Cyclists have monitored their RPMs for decades, but the idea of paying attention to your running cadence only took hold over the last few years. Barefoot running and minimalism emphasise a quicker, ‘more natural’ cadence, which is backed up by coach and author Jack Daniels’ observation that elite distance runners run at an average rate of 180 strides per minute (spm) when racing.
‘The problem is that people have taken that to mean all elites run at 180 [steps per minute], when if you look at what Daniels wrote, it’s phrased as “180 steps or more per minute”,’ says Peter Larson, an exercise physiologist. ‘It’s become this great myth that every elite runs at 180, and that’s not true.’
For instance, a 2008 study at the University of Texas El Paso found that a group of well-trained college runners averaged 175spm at 7:40min/mile pace, but 196spm at 4:58min/mile pace. Their relative stride lengths (a ratio of their stride length to their height) also increased, from 0.68 to 0.93.
If such variability exists among different runners and paces, why focus on cadence at all? Larson gives two main reasons: to eliminate overstriding and to give you another weapon in your running arsenal: an improved ability to change up your pace for a finishing kick.
While playing with your cadence can be a fun way to try to shave a few seconds off your PB, staying healthy is probably your best bet for long-term development. In this instance, what the ‘180 steps’ myth lacks in truth, it makes up for in practicality. If you’re way lower than this number, take it as a warning sign. ‘It gives you a decent indicator,’ Magness says. ‘You can use it as an easy cue to sometimes fix a complex problem. I’d say if your frequency is around 160 or lower when you aren’t just trotting around, you should check you’re not overstriding.’
Overstriding 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, says Larson. 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 stride rate by five to 10 per cent. ‘As you increase cadence, you tend to bring your landing foot closer to your centre of mass,’ says Larson.
Overstriding also occurs when natural heel-strikers attempt to hold their form while running fast, says exercise scientist and coach Roy Benson. ‘When heelstrikers go to kick, 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 overstriding. While there is no magic cadence number, learning to increase your turnover can help you become a more efficient runner. It might even save you a trip to the physio’s couch.
Steps to success: Simple strategies to increase your cadence
Establish your baseline cadence for different training paces (cadence varies with pace – even Olympians take fewer steps per minute when they run at slower speeds). On a treadmill, begin at warm-up pace and increase the speed by one minute per mile until you’re at 5K pace. As you reach each training pace (easy, marathon, tempo, etc), give yourself a minute or so to adjust to the speed, then count your steps for 30 seconds. Multiply by two, record the number, and then accelerate to your next pace. You should see that as your speed increases, your cadence increases. You can also do this on the track using intervals of 800-1200m.
Set yourself a target
To each of your recorded numbers, add five per cent. These new figures are your goal cadence for each pace. According to biomechanics researchers, adding five per cent is an attainable target that is still big enough to significantly reduce impact. So, if your easy run cadence was 160spm, aim for 168spm; if your tempo was 166spm, strive to hit 174spm.
Practise your cadence
Perhaps the easiest way to quicken your step is to run with a metronome (there’s an app for that). Or you can run to music with beats that match your desired turnover. Otherwise, you can monitor your progress with a 30-second cadence check every couple of miles. To accelerate the transition, schedule a workout such as downhill sprints. If you’re struggling with your new target, lower it back down by two to three per cent. Then practise that revised cadence for three weeks, before bumping it back up again.
Check your arm angle
Consider the angle at which you carry your arms. A 90-degree bend at the elbow might seem ideal, but Benson often gets overstriders to pull their hands up higher. This creates a smaller arc for the arms to swing through, forcing the legs to turn over more quickly.
Try going barefoot
Consider running barefoot on a track or a grass field for several minutes – your stride will be naturally shorter. Immediately after finishing, put on your normal running shoes and mimic your barefoot strides.
Pick it up: Weekly workouts to train your legs for a faster turnover
After an easy run, do five accelerating sprints down a gentle descent of 150-200m, reaching top speed at the bottom. Walk up for recovery.
Using short, quick strides, take as many steps as you can in 10m. Keep the ground contact as short as possible. Jog for 10m. Repeat five times.
Run reps of 30 seconds, one minute, two minutes and one minute at 5K pace. Jog for one minute between reps. Do two sets. Count your steps during the last set.
Also check out our beginner's guide to increasing your cadence.