Physiologists have known for years that the two variables affecting running speed are stride length and stride rate (cadence). Arm swing and correct stance are important for developing a proper running gait, but the easiest way to improve your form, reduce the chance of injuries, and run faster is to focus on your cadence.
A runner with a quicker cadence generally leads a runner to land with their foot underneath them as opposed to out in front of them resulting in a shorter stride.
Runners with a longer stride generally extend their legs out on front of their body when they land, creating a breaking effect. This slows you down and can lead to injuries in the foot, calf, knees, and hips.
The correct cadence can vary by individual. Optimal cadence is generally considered to be somewhere around 180 strides per minute. 170 and higher is ideal, but ‘ideal’ is slightly different for each person.
The majority of elite runners strike the ground around 180 to 184 times each minute and their cadence (number of foot strikes) remains whether they are running a 5K or a marathon.
This consistent cadence can benefit efficiency by increasing running economy.
Running economy is all about how efficiently you use oxygen at a certain pace. The more efficient you are in using it, the better your running economy. Running cadence is inextricably linked to economy because it affects the way you strike the ground. Better form and optimal cadence translates into improved running economy and faster times.
There are two main reasons to focus on your cadence: to eliminate overstriding and to give you another weapon in your running arsenal. When you are feeling tired and feel like you have nothing left to give, you can focus on your cadence as a way to reset your mind and being your stride together. Counting your foot steps and getting them to that 180 per minute, can help you finish stronger and faster. The key is to lengthen it out the back side…not by reaching forward and extending your stride to the front. Using your glutes and hamstrings to create that propulsion will keep you from slamming on the brakes with each step, as often happens to runners who lengthen their stride out the front.
No two athletes are exactly the same and a lot of people have taken the Daniels suggested 180 step per minute as the “golden rule” of cadence but what he really said is to strive for 180 as a minimum. Many recreational runners strike between 150 and 155 times per minute, but once you have your number, you can begin working to improve it.
Retraining your cadence is easy to learn for most people. While it is next to impossible to adequately judge your form while you’re running, counting your strides. is simple. You can easily determine your own cadence by counting the number of times your left foot hits the ground whilst running for 30 seconds.
Let’s imagine yours was 40.
Double that to get the total for 60 seconds (80); then double it again to get the total for both feet (160).
Your cadence (for that particular running speed) is therefore 160spm.
There are several ways you can work on maximizing your cadence and stride length but it is important to change your cadence slowly using shorter distances. Start by adding short distances into your runs in which you try to maintain your new target. This can be done through use of a metronome if you’re running on a treadmill, or you can download a free app on your phone.
Counting steps is only one way to work on cadence. Others include:
- Plyometrics: Explosive exercises like depth jumps and hurdle hops teach you to produce more force with less ground contact time. For a distance runner, this would translate to a more powerful stride accomplished with a faster turnover.
- Bounding: Exercises like single-leg bounds increase your running economy and teach you to extend your stride out the back.
- Less Shoe: The less weight you carry, particularly at the end of a lever, the faster you’ll be able to go without increasing your energy cost. Dropping one ounce off a pair of running shoes will save you lifting 675 pounds during an hour run.
- Less Over-Striding: While playing with your cadence can be a fun way to try and shave a few seconds off your PR, staying healthy all year is your best bet for long-term success. While 180 is known as the “magical number”, it should really just be a guideline to aim for. If you’re way lower 180, take it as a warning sign or an “easy cue to sometimes fix a complex problem.” It’s tough to give a “too low” number because cadence is so individual, but if your frequency is around 160 or lower when you aren’t just trotting around, you should check to see if you are over-striding.
Over-striding is chief among the problems associated with low cadence. Most non-elites who overstride tend to reach with their lead leg, locking out their knee and slamming their heel into the ground with each step. In addition to slowing you down, this puts undue stress on your joints and can lead to injury. Lessening this risk can be as simple as upping your turnover rate 5. As you increase cadence, you tend to bring your landing foot closer to the center of your body, or under-neath you when you land.
Over-striding also occurs when natural heel-strikers attempt to hold their form while running fast. When heel-strikers go to kick, it’s painful because you see that heel way out in front, the knee locked, their legs straight–they’re braking, and they have no idea why it feels so choppy.
Increasing your cadence is the easiest and most efficient way to cut down on over-striding. If cueing yourself to take more rapid strides fails to help, there are some other ways to approach the issue:
- Consider the angle at which you carry your arms. A 90-degree angle at the elbow might seem ideal, but Benson often has overstriders pull their hands up higher. This creates a smaller arc for the arms to swing through, forcing the legs to turn over quicker.
- Consider running barefoot on a track or grass field for several minutes. Immediately after finishing, put on your normal running shoes and mimic the shorter barefoot strides.
- Run in place for a minute, bobbing up and down on your forefoot. Slowly let yourself jog forward. As you increase the pace, have a friend watch the speed at which you transfer from a quick, bouncy gait to an over-striding heel strike. Once that pace is identified, try running it again, this time emulating the quick, bouncy stride you practiced earlier. If you find yourself heel striking again, come to a stop and practice jogging in place once again.
Notice that we haven’t talked much about the way your foot falls. That’s because the actual foot fall isn’t the most important factor. The more important thing to focus on is where you foot lands, not how it lands. If “heel striking” leads you to “over-striding” then think about landing on the sole of your foot, which is hard to do if you land with your foot way out in front of you.
Another mantra to adopt: Cadence = run for your sole.
Notice the difference here, the first runner is landing with her foot out in front of her, causing her leg to straighten out and her knee to lock, forcing all the pressure to go straight up her leg. The second runner is lands on the sole of her foot and directly underneath her, allowing for a bent knee and less impact on her joints.
While there is no magic cadence number, learning to increase your leg turnover (cadence) can help you close out races and become a more efficient runner. Even better, it can even save you a trip to the doctor’s office.
Hope this helps explain cadence in a way we “non-elites” can relate to our own running. Slower “recreational” runners can benefit just as much or more from proper form since we tend to be on the road for much longer periods of time.
Day 8 exercises: Legs – 2-3 Sets of 10
- Jump Squats
- Calf Raises
- Marching Bridge
- Wall Sit – :60
Bonus: 7 Key Stretches for Runners – This should be a part of your normal routine, but a lot of times stretching is skipped because of time restraints or just because “we don’t want to”. Hopefully making it a bonus will implore you to add it in. Oh, and technically, it’s 8 stretches as we’ve added in the pigeon pose because it feels so good and is great for our hips and glutes.
“How to” Videos:
Jump Squats – A great way to build lower body strength and power.
Calf Raises: Strengthen the calves with calf raises. Learn how to make modifications then add dumbbells for stronger, more flexible calf muscles in this video with Michelle Trapp.
Marching Bridge: Great for hip and glute strength. Remember to engage your core as well.