How To Find Your Optimal Running Cadence, According to Experts
Sport & Activity
Experts explain what running cadence is and how it can prevent injury and increase your speed.
If you've ever overheard a runner compliment another runner's cadence and didn't know what that meant, you're not alone. While it may not be fodder for casual conversation, cadence is one of the key foundations of running. It also can ultimately help you become a faster runner—all while keeping overuse injuries at bay.
"You have to train to run instead of run to train", said David Jou, P.T., D.P.T., and co-founder of Motivny in New York City, in response to how often overlooked, complex and at times challenging nailing the basics of running can be. It's imperative that you identify what your running cadence is before you start training for a race, for example.
What does running cadence mean?
For those who aren't sure, or who need a refresher on running cadence, "Cadence is just the number of steps a runner takes per minute", said Anthony Luke, M.D., M.P.H., founder of RunSafe, professor of clinical orthopaedics and director of the University of San Francisco Human Performance Center.
"Cadence, from the physiological standpoint, a mechanic standpoint, can impact not just performance but also your vulnerability to injury. So, from what we've seen is the higher the cadence the less impact on your body. So cadence on that level is really important", Jou said.
Why You Should Focus on Your Running Cadence
Cadence is worth exploring to clean up mechanics and decrease any risk of injury—regardless of your level of running experience, Jou said. As a beginner, you're more than likely not going to have an optimal turnover rate, which means you may be more prone to injury due to increased impact, so it's something you're going to want to spend time focusing on, he said.
A low cadence can add stress to your joints and muscles, have a negative impact on your running mechanics (for example, you may overly oscillate up and down) and affect your stance time (how much time you spend on the ground), which can all lead to injury, Jou said.
It may be challenging at first, but it's important to focus on because, according to Luke, running cadence is also related to both speed and stride length. Your speed is impacted by how many steps you take. For example, the more steps, the faster you're going to run, more than likely, Luke said.
"You can build appreciation for running but if you want to go further and faster, you need to be mindful of your cadence", Jou said.
Your stride length is another variable that impacts your speed. If your stride length is too long, it means you're spending more time on the ground and your mechanics may not be ideal as you're possibly putting abnormal stress on your legs, Luke said.
"So, people with too long of a stride actually get higher forces to their legs and then they can get overuse injuries", he said. And this is one major reason you don't want to run with too slow of a cadence.
What's a good running cadence?
In the world of fitness, most things are not one-size-fits-all, but according to Luke, the optimal running cadence averages between 170 to 180 steps per minute for people of average height, which, in the US is 162cm tall for women and about 180cm tall for men.
Jou agreed that the gold standard for cadence is 180 steps per minute, especially if you're an elite, but noted that 180 steps per minute is tough for the average person to achieve and is dependent on myriad factors such as height, weight and footwear.
"I would say there's an optimal range probably, and that's somewhere between 165 and 180 [steps per minute]", Jou said, adding that the optimal cadence is where you're able to run fast with minimal stress on your heart.
"I would say focusing on cadence will help with efficiency, and from there, you can figure out how that impacts the stress levels on your heart but also at the joint level, [and] at the muscle level", he said.
Taking 180 steps per minute is no easy feat, but studies have shown that this is the range of most elite runners. It's also the turnover rate that tends to be the most metabolically efficient for runners, Luke said. Inefficiency spans the spectrum. For those who use a cadence that might be too quick or slow, too much energy may be expended, negatively impacting athletic performance.
Consistently running at a cadence between 170 and 180 steps per minute will reduce your risk for injury, as you'll spend less time making contact with the ground, according to Luke. This also minimises the force going to your legs, which means less impact and possible overuse injuries such as shin splints.
How to Measure and Improve Your Running Cadence
If you're not in the 170 to 180 steps per minute range, don't panic, but to prevent injury and perform better, Luke said you should try working your way up to hit this range. To do this, Jou recommended finding a running coach to help find a cadence "that can get you up to the speed, but also isn't stressing the heart as much".
You can also measure your cadence on your own by counting how many steps you take in one minute, downloading a metronome app, or utilising a smartwatch that has a cadence tracking feature.
If you're taking fewer than 170 steps per minute, the goal is to take more steps but not necessarily run faster, Luke said. If your cadence is slower than what's suggested, Luke suggested utilising a treadmill. Run at a comfortable speed and begin taking more steps to get a feel for running the same speed with shorter steps. This method is also used to correct people's running mechanics with longer strides who are experiencing problems.
If you don't have access to a treadmill, Luke said there is an alternative way to improve your running cadence outdoors. First, find a pace that feels comfortable to you and then practise taking shorter steps in a one-minute interval. He doesn't recommend doing this for the entire duration of your run, but instead, devoting a minute or two to implement more steps to your stride while maintaining the same speed (Note: this part is very important). Pro tip: a GPS watch can help you stay steady with your speed.
If running for a minute in this way seems daunting, Jou said he recommends running for 20 seconds and counting your steps, and multiplying that by three to figure out how many steps you take in a minute.
How Your Running Cadence Can Improve Your Speed
Cadence may have been an afterthought in the past, but paying attention to it can enhance your overall running experience because you'll improve your mechanics, decrease your risk for injury and, as a result, improve your speed as you become a more efficient runner.
Luke said his biggest piece of advice as it relates to good running cadence is to commit weeks to this—after all, it's hard to break habits.
"If you want to avoid injuries, really improve your running efficiency and get to a higher cadence, just do that [one-minute intervals] in small amounts until it becomes a habit. And that will probably take at least six weeks or something like that to really feel comfortable to change that cadence", he said.
You should also re-evaluate your cadence every few months to refocus and see if there's any improvement or deterioration due to a change in your training—such as running longer distances at a slower pace.
And, arguably more important than being able to improve your speed, focusing on your cadence is a measure you can take to prevent injury.
"If you run efficiently, you're not going to be injured as much. You're going to decrease that risk of injury and vice versa. So if you are running inefficiently, you're using a lot of energy, then you lose your form, then that can translate into injury", Jou said.
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Words by Tamara Pridgett