What if I told you there is a simple shift you can make in your running pattern that can reduce the overall loading that running puts on your joints and body, reduces your injury risk, and often makes running feel easier? You’d want to know what it is, right?
Well, you are in luck! There is such a simple technique change, and I’m about to share it with you! Drumroll, please…..it’s…..
What is cadence? Cadence, or step-rate, is simply the number of steps run per minute. It correlates with ground contact time. Low cadence means you are spending more time on the ground, and high cadence means you are spending less time there. Cadence also will typically correlate with vertical displacement of center-of-mass (sometimes called “bounce”). Bounce is really just wasted energy – we run to go forward, not up and down! So as cadence increases, contact time decreases, and bounce decreases. If you have less contact time and reduced bounce you will also experience less loading which may help to reduce overuse injury.
Very often, injured runners that I have worked with had cadences on the lower end of the spectrum, which may have contributed to them becoming injured in the first place. As part of a video running analysis, I measure running cadence and usually recommend that my clients try adjusting it upwards to reap the benefits of reduced loading and recapturing wasted energy. It is common to hear back from those who’ve increased cadence that they suddenly feel less fatigued during their runs – allowing them to run longer or faster than they previously could! This is also an exciting fact for uninjured runners who want to remain that way and improve their performance can greatly benefit.
The concept of an ‘ideal’ running cadence was popularized by renowned running coach Dr. Jack Daniels when he made an observation that most elite runners in the 1984 Olympics used a step rate of 180 steps or more. Soon after, many coaches jumped on 180 as the number to the point that if you ask a runner about cadence this is what they will quote! However with his comment, “or more” he was trying to emphasize some variability, and we should also remember he was referring to elite level athletes. We will see variability due to the individual level of performance (recreation, collegiate, pro), and we will see some variability due to body size/shape.
A great example of this was discussed in this paper1 which studied the 2007 World Track & Field Championships 10,000m in Osaka Japan, where three great runners were involved in a close race. These three ran together for the first 9600m and the step rates were 186, 192, 195, for Bekele, Sihine, and Mathathi respectively. Each was of a different build, and size/shape. They were running the same pace but using a different cadence that was self-selected. Sihine was the first to make a break in the final 400m, and Bekele and Mathathi responded. Sihine and Mathathi both increased their stride length, whereas Bekele increased his cadence. Renowned coach Steve Magness was quoted as saying “When it’s time to go you use what you haven’t used yet”2. As the two who were running higher cadences could not easily go higher, they instead increased stride length. Bekele had been using a longer stride length and lower cadence, so he was able to increase cadence to gather his speed. Bekele triumphed, and it has been hypothesized that his method allowed him to recruit unfatigued fast twitch muscle fibers for the sprint that the other two had exhausted.
So what should my cadence be?
Unless you are competing at an elite level, you are probably more concerned about running safely than running fast; so Bekele’s technique might not be ideal for you. But what, then, should your cadence be? There is no one right answer as each athlete is different, but my experience with injured runners has found that a cadence around 140-160 is low, and is a big risk factor for injury, especially overload injuries such as stress fracture, tendinopathy, fasciopathy etc. Those who are in these ranges and have not had an injury may have acclimatized to this loading over time, but typically could still probably stand to increase their cadence as low cadence will usually lead to overstriding, which in-turn leads to a braking and loading effect (i.e., slowing down with each stride – not what we want to do!).
But I don’t feel that I can sustainably go faster!
Increasing cadence does NOT mean you have to go faster. If you increase your cadence and keep the same pace your stride will shorten and your legs will turn over faster. As cadence increases, you will typically shorten your stride and keep the same pace. Those athletes that I work with to increase cadence each get to their own happy spot. Some may get to 170 and an increase towards 180 feels unnatural and unattainable. In those cases, I tend to find that a small pace increase to lengthen the stride then allows the higher cadence. Others will increase beyond 180 comfortably with no pace change. Once you are running more efficiently, you may well find that your comfortable pace has increased along with your cadence, and you may then be able to make substantial changes in pace. It seems counterintuitive, but higher cadences are more efficient and should allow for higher pace and mileages. But to start off with I always tell my clients to try to keep their pace the same, just to increase their cadence by shortening their stride. Whatever the case may be, here are the findings of several studies on the effect manipulating cadence has on the lower extremity, whiles maintaining the same pace.
Injury or no injury, you can see some of the proven benefits of increasing cadence. We are continuing to see new studies produced with more positives. As you can see in the third column above, there are few limitations to changing cadence as long as it is done gradually. The 10% rule is a fine one to follow for how much to increase cadence per week.
To work on increasing your cadence there are several options. You could use an internal cue such as telling yourself to get your leg around quicker, but we have seen the evidence in a previous blog that shows internal cues are not great for initial skill acquisition. Instead, an external cue is more effective and can be in the form of a simple metronome beat or music at the desired cadence. For a simple metronome beat, there are smartphone apps, and you can even purchase a small metronome for a few bucks and put it in your pocket. There are also more specialized apps designed for running that can be of use. Spotify has a running mode, and jogtunes is an app specifically designed to pair music and cadence. A further option is to use the excellent RunCadence app by Seattle PT Christopher Johnson which helps learn your current cadence and then increase it by what percentage you wish. It uses a metronome beat and haptic (vibration) cueing to help you know when your cadence drops. At this time RunCadence is only available on recent Apple devices (including iwatch), but (I believe!) an android version is planned for 2017. For the time being, on Android, another option that a couple of clients have used is ismoothrun. Garmin and various other brands of watches also monitor cadence and provide some feedback. One other option that I was introduced to by a patient is the Milestone Pod, which appears to be a useful and cheap (at $25) alternative. It is a small pod that laces to the shoe and communicates the data with your smartphone -they are currently beta testing real-time feedback.
If you need further advice, I am an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone call away (256-529-7395). It is my goal to see less injured athletes in our running community by using the best and latest evidence available and by providing easy-to-access education and care. Cadence is one part of a thorough evaluation – for the amount of time you run, it is well worth you getting a running evaluation as soon as possible!
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- Available at: https://runnersclub.s3.amazonaws.com/attachment/219/stride_length_frequency.pdf. Accessed March 18, 2017.
- Available at: http://www.runnersworld.com/race-training/the-great-cadence-debate.Accessed March 18, 2017.
- Lenhart R, Thelen D, Heiderscheit B. Hip muscle loads during running at various step rates. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2014;44(10):766-74, A1-4.
- Heiderscheit BC, Chumanov ES, Michalski MP, Wille CM, Ryan MB. Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011;43(2):296-302.
- Willy RW, Meardon SA, Schmidt A, Blaylock NR, Hadding SA, Willson JD. Changes in tibiofemoral contact forces during running in response to in-field gait retraining. J Sports Sci. 2016;34(17):1602-11.
- Wellenkotter J, Kernozek TW, Meardon S, Suchomel T. The effects of running cadence manipulation on plantar loading in healthy runners. Int J Sports Med. 2014;35(9):779-84.