Is There An Ideal Cadence When Running?
29 November 2023 | Category: Running Technique Advice
There’s something I need to get off my chest. Cadence in running is so poorly used and in most cases poorly understood.
For those wondering, cadence is the number of steps taken within a minute. It is an outcome. It is an outcome of many factors; leg length, pace, running mechanics and movement patterns. This is the reason why it is a poor focus for technique change.
Firstly, let’s talk about the elephant in the room and the ‘magical’ number of 180 steps per minute that is so often quoted and prescribed. Where did it come from?
In 1984 a study was done on Olympic athletes during competition. In each of the distance races, the cadence of these runners was measured, and the minimum cadence recorded was 180. Go figure! Who would have thought that a group of elite runners, competing at the pinnacle of the sport, would have a high step rate?… No mention of ground contact time, no mention of ground reaction forces or movement patterns. Just the number as a minimum step rate. And the ‘magic 180 cadence’ rule became made.
What about their easy pace? What about 1km rep or 400m rep pace? Nope, just the one number of 180 for all to try and hit. Overstriding? Hit 180. Heel striking? Hit 180. Easy run? Hit 180…. You get the picture. It’s akin to using speed as a mode of change of technique!
Yesterday I had a session with a new athlete and when he first started running he was told he had to run at a cadence of 185 steps per minute. For every run. Where is the logic in this? He spent the next 6 years wondering why he couldn’t get his easy pace down as much as he’d like and his fast pace was not as fast as he thought it should be.
After spending so long trying to shorten his stride to hit 185 at easy pace there’s no surprise why he found it hard to increase his range of motion through his femur swing to find more pace.
Take this hypothetical example of two runners. Both of these runners are running at a pace of 5min per km or 8 min per mile and have a cadence of 166. Now before you get all worked up and think that’s too low, bear with me. One is 5ft 6’, over strides, has an increased braking force upon landing and increased ground contact time (comparatively). The other is 6ft 3’, has excellent technique, has decreased ground time and increased flight time. The number outcome of cadence is exactly the same but we have two extremely different inputs. 166 is not the same as 166 in this case.
There is also a brand that labels their shoes between ‘cadence’ running and ‘stride’ running. Back to our hypothetical example of two runners, this time imagine they are moving with the same mechanics and running next to each other. One is close to a foot taller than the other and therefore has longer levers, running the same pace their cadence is 10-12 steps different due to leg length differences. Apparently one is a cadence runner and the other is a stride runner. Remarkable. We may as well just say these shoes are for short people and these for tall, it has the same effect.
I can genuinely understand why “increase your cadence” is prescribed to try to alleviate overstriding and braking forces going through the body. The issue is that asking an athlete to shorten their stride to match a number doesn’t actually address the problem. The athlete ends up shortening their movements as asked but they’re just doing the same movement more often. The movement itself hasn’t changed.
My suggestion is to change the focus of runners and running coaches to flight time and ground contact time. These two are directly influenced by how we move.
The retraining of our running mechanics is what is going to give us the best opportunity for change and improvement. Your cadence may very well increase (it may also decrease or stay the same), but it will be an outcome of a better movement pattern rather than the focus.
Not just, “increase your cadence”.
To summarise: I regularly tell my athletes that you need to be fit to hold 180! I’d rather you are in a good open range of motion, creating flight and float to hold tempo and race pace. Once you get fitter and fitter you will naturally be able to hold that range for longer AND have a higher cadence. There’s your pace!
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