Cadence is a critical part of running, lowering the stress on ankles, knees, & feet, improving Running Economy, reducing injury rates, and enhancing Running Form. Cadence is how often your feet touch the ground and it's easy to modify.
1 Correct Cadence
It's generally accepted that a turnover of 90 strides/minute is optimum for most people (180 steps/minute if counting both feet). To start off, check your cadence when you are running and if the number is 90 or higher, pat yourself on the back. If the number is lower than 90 then you should look at changing your cadence. Your cadence does not have to be exactly 90, and is likely to change somewhat with your pace and terrain. A faster pace may have a higher cadence, as will up or down hill sections.
It's unclear if cadences above 90 strides/minutes are better or not. It's been observed that elite runners in a 5K have cadences of 95-100+, but those runners are moving at a much faster pace than most runners. The research discussed below suggests there is a "goldilocks zone" of optimal cadence, so it's reasonable that cadence could be too high for efficiency. It seems likely to me that the upper limit of efficient cadence is related to pace, but more research is needed in this area.
2 Measuring Cadence
The cheapest way is to measure your cadence is to simply count how many times your foot touches the ground in a minute. However, it's much easier to use a running watch that displays cadence. Some watches will use a small Footpod attached to your shoe, but others make use of an internal accelerometer. There's also more advanced options, such as RunScribe which make Footpods that measure a wide range of biomechanical data in addition to pace and Cadence, including Braking G's, Impact G's, Ground Contact Time, Foot Strike, and more. The accuracy of these approaches is covered in my Comparison of Cadence Monitors.
3 Changing Cadence
There are several ways of changing your cadence.
- To increase your cadence, focus on smaller steps rather than running faster. Initially this will feel strange, but it will become natural with time.
- The easiest way to get the right cadence is to run with a metronome, which sets the pace for you. An example of a small metronome would be the Seiko DM50 Metronome. I trained for several months with a similar device, and it helped me immensely. I found it rather loud, so I wrapped it in duct tape to quieten it down.
- A metronome app for a smartphone works and is cheaper, but verify that the app is accurate as there are reports of some that do not keep time correctly.
- Some running watches will display your cadence. The most common source for cadence is a Footpod, but some Garmin watches can get cadence from the Heart Rate Monitor strap. The watches that provide cadence from an internal accelerometer tend to be less accurate than the other options, but it works if you make some allowances. The best watches will alert you if your cadence is out of the range you specify. See Best Running Watch for details on which watches have the functionality you want.
- You can remix music so that it is a higher tempo.
- If you run with a Smartphone, Spotify can detect your cadence and provide music with the right tempo. You can then adjust the tempo to match what you want your Cadence to be. I found the cadence detection to be pretty good and it's nice to have a wide selection of music that's the right tempo. Most of the time Spotify didn't seem to give me upbeat music, and I have better results with remixing music. Of course, the remix process is tedious and time consuming, so Spotify is much better than listening to music with the wrong beat. (This works on the free version of Spotify as well as the premium service, but only on the mobile app.)
- Having the correct Arm Position is important for maintaining your cadence. If your arms are too low it will be quite difficult to keep your cadence high.
- Lighter shoes tend to raise running cadence, probably due to the extra effort required to move a heavy shoe backwards and forwards.
4 The Adaptation Process
To start off, the change in cadence will feel very strange. I remember adjusting my cadence, and felt like my shoes were tied together! My steps were so short and fast that things felt all wrong. It took several weeks to adjust, but when the adjustment did take place, my running improved dramatically. I credit cadence as a key part of my success in going from a 4+ hour marathon to sub-3 hour and is one of my Running Breakthroughs.
5 The Science of Running Cadence
Jack Daniels (the coach not the distiller) found that the slower the cadence, the longer you are in the air and the harder you land. Slow turn over means more impact, which causes more injury. If you take this to the extreme ("Reductio ad Absurdum"), imagine running with just one step per minute. You would have to leap high in the so that you would be in the air for 30 seconds; the landing force would probably break your legs.
- Scientific studies have backed this up, showing that an increased cadence reduces the impact forces of running
- The peak impact force at a cadence of 88 being just over half that that of a cadence of 64.
- A higher cadence also reduces peak leg deceleration as well as peak impact forces in the ankle and knee joints.
- Higher cadence is also related to a reduction in Overstriding.
- A cadence of around 90 is also associated with greater Running Economy than lower or higher cadences, though another study found 85 was optimal. One problem with these studies is that they allow little or no time for the runner to adapt to the tested cadence, and I think this makes it probable that the detected Running Economy is not representative.
- Not surprisingly, a higher cadence reduces Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and the associated weakness.
- One study showed that as people become tired, their cadence goes up, and with the higher cadence goes lower impact forces. Although a shorter stride/faster cadence results in less landing force, a longer stride length/lower cadence is associated with less of the impact force reaching the head.
- The impact forces at a longer stride length are mostly absorbed by the knee.
- Adding extra weight to the ankles of recreational runners did not change their Cadence or stride length at various speeds. The study showed that Cadence remained nearly constant while stride length increased with speed, with or without weights of up to 1.1 kg/2.4 pounds.
- A review of the scientific studies showed consistently that an increased Cadence reduces shock at the hip, knee, and ankle, vertical oscillation, and ground contact time.
- Barefoot running tends to have a higher cadence than shod.
- Leg Spring Stiffness increases with higher cadence.
- There is relatively little evidence concerning the height or leg length of athletes and their cadence.
- A study of 37 male senior elite triathletes indicated that height did not change Cadence, but taller athletes were faster and had longer stride lengths .
- "Do All Elites Run at a 180 Cadence: None of the 5K Finalists at the US Olympic Trials Did" http://www.treadlightlybook.com/2012/07/do-all-elites-run-at-180-cadence-none.html
- Jack Daniels Running Formula (second edition) Page 93-94, "Stride Rate"
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