The cadence technique to running faster, more efficiently, and avoiding injury

What if I told you there was a guaranteed way to run faster that could also help to reduce the chance of injury. Trust me…I'm not pulling your leg (pun intended) when I say increasing your cadence could help you achieve a PB.

Running cadence, also known as stride rate, or leg turnover is just that – the number of steps a runner takes each minute, and if you start paying attention to it, it could be the secret to you running your fastest race.

Need for speed

Nathan Fenton, a running coach at in Melbourne, says cadence is an important part of running because the frequency of steps is a major contributor to overall speed.

"To get faster, a runner could take longer steps or take more steps within a given time," says Fenton.

"Taking longer steps often leads to instability and heel striking, which exposes the athlete to impact injuries. That's why I believe increasing cadence is the most fundamental improvement in running technique."

He says increasing cadence reduces the time each foot spends on the ground, which lessens the weight put through the foot, and can reduce risk of injury. 

"When a runner maintains a high cadence, their stride is often shortened, which leads to a mid-foot or forefoot strike. This allows the arch of the foot to flex as it should do, rather than take the impact through the heel, ankle and knee."

Research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison supports Fenton's views. Scientists investigating the relationship of impact forces and cadence concluded that subtle increases in step rate can substantially reduce the loading to the hip and knee joints during running and may prove beneficial in the prevention and treatment of common running-related injuries.

Count the beat

The first step to improving your cadence is to measure it.

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"Many running watches or phone apps can measure cadence (with varying degrees of accuracy), but when I'm training runners I use a small metronome that I bought for $20 on Amazon," says Fenton.

"Another way to calculate your cadence is to simply run for 60 seconds and count the number of steps taken within that period to determine your cadence."

The magic number

When it comes to cadence, the optimal number of steps per minute (spm) is a hotly debated topic amongst the running community. Many believe that that the ideal cadence is 180spm. This measure comes from the 1984 Olympics, when coach and running researcher Jack Daniels counted the strides of distance runners as they raced, and found nearly all of them took at least 180 steps per minute. 

Compare that to the average recreational runner who has a cadence of 150-170spm, with over striders typically running with a cadence of less than 160spm, and you can see why not many of us ever get to wear the green and gold jersey.

While there is no perfect single number, there is a range that you should aim for. Fenton believes that 180spm is the starting point for efficient movement. 

"At around 180-184spm that the natural muscle elasticity begins to assist in leg spring stiffness and running efficiency," says Fenton.

No one size solution

Ultimately, an athlete's cadence comes down to sustainability adds Fenton. 

"If a runner could hold 200spm for a marathon, that would be amazing, but it's unlikely. So, shorter races will command a higher cadence and longer races a lower one." 

Unfortunately, it's not a one size fits all, and experimentation is the only way to know how to find your cadence sweet spot for the types of running you do.

"It may be that an athlete holds 180spm for a marathon, 185spm for a half marathon, 190spm for a 10km, and 195 for a 5km," says Fenton.

Step it up

If you've got the need for speed then Fenton recommends the following program devised by US strength coach Brian Mackenzie, which has an incredibly high success rate at increasing cadence.

"This program, which features a series of short durations with extremely high cadence, followed by a slightly longer duration with a lower cadence, shocks the nervous system into moving rapidly and then forces the athlete to hold a relatively high cadence for a longer period," says Fenton.  

Increase cadence program

Fenton believes that increasing cadence is something every runner, regardless of ability, can achieve. 

"The key is to remain consistent with sessions that focus on cadence," he says. Two 20-minute cadence sessions per week will yield great results, and the efficiency that comes from maintaining a high cadence is worth the work one puts in."

The drill

  • 4 x 30 seconds running at 188spm with a 30 second rest between each set.
  • 1 x 2 minutes running at 182spm followed by a two-minute rest.

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