studies show whatever cadence runners freely adopt very likely is their optimal cadence (or even least something close to it).
Our bodies might automatically adapt to changes in various running conditions, muscular factors, and fatigue to find the sweet spot of stride frequency that works for us.
Running cadence is reflexive. Miles of training hardwired a specific running cadence into your brain and biomechanics. Any attempt to change cadence must be systematic and approached with caution.
Rules of the Road
Research indicates most runners benefit from increasing cadence by 5% - 10% above their current self selected running cadence.
To determine what your increased cadence looks like, take your current running cadence (for example, 170 strides per minute) and take 5% (or 10%) of this number.
170 x .05 = 8.5
Add this number to your current cadence to determine your new, higher running cadence.
170 + 8.5 = ~178 strides per minute for a 5% increase in cadence.
Developing a quicker cadence requires more than just willing your feet to move faster. The following drills and techniques for training cadence can be implemented into your running routine a few times per week. Perform these drills after a sufficient warmup or after a workout to improve running cadence and ingrain new patterns into your brain.
Find songs with tempo corresponding to what your optimal running cadence should be. A simple search for “180 bpm songs” gives a slew of examples you can add to your playlist. Research shows runners spontaneously entrain stride rate to the tempo of music they are listening to, even when the changes in the beat aren’t noticeable.
Setting a metronome to your desired running cadence may also be a useful drill to train a faster or more natural stride frequency. While running on a treadmill or outside, synchronize your cadence with the metronome and foot strikes with the ticks. At first, it may be ideal to use a metronome intermittently during runs. Run with the metronome cadence for one minute and alternate this with your “natural” cadence for several minutes.
Running on an incline requires shortening stride length and naturally increasing cadence. Training faster cadence using hills minimizes impact forces (compared to downhill or even-ground running), which can reduce injury risk associated with higher intensity and higher impact running.
High Knees and Quick Steps
A higher running cadence means your feet will need to contact the ground quicker. Two key concepts here are faster turnover and lower ground contact time, and drills can be done five or six times weekly, either before or after a workout.
High knees involves bringing your knees to about chest level (or 90 degrees), moving your feet up and down as quickly as possibly. Focus on arm movement too, as quicker arm movement will also help entrain quicker steps and faster turnover. High knees can be done in place or while moving forward (slowly) for 20 yards at a time.
In quick steps, find a ~20 yard stretch of asphalt or turf (a football field works perfectly). While lifting feet only slightly off the ground, progressively move forward, trying to increase the speed of your foot contact to achieve a faster turnover every five yards.
The Optimal Frequency is the One Which Suits You
We’ve dismissed the notion of 180 steps per minute as the magic running cadence number. So...what actually is the optimal stride frequency? Ultimately, there is no single number. Most studies find a general range of between 160-190 steps per minute as the naturally adopted frequency for recreational runners and elite athletes.
Most runners have room for improvement. The optimal stride frequency for many runners is probably 3% faster than their preferred cadence. Running economy isn’t usually affected by the 3% reduction in stride length that comes with increasing cadence, but any change over 6% might be detrimental.
There may be an energetic benefit from increasing stride rate and consciously changing your stride frequency depending on the type of runs.
It may take around 6 - 8 weeks for the muscle memory of a new cadence to take effect. Try to run around 50% of your weekly training mileage at the cadence for which you’re aiming. And start slow; rather than immediately bumping up cadence to 10% above normal, start with 2% - 3% per week until your reach 10%.
Find Your Rhythm
As you experiment with different running cadences, a new natural cadence will likely develop after the proper patterns and changes have become habitual. While efficiency might take a hit when first transitioning to quicker strides, eventually you will be able to sustain a higher stride rate with more efficiency and less effort.
In the spirit of self-experimentation, running cadence is an investment strategy with proven benefits. Find your rhythm.
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