Is your running cadence important? Is running technique important? Shouldn’t you just do what you naturally do and just run? I suppose the answer to these questions will depend on what you are trying to achieve as well as other very individual factors, such as your injury risk and your anatomical structure. Some of us are purely built better for running - just like some are built for rugby or gymnastics. Running is no different. It is still a sport, and a very injury prone one at that, whether you want to believe it or not.
Running cadence has been given a lot of attention in research, as it has been found to be a very influential variable when it comes to injuries and performance. Not only that, but it is actually one of the easiest things to manipulate.
According to Dr. Jack Daniels, a two time Olympic medalist and renowned running coach and exercise scientist, 180 steps per minute (spm) is the optimal cadence for distance runners. He, apparently, discovered this whilst observing and counting the stride rates of elite distance athletes at the 1984 summer Olympics. He discovered that out of the 46 athletes observed, only 1 of them had a cadence of less than 180. Furthermore, Dr. Daniels went on to speculate that all of his coached beginner runners had a cadence of around 160 spm, and not one of them reached over 180 spm.
This is all very true, but does it mean that we should ALL be running at 180 spm and that this is the optimal running cadence for everyone? For a sport that is very individual, that’s a pretty strong guideline.
Runners Connect, a popular online information portal for runners, stated that although moderately correct, Dr. Jack Daniels’ theory was misinterpreted and he actually meant that running at anything 180 spm OR MORE is optimal. However, a lot of us would struggle to maintain it.
Jay Dicharry, author of Anatomy for Runners (2012), questioned this theory and found research (of unknown authors) that stated that the optimal recoil time for shortening and lengthening a tendon when jumping is 3 Hertz. This particular frequency had the best optimal exchange of elastic energy and the least metabolic energy expenditure. Jumping at a frequency of less than 3 Hz required more energy. Therefore, if you do the maths from here, 3 contacts per second multiplied by 60 (seconds in a minute) = 180 contacts per minute (Dicharry, 2012). So for all of you evidence based runners out there, if you needed some research to confirm the theory, Jay has found it for you.
Does that mean that everyone should all of a sudden change their cadence to 180 spm? Keeping in mind, I’ve just told you that most of us run between 160-170 spm. This is likely where a lot of problems arise when someone is told to change how they are running. It isn’t the changes per-say that are wrong, it’s how you do it that makes the difference.
The problem with changing your cadence
According to a study by Hafer et al (2016), running injuries result from altered segment coordinations when producing joint movements. This means how our joints move and take load and in what sequence and relationship they do this. A change in the coordination of our joint movements can cause an acute shift in the stress to the tissues and sends it to areas that are not meant for repetitive loads. This is essentially how we develop overuse injuries. Hafer et al (2016) relates increasing cadence to learning a new task. We actually end up freezing available degrees of freedom of a joint when learning a new task, which causes a decrease in our coordination variability. This is a problem because of the shift in load to areas that can’t handle it – as explained above. Adopting a new running cadence creates a similar problem and tissues are unequally burdened. More load = increased injury risk.
Have you ever heard of the 10% rule? Hafer et al (2016) found that increasing your cadence by 10 % at a time (and no more than this) allowed the segment coordination to change accordingly. It is very similar to what is often suggested for increasing mileage and follows the same theory that gradual increases allow for more efficient adaptations (Hafer 2016 & 2015).
What exactly is the point though? Why is increasing your cadence going to be of any help?
Research has found that increasing your cadence reduces your peak vertical ground reaction force, peak hip adduction angles, decreases heel strike distance and optimises your knee angles (Hafer et al 2015, Heiderscheitt 2011). It has also been found easier to implement than other gait retraining cues and therefore has potential for injury prevention and rehabilitation purposes.
How do you change your cadence, and does it stick?
A study by Van Dyck et al (2015) used music to see if runners could maintain a trained change in their cadence. They found that when runners ran to a particular beat, they automatically changed their running cadence – women were better at it than men. Another study by Hafer et al (2015) found that after 6 weeks of cadence training, the athletes maintained the learned higher step rate than their previous preferred one.
Some other tips found for changing your cadence are:
- Music with a higher beat – there are websites out there with ideas of certain song lists with a particular cadence
- Change your cadence for short periods of time to start with, and then build
- For the mathematicians out there, counting the steps of one foot strike for 30 seconds, and then multiplying by 4 to keep track
- Most GPS running watches are able to do this for you…
The Bottom Line
Although 180 was originally fabricated by pure observations, it actually does make sense, even scientifically. That doesn’t mean it will work for everyone and it certainly doesn’t mean jumping to 180 straight away. First of all, figure out what your current running cadence is and calculate a 5%- 10% increase. Try maintaining this for blocks of a few minutes during your next run to see what it feels like. I guarantee you, it will feel like hard work to start with. Like most things beneficial for us – they take time!
Dicharry, J. 2012, Anatomy for Runners, Skyhorse Publishing, New York.
Hafer, J., Brown, A., Demille, P., Hillstrom, H., & Garber, C. 2015, The effect of a cadence retraining protocol on running biomechanics and efficieny: a pilot study, Journal of sports sciences, Vol. 33, No. 7, pp. 724-731.
Hafter, J., Silvernail, J., Hillstrom, H., & Boyer,k. 2016, Changes in coordination and its variability with an increase in running cadence, Journal of Sports Sciences, Vol 34, No. 15, pp. 1388-1395.
Van Dyck, E., Moens, B., Buhmann, J., Demey, M., Coorevits, E., Dalla Bella, S. et al. 2015 ,Spontaneous entrainment of running cadence to music temp, Sports Medicine, Vol. 1, No. 15, pp. 1-14.
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