What is cadence? Why is it important? Cadence isn’t something new runners think about often. In fact, I didn’t even hear about cadence in high school or while running in college! How could all my coaches ignore the importance of cadence? Yet, with all these new fancy watches, cadence is one of the metrics we have at our disposal. How do I use cadence to become a better runner?
Cadence refers to how many steps you take every minute. A while back there was this magical number of 180 steps a minute as the ideal cadence. However, the man who came up with this number was observing middle distance runners in the Olympics! Most of us are not professional, elite, middle distance runners and so our cadence may not be anywhere near 180. Don’t be discouraged!
Cadence can be affected by lots of factors. For one, I am a short person (5’5″) and because of my leg size my stride length is shorter than most guy runners I compete against. I have an unusually high cadence of 188-190 steps a minute. I am use to running this cadence both when I am running slow and when I am running fast. The only difference is when I run fast my stride length is a little bit longer as I exert more energy and power into the run. My cadence is only slightly higher when I am really pushing the pace. I have a friend who is 6’4″ and his cadence is much slower but his stride is longer. He literally needs less steps per minute than I do to cover the same amount of distance.
I do believe most runners should try to improve their cadence but I would recommend a small gain. Try improving 5%. So, if you are running 160 steps a minute and you work your way to around 168 steps a minute that is a good improvement. Dedicate specific runs where you aren’t worrying about pace or distance but just getting accustomed to the new cadence. It takes everyone a different amount of time to adjust their cadence so be patient. Some runners have been over striding for awhile. You ideally want to land with your foot right underneath you and not way out front. Shortening your stride just a little will help you increase your cadence. Cadence workouts will help you habitually lock things in as you develop a new rhythm and comfort level with how fast your feet are landing and then propelling into the next step.
Another factor that affects cadence is this thought that bigger strides are better. Many runners think they will be faster runners with longer strides because longer strides means covering more ground. Sometimes increasing stride length is important but not at the expense of over striding and having your feet land out in front of our body. This can lead to injuries because as you extend your leg straight out in front of you those impact forces travel up a leg that is extended at a bad angle! For many runners you can shorten your stride a little bit and therefore improve your cadence.
One benefit of a faster cadence is injury prevention. As runners there is a tremendous amount of impact forces from landing. These impact forces can wreak havoc on our muscles, bones, and tendons. Some runners end up with stress fractures, achilles injuries, and muscular injuries. An increased cadence combined with good landing habits (learn how to run light and land soft) and proper shoes have kept me injury free for not just years but decades. I have never had bone, tendon, and major muscular injuries.
If you watch great runners they just glide. They are graceful! It looks effortless. They have solid mechanics but they also have their cadence dialed in. The ideal cadence is different for everyone. Most people should be at least around 160 to 180. Again, I am closer to 190 steps a minute but I am also very short and a good runner for my age. I have had a long history of running to improve and dial in my cadence. Have fun and go out there and experiment with your cadence. It might help you race faster and keep those injuries at bay!