Your running cadence can be the key to running faster with less injury risk. Learn why and how to adjust your steps for maximum benefit!
According to the dictionary, the definition of cadence is a rhythmic pattern or flow of sounds, motions or events. In running, we use it to describe the pattern or number of steps you run per minute. The number of strides you take and the length of each of one determines how fast you will go.
Most of us want to run faster with less effort and less chance of injury. And one of the best ways for new or developing runners to get faster is to increase your cadence. But if it were just as simple as “just speed up your feet and you will run faster,” we’d all be doing that right now!
Let’s explore your running cadence. I’ll go over:
- why focusing on your cadence can be an important tool for gaining speed with lower injury risk,
- some myths about the ideal cadence for runners, and I’ll explain
- a few techniques for improving your cadence to help you get faster quicker
The Problem With Lengthening Your Stride
What most people do when they try to run faster is to take longer strides and that’s probably not ideal at first. What’s wrong with lengthening your stride? After all, it’s half the equation of faster running.
Let me explain with an example. Imagine you are not a trained runner and you are at your company picnic having some barbeque with your coworkers. Suddenly, your boss decides it would be a great idea to challenge the team to a footrace. First person to tag the picnic table at the end of the lawn gets a bonus and company-wide bragging rights. At the sound of go, you drop your plate of coleslaw, tear across the grass, reaching with each stride to get you to the table first.
Now what’s wrong with this picture? Well, besides the absurdity of making untrained office workers race for their employer’s amusement, it’s the reaching that’s the problem.
When you are extending your legs in an effort to cover more ground with each stride, the rest of your body doesn’t have time to catch up before your front foot hits the ground. This is called overstriding. The impact forces that are created on a straight leg ahead of your center of gravity will both brake you and break you if you’re not careful. Your knees and your hips will be forced to absorb more impact than they are designed to, leading to injury.
Instead of reaching out to pull yourself forward, a better way is to push yourself from behind with great form and powerful legs. But neither of those things simply happen to most runners; they are developed over time.
The good news is that you can work on the other half of the speed equation right now, by quickening your cadence.
Quick Feet First
When you actively try to quicken your steps, to keep the same pace, you’ll need to shorten your strides. This will do two things: it will get you used to a quicker turn over with your feet, but it will also prevent you from overstriding and all of its negative costs.
How fast do your feet need to be? Well if you said 180 steps per minute, you are right. Well, maybe. Actually, not really.
The 180 SPM Myth
The 180 steps per minute cadence theory came about in 1984 when legendary coach Jack Daniels started counting the steps of the runners at the Olympics. The world’s best runners took an average of 180 steps per minute and since these are the fastest runners in the world, clearly they are doing something right. This has been standard running advice ever since.
The magic 180 number was further solidified as recently as 2016. Using data from 20 competitors at the International Association of Ultrarunning 100K World Championships, researchers found that their average cadence was 182.0 steps per minute.
But averaging data is a problematic analytical tool. It assumes that all the elites are roughly running the same way, when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the 2016 study, there was massive individual variation. One elite competitor averaged 155 while another averaged 203. Those two runners finished the race within just a few minutes of each other, after nearly seven hours of running. Trying to make a universal rule about cadence for everyone clearly doesn’t make any sense.
One of the most associated traits to cadence is your height. Taller runners have longer legs and tend to take longer strides. They don’t need to have such a quick cadence to cover the same ground. Conversely, shorter runners need to turn their legs over faster.
So why does the number 180 still stick around? Well, most good runners do tend to get around that number and telling runners to aim to increase their cadence is a whole lot easier than trying to teach them to lessen their ground contact time or change the angle of your footstrike.
Your Body Will Find Its Best Running Cadence
Aiming for an arbitrary number isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the goal. Our bodies are amazingly adaptable. Your body will find the way to run using the least amount of energy possible for your current fitness, mechanics, and experience. That means you will run with the cadence that suits your body right now, without even thinking about it.
So does that mean we don’t need to change a thing when it comes to form and cadence? I mean if we are self-optimizing automatically and running the best way possible naturally, why bother changing?
Well, if you want to run faster and nudge that natural process of adaptation along, working on your cadence and running mechanics in general can help.
Working on your cadence is one of the ways that we can teach the body to run faster, while still staying economical.
Techniques For Improving Running Cadence
So how exactly do we work on our cadence? The first way is simply remembering to move your feet a little faster every run. Now if you are listening to this on a run right now, you are probably already increasing your cadence because I’m telling you to. But unless you want to listen to this episode on repeat every time you run (and I won’t be mad at you if you do!), you’re not going to actively be able to think about your cadence all the time.
You’ll have to do some deliberate practice outside of your regular running. There are lots of “quick feet” drills out there that you can try and you can do them before your run as part of your warm up routine or after an easy run.
Quick Feet Drill
The simplest drill is running in place, aiming for the fastest turnover possible. If you are going really fast, it won’t take long before you’re ready to quit this drill. Classic drills like butt kicks and high knees can also improve cadence and overall mechanics, especially if you are performing them quickly.
Add Some Strides
The next place to work on that turnover is during your strides. Strides are 20-30 seconds of very fast, but not all-out running done after your easy runs. Your goal is to run with as many steps as possible during those few seconds, not to run as fast as possible, even though you will be running fast.
You’re teaching your brain and your body what fast running feels like in small, but regular doses. Remember that we are trying to enhance our body’s own self-optimization system, and we’d like it to self-optimize for speed.
I’ve done an entire post on strides, so be sure to check that one out to learn all the details of how to do them for maximum benefits.
While quick feet is the goal, quick arms might be a better way to get there. What your arms do, the legs tend to follow, so think about your arm swing.
Just like with our legs, we don’t want to be reaching forward with our arms. We want the power to come from behind. So drive your arms backward, keeping your elbows compact to your sides. This also tends to keep your chest forward and torso aligned in good form as well.
Your Posture Affects Your Running Cadence
Speaking of good form, your posture matters, especially if you are suddenly going to be taking more steps with every run. Yes, when you are shortening your stride, it’s harder to overstride, but some runners who are told to increase their cadence are not making progress.
Our posture is one of the reasons why.
Most of us are sitting behind steering wheels and desks all day and that takes a toll on our posture, which will show up in our running. Many new runners will keep this “seated” position throughout their runs, with bent hips, downcast eyes, slumped shoulders, with their weight landing on their heels.
Run Tall Drill
Runners with good form run tall. I’m going to teach you exactly what this feels like. This is something you can do before every single run and if you are running right now, you might want to stop for a moment and try this.
- Start with both feet on the ground and raise both hands as high as you possibly can over your head without lifting your heels. Next, without moving anything else in your body except your arms, lower your arms to your sides slowly. Your hips and back are still in the same position as they were when your arms were reaching overhead.
- Now take a look at your shoes. Do you see the bow of your shoelaces? If not, lean forward from your torso, but be sure to keep your entire body in the same tall, reaching position. Don’t lift your heels, but you should feel your body weight shift to your midfoot or the balls of your feet.
- Lift just your head and look forward, straight ahead. This is your forward lean. Do this often to feel what proper body position feels like.
- To take the next step (literally!), keep your body in this same tall lean and imagine that you are a world class ski jumper. Lean forward by shifting your weight to your toes, not from your waist, until you have to take a step to catch yourself. And then keep running, aiming to keep your whole body in that same alignment.
It should feel like controlled falling with each step. It will be impossible to over stride because your foot can’t get ahead of you when you are leaning like this.
Like learning anything new, this will feel awkward at first, but eventually you’ll build endurance in your tall posture and it will feel like second nature.
I suggest starting every single run you do with this simple exercise and see how long you can maintain it. Your brain can’t consciously think of any topic for too long, so our goal is to practice it enough that you don’t have to think about it.
Your Cadence Will Stabilize
At a certain point, as you grow more experienced as a runner, your cadence will settle into a fairly stable pattern. Once that happens, should you forget all about it? You could, but like all the data that we collect about our runs, you might find some patterns in your cadence trends that could tell you something about your fitness. For example, your cadence might fall a bit as you get fitter. That might seem counterintuitive, but what it could mean is that your stride has gotten more powerful. Your body is self-optimizing, using fewer steps to get the same results.
Understanding cadence is a fundamental part of learning to run your best. Whether you want to run faster, farther, stay injury-free, or all of the above, quick, light feet are key. But don’t assume that there is a certain number of steps per minute that is universal. Your body, with a little help from your training, will find a unique rhythmic flow of its own.