Obstacle Course Training | Why Running Cadence Matters
25148

## 23 Feb Why Running Cadence Matters

In this post I will explain why running cadence is an important component of the Obstacle Course Training running programs.

Definitions

Steps: a step is counted at each footstrike i.e. left-right-left-right = 4 steps
Strides: a stride is counted at each footstrike on the same side i.e lt-rt-lt-rt = 2 strides
Cadence: the number of steps per minute or strides per minute. Typically in running it is measured in steps per minute (spm).

When comparing elite middle and long distance runners to mere mortals, one of the most consistent differences is that elite runners tend to have a significantly higher cadence at a given speed. That last bit is important to keep in mind as we keep going. Most recreational/weekend warrior/age-group runners will usually be anywhere from 130 to 160 steps per minute, whereas elite runners will rarely be below 180 steps per minute, and will routinely be at 200 or higher.

The elite women at the 117th Boston Marathon

MythBusting! There is no MAGIC OPTIMAL CADENCE! Despite what you may have heard or read or been fervently told, every runner is different. The oft-quoted figure of 180 steps per minute is simply a useful guideline that is attainable for most non-elite runners.

Running speed is a very simple formula:
cadence x stride length = speed
Therefore, it’s to be expected that elite runners would have higher cadences, since they are going much faster than we are. The elites also have a considerably longer stride length, so they are basically kicking our butts in every possible way. In order for us mortals to go faster, we need to increase cadence or stride length or both.

What not to do

The first thing to not do is to try to increase your stride length. You almost certainly don’t have the strength, power, and power endurance to pull it off for anything longer than a couple of minutes. You will also very likely do it by overstriding. That’s a fundamental running form nay-nay, which we will get to soon.

The other thing to not do is to go out with a metronome app and start doing all of your runs at 180 or 200 spm. The main reason not to do this is that it is unworkable: unless you are running sub-16:00 for 5 km, you are going so much slower than these guys that trying to emulate their cadence will have you shuffling along with a ridiculously short stride length.

In addition, that’s much too big a jump for most people: gradually increasing your cadence in something like 5%-10% increments is the way to go

It’s a bit like biking

Of the two determinants of speed, cadence is by far the easiest and safest one to manipulate. Let’s use a biking analogy for a minute.

In order to bike faster, it’s not a big deal to pedal a bit faster in the same gear, whereas trying to maintain the same cadence while moving into a bigger gear takes much more strength and fitness. It’s similar for runners, where speeding up your cadence 5-10 SPM is not going to require more muscular strength or power, unlike trying to lengthen your stride.

Some Benefits of a Higher Cadence

Obviously, making a change just because it’s a simple one is no reason to do so. There must be some benefit to it other than trying to look a bit more like the world class runner you aren’t. As it turns out, increasing cadence can have some very real beneficial consequences.

At a given speed, if you tell someone to increase their cadence, they will almost always shorten their stride length. They have to, otherwise they’ll be going faster than their current running fitness can support and will get really, really tired. The shortened stride will tend to reduce or even eliminate overstriding, which is a bad thing that most of us tend to do. The change will happen automatically, even if you don’t know what the hell overstriding is, so it is the absolute best kind of running technical improvement: one that happens unconsciously.

At the risk of ruining this experience, I will now explain overstriding.

Overstriding is the term used to describe when a runner is trying to lengthen their stride too much by extending their leg and reaching out in front of themselves. Their foot will hit the ground heel first, which in and of itself is not a bad thing (despite all the hype and hoopla about forefoot vs heel-strike). The bad thing is that this footstrike happens too far in front of the runner’s COM (centre of mass), and, most importantly, in front of the knee. This creates a significant braking impact that has to be absorbed by the relatively puny tibialis anterior on the front of your shin, and by your quadriceps muscles. To point out the obvious; braking is not a good thing when you are trying to go fast. The fact that you have to spend energy to do it is adding insult to injury.

Speaking of which, overstriding and the associated impact forces are one of the leading cause of running injuries. It’s a lose-lose-lose scenario.

Remember that with an increased cadence for a given speed, the runner is forced to shorten their stride. This will almost always be accomplished by dropping the foot to the ground earlier in front (rather than picking it up earlier behind), meaning it will be under the knee and closer to the COM at footstrike. This will minimize or eliminate the braking impact, and all the associated badness I outlined earlier. Huzzah!

Efficiency

But wait…there’s more! An increased cadence means it takes less time to perform each step, which means you don’t have to hop as high in order to get your foot scooted under you and in place for the next step. Less height translates to less impact in general with each footstrike, which further contributes to decreasing the risk of injury. It also means you don’t have to generate as much power with each step, so for many runners it will be more efficient.

I’m not done yet! Up to 50% of the energy used to propel you forward comes from energy stored in your connective tissues from the impact of your previous landing. There is evidence to suggest that a higher cadence – above about 170 – is associated with a greater use of these elastic properties of the human musculoskeletal system. In practical-speak: it takes less effort to go at the same speed.

THIS IS SO AWESOME!!!
Yes, it is, but…

Reality Check

As with any other change, cadence modification should be implemented at a sane rate. Don’t try to go from 150 right up to 180 overnight. A safe progression would be to increase by 5% to 10%, and work with it for a week at gradually increasing distances. If you are feeling comfortable at the end of the week, nudge it up again if you need to. Repeat until you get to a point where the cadence starts to feels uncomfortable or forced, and back it down a bit from there.

Remember that your personal “happy place” cadence will almost certainly be different from that of other runners, and that this is OK! Your cadence will also change with your pace; increasing as you go faster, decreasing as you go slower.

MythBusting! Cadence is not meant to stay constant. Almost all runners – including elite world class performers – will alter both their stride length and their cadence as their speed changes. You should do the same.

In a nutshell, paying attention to your cadence is a relatively easy and safe technical change that can payoff with faster times and a reduced risk of injury.

Some final caveats

1. Leg length will affect cadence as well as stride length. Generally, runner with longer legs will have a longer stride and lower cadence than runners with shorter legs at a given speed.
2. Terrain and wind can affect both. Again, think of the biking analogy, wherein you’d have to gear down when going into a stiff wind or up a hill, and gear up with a tailwind (does that ever happen?) or downhill.
##### Tags:
,
peter@obstaclecourse.training

Peter is the Community Manager at ObstacleCourse.Training and brings a unique blend of writing, sport science, and 16 years of "extreme" racing to the table.

• ##### Andy Reid
Posted at 16:18h, 28 February Reply

My 12 K running technique has really improved and completed recent Judgement Day at Borden in 1 hour
and 58 minutes. Thank you.

• ##### Peter Dobos
Posted at 17:44h, 28 February Reply

Nice work, Andy – congratulations!

• ##### Dan
Posted at 10:10h, 24 May Reply

Will this cadence technique require specific brand or type of shoes?

• ##### Peter Dobos
Posted at 15:59h, 27 May Reply

Hi Dan,

A higher cadence is not a universal prescription for everyone. It’s more of a tool to take recreational runners who tend to run around 130-150 spm, and get them to stop overstriding. In general, anything above 160spm, as long as you’re going faster than an easy jog, should be fine.

As for shoes…lighter is better if you look at it purely from an efficiency/energy standpoint. Less mass at the end of your legs makes them easier to swing. Unless you are competing seriously, weight of the shoe should be down the list of priorities, after form and fit and function.

Pete

• ##### Marco
Posted at 18:50h, 03 December Reply

Wow, I have definitely been overstriding without even realizing it. Any tips on stopping this or preventing an injury?