Running cadence – also known as stride rate – refers to the number of steps per minute (SPM) you take as you run.
In other words, it’s the speed at which your legs churn over as you pound the trails.
And while it’s often used as a performance metric, the latest studies suggest that perhaps we’ve been too focussed on hitting a target running cadence.
Your running cadence is affected by many different things – including your body composition, your running style, and the type of workout you’re doing.
Aiming for a fast cadence doesn’t necessarily make you a better runner.
So maybe instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, we need to start thinking about running cadence differently.
How Cadence and Stride Length Affects Your Running
When talking about cadence and running performance, it’s important to consider it alongside stride length.
After all, your running speed is simply the combination of these two:
Running speed = running cadence (SPM) x stride length
Therefore, two runners can be pacing each other at the same speed, but with very different cadences.
Runner A has a fast cadence and short stride.
Runner B has a slow cadence and long stride.
While everyone has a natural cadence and stride they gravitate towards, there can be advantages to shortening your stride and increasing your cadence – let’s look at that.
- Related: 7 Expert Tips For How To Run Faster
What Is a Good Running Cadence?
It’s now generally accepted that there is no one-size-fits-all recommended running cadence; it is dictated by your running mechanics, height, and strength.
For decades, it was accepted wisdom that 180 steps per minute (SPM) was the optimal running cadence to shoot for.
180 steps per minute means each foot hits the ground 90 times every minute.
This originated with legendary running coach Jack Daniels’ analysis of elite runners during the 1984 Olympics.
Sitting in the stands and analyzing the Olympians as they passed, Jack saw that the elite runners had a cadence of at least 180 SPM, some as much as 200 SPM.
This gradually became the dominant benchmark in run training – run coaches drilled into us to aim to get your cadence up to 180 SPM in order to improve your running form.
However, that notion has gradually been unpacked and over time, studies have shown there is naturally some variance in each person’s optimal running cadence, depending on a host of factors such as height and running mechanics.
Taller runners, for example, typically have a slower running cadence as they naturally take longer strides.
Is a Fast Running Cadence Better?
If the 180 SPM number is more of a rough guideline than a benchmark, is there really any benefit to running a fast cadence?
Yes – and it is all about your stride length.
Taking shorter, faster steps makes you a more efficient runner and reduces the impact on your joints.
Over-striding means stretching the leg further than is necessary, and landing heavily on their heel.
So shortening your stride can reduce your injury risk, and means you’re not over-activating your leg muscles.
And if you shorten your stride, you’ll find it easier to increase your running cadence.
While 180 SPM shouldn’t be your target, it can be a nice reference point as you begin to work on your cadence and stride length.
So Really, Is Cadence Important for Running?
It turns out that cadence is likely less important than what running coaches have previously assumed.
As I noted above, the 180 SPM cadence became a benchmark that was used as the basis of drills and practices.
But the most recent literature suggests that focusing on cadence as a primary factor in your running is probably a mistake.
Geoffrey Burns, PhD and professional runner, confirmed this while studying the top 25 finishers of the 2016 100K race in Alcazares, Spain.
He found that cadence varied widely. Yes, some of that depended on factors like height and weight, but ultimately, that didn’t matter when it came to top finishers.
After analyzing the cadence of the top 5 finishers, he found that their cadences ranged from 155-203 SPM.
The highest and lowest of these cadences finished within a couple minutes of each other, proving that having a faster cadence or more optimal cadence doesn’t necessarily make you a better runner.
Keep in mind that just because cadence doesn’t define your success as a runner, there are some important benefits of tracking your cadence.
Jeff Parke, owner of Top Fitness Magazine, weighs in saying, “Running cadence is an attainable way to improve your running form. For those who live to run, they wouldn’t want to have to sit out due to an injury and cadence is a proactive way to mitigate this.
The short, quick steps of running cadence make movement efficient while minimizing injury as a more balanced stride reduces the impact on your knees and hips.”
Jack McNamara, a highly experienced strength coach, clinical exercise physiologist, and personal training educator, emphasizes this aspect.
“Once we have learned to run at a faster cadence this can lead to an improvement in our running economy.
Running economy is a measure of how efficiently we utilise oxygen at a certain pace. The more efficient our running technique is, the more economically we can fun, ultimately resulting in faster times.”
Feedback on Running Technique
McNamara also points out, “As we tire, our running technique often starts to deteriorate, but most of the time we don’t notice the changes because our body adapts in an attempt to maintain our pace naturally.”
If you’re keeping track of your cadence, you will notice this change more quickly, giving you (or your coach) insight on areas you need to work on to prevent it from happening.
Other Running Metrics to Focus On
While you want to check in on your cadence occasionally, there are other important metrics you should be keeping track of.
In other words, cadence should typically be used as an indicator, or barometer – not as a target to aim for.
- Rate of Perceived Exertion: RPE is when you run based on the perceived effort of how hard you’re pushing. It’s my favorite metric to train to and involves paying attention to your body rather than running based on a GPS watch.
- VO2 Max: VO2 max is one of the many measurements in our fitness and endurance toolbelt (along with things like lactate threshold and exercise economy) that tell us where our fitness level is, where we can improve, and a way to track progress over time.
- Heart Zone Training: Different heart rate levels engage different aspects of your physiology, and a good training plan will work in multiple zones to improve overall performance.
- Speed: A great indicator of your running progress and motivator for your training, working on speed can qualify you for competitive races and provide input on your next goals.
What Is My Running Cadence? How To Measure Cadence
There are several ways to measure or track your running cadence.
Use a Metronome
Using a metronome – for example the one found in the Run Tempo app – is a great way to run to a specific SPM.
(By the way, I recommend setting the metronome to half of your target SPM – i.e. if you are targeting 170 SPM, set your metronome for 85 beats per minute (BPM). This way, one foot will strike on each beat.).
Run To Music (How To Find a Song’s BPM)
The army, especially marines, have their cadence songs that they chant as they run together to hold a constant cadence.
We can do the same! Using a service like GetSongBPM.com, we can build a playlist of music we like that follows our target BPM.
Remember to divide your target SPM by 2, and use that number in your BPM search.
Improve in 5% Increments
Instead of trying to go from 150 SPM to 180 SPM straight away, try increasing your running cadence by 5% at a time.
Once you can comfortably (without overthinking it) maintain a 5km+ pace at your new cadence, add another 5% and repeat the process.
Use the Baseline Technique
This is a simple, easy-to-implement way to improve your cadence. First, determine your baseline. Do three minutes of your personal baseline cadence, then one minute of working to raise that rate. Repeat this throughout your run.
Try the Treadmill Trick
Run on a treadmill and go running on the road right after that for a few minutes. You will be surprised that naturally, your cadence will increase.
Try to memorize the feelings of the cadence you target, then repeat on your other runs. When you feel comfortable, vary your cadence and observe the changes of posture and form. This is a great way to stay aware of your cadence, even without the help of gadgets or strict plans.
Running Cadence – The Takeaways
- Despite what running coaches used to tell us, 180 SPM is not necessarily the optimal running cadence for all of us.
- In general, a faster running cadence and shorter stride can improve running economy and lessen our risk of injury.
- Different types of runs have different cadences. When in marathon training, for example, your speed work will have a different cadence to your long runs.
- Rather than using your cadence to dictate your run performance, focus instead on things like RPE, Heart Rate Zone training, VO2 max, and speed.
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