How to Improve Your Running Cadence

Want to become a faster runner? Then increase your cadence.

In fact, if you’re serious about becoming a better and faster runner, improving your running cadence is exactly what you need.

This, as we’re going to see, will not only increase your speed, but also reduce your injury risk. And who doesn’t want that?

So what’s running cadence? Why does it matter? And how to improve it?

These are some of the questions I’ll try to answer in today’s post.

So, are you excited?

Then here we go

How to Improve Your Running Cadence

Also known as stride rate, or leg turnover, cadence is, in essence, the number of steps you take per minute (SPM). It’s one of the most common metrics used to assess running form and remains crucial for several reasons (some of which I’ll discuss in today’s post).

For a long time, both swimmers and cyclists have monitored their swim strokes and revolutions per minute (RPM). But it’s thanks to Jack Daniels (the coach, not the distiller) that runners today are aware of the importance of cadence.

In general, recreational runners may take between 160 to 170 steps per mine.

That said, elite athletes have cadences of 180 per minute or higher—with some reaching 200spm at their fastest speeds (think sprinters).

Factors that determine stride rate include height, weight, fitness level, leg and stride length, etc.

Cadence as a Sign of Good Form

One of the most common form mistakes I see in many runners across all levels is the propensity to overstride.

Runners who overstride tend to take fewer (and longer), steps per minute at any given pace than runners who do not overstride.

Overstriding is bad since it creates an excessive braking force upon foot strike. This may hinder your running ability by creating a bouncy, choppy gait and placing excessive pressure on the muscles and bones.

Here is the good news

One way to fix overstriding is to increase your running cadence.

By doing so, you’ll be taking smaller steps, with each foot landing underneath your hips, thus, near your center of gravity.

Increasing cadence can also result in more efficient running as you translate that energy into forward momentum.

Prevent Running Injury—The Research

A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise has provided evidence that subtle increases in cadence can reduce the energy absorbed by a runner’s weight-bearing joints.

In the experiment, subjects were instructed to run on a treadmill at various cadences.

Then, while using three-dimensional kinematics, the researchers looked at the impact forces going through the hips, knees, and ankle joints.

The conclusion?

When the participants adopted a running cadence around 15 percent faster than their preferred step frequency, the load on their weight-bearing joints significantly decreased.

This, as the researchers hypothesized, may help prevent common overuse running injuries.

How to Determine Your Cadence

First, find a smooth, flat surface to perform the test. I recommend a long stretch of road or track.

Next, count the number of foot strikes you take per minute with both feet.

To make it easier, pick either your right or left foot, then count the number it hits the ground in a minute. Next, multiply that by two to get the total number of steps.

So, let’s imagine yours was 77. Double that to get the total steps taken by both feet, which is 154.

That’s your cadence for that specific running speed.

As a general guideline, a cadence of less than 160 steps per minute is usually seen in runners who overstride.

Cadence Depends on Speed

For an accurate assessment of your cadence, record the latter over a series of workouts and note where your average is.

Also, there should be a little discrepancy in your leg turnover based on the type of run you’re doing.

In general, your racing/speed training cadence will be faster than your basic training level. Your leg turnover will also be different up or downhill sections.

For that reason, you’ll need to determine your cadence for all types of runs you’re doing.

What is the Best Running Cadence?

According to conventional thinking, the magic number when it comes to cadence is 180 steps per minute.

But here is the truth.

Contrary to popular belief in most running circles, there is no such a thing as an ideal, universal, running cadence.

That’s why proper cadence is one of the hotly debated topics among runners and triathletes.

The Origins Of The 180spm Myth

The 180spm didn’t come out of thin air. It was first observed at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Game by Jack Daniels.

During the 1984 Olympics, the world-renowned exercise scientist looked at the total stride rate of Olympic runners and found that almost all of them took roughly 180 steps per minute, regardless of their size or gender.

So, according to his statistical data, jack determined that the optimal cadence for runners is 180 steps per minute.

Unfortunately, most of Daniel’s work has been misquoted and taken out of context whenever his work is cited to back up claims that everyone should be running at 180 spm.

Here is the truth.

Jack Daniel’s conclusion is a not a universal rule.

It does not mean that every runner, especially recreation runners, MUST have a 180spm cadence.

Instead, this rule represents the statistical average of an efficient running cadence.

In fact, you may take slightly fewer or more steps per minute, and you won’t be breaking any “running commandments.”

As previously stated,  proper cadence depends on many factors, including your conditioning, biological makeup, weight, pace, training circumstances, etc.

These differences mean that works the best for one runner (or a bunch of elite Olympic runners for that matter) may not necessarily work for all.

How to Increase your Running Cadence

Now that you have a clear understanding of what cadence is as well as the many factors that affect it, you can work on improving it (if need be).

Here are a few guidelines that can help.

Take Time

Improving running cadence is not rocket science, but it does take time.

You cannot (nor should you try) to increase it overnight. And if you do so, you’ll likely get hurt.

In general, it can take up to six to eight weeks for your body to adapt to a faster cadence.

There are a few ways to introduce a faster cadence into your regular training.

Set Cadence Zones

As mentioned earlier, pace affects cadence.

Therefore, you’d need first to set your own cadence zones up by determining your leg turnover for various paces, including recovery runs, 5K training, tempo running, marathon, etc.

Here is how:

Hop on a treadmill, then after a 10-minute warm-up, increase your speed by 30-second per mile until you reach your easy training pace.

Next, give yourself two to three minutes to adjust to the speed, then count your steps for one full minute.

Record the number, then speed up to your next pace.

So on and so forth.

You can also do this on a track, but doing it in the controlled environment of a treadmill is more accurate—especially if you already know your average pace.

Nevertheless, if you’re a complete beginner, then just determine your basic running pace cadence and build it from there.

Increase By 5 to 10 Percent

I hate to sound like a broken record but, just like anything training related, it’s essential to take it slow.

According to research conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the safest and most efficient way to improve cadence is to increase it by 5 to 10 percent at a time.

So, for example, if your easy runs cadence is 156spm, your goal cadence should be between 163 and 169.

Add “Faster Cadence” Segments

To make a smooth transition into your goal cadence(s), start by adding short segments into your runs.

During these segments, try to keep your new cadence for a predetermined time/distance.

So, for example, one minute of slightly quicker cadence followed by three to five minutes of your base rhythm.

You can also do it by distance, running every third mile or so at a relatively faster leg turnover while maintaining the same effort level.

After a while, you’ll be able to do this without thinking about your cadence.

Your first session at this improved cadence might look as follows:

  • 10 minutes warm-up
  • One minute easy running at a cadence of 164
  • Five minute easy running at base cadence
  • One minute easy running at a cadence of 165
  • Five minute easy running at base cadence
  • One minute easy running at a cadence of 166
  • 5-minute cool-down.

Take Small Steps

One little form tweak I’d recommend is to focus on taking smaller steps, not on running faster.

Also, keep your feet close to the ground. Think shuffling motion. Your feet should barely leave the ground (but be careful on trails and rugged terrains)

This might feel awkward at first, but as training progresses, it will become natural with time.

Speed will come naturally after improving your cadence.

Use a Metronome

One old-school yet easy way to run within a goal cadence is to use a metronome.

The metronome is a device that produces a predetermined number of clicks or beat per minute that sets the pace for you, helping you keep a constant rhythm.

This device is great because with its help you’ll no longer have to count the number of steps you take per minute.

Instead, you run to the rhythm of the metronome where each click or beat equals a step.

An excellent example of functional and practical metronome would be XXX (get it here).

Of course, certain running watches (such as Garmin 735XT, etc.) have a metronome feature built in. You can also use an app, like Audiostep, Cadence Trainer, or BeatRun.

Use the 180 Beats Songs

Another smart tactic to help you accelerate the transition to a faster cadence is to download 10 to 12 songs around 180bmp (or near your goal cadence), so your strike can sync in with the music.

For that, you’ll either need an online recommendation or get a program that analyzes songs and provides the beats per minute.

Use a website, like JogTunes, to find songs with beats that match your desired running cadence. These websites have long lists of music playlists that meet a variety of cadences. Perfect for a music lover.

Another example is Spotify. But I’ve never tried it so I can’t really recommend it.

Practice Fast Cadence Drills

Having trouble increasing your cadence?

Then you might need some drill training to “drill” faster leg turnover.

Here is one exercise to try.

Start by standing tall while assuming an athletic stance with your feet shoulder width apart, core engaged, and back straight.

Next, while positioning your arms as if you were running, begin marching in place and swinging your arms.

Once you nail the form, speed it up to a jog, lifting your knees up and driving your arms across your body.

Then, run in place as fast you can.

As you pick up the pace, keep a good posture, and gaze forward rather than looking down at your feet.

Your knees should be pointing straight ahead and heels are touching the floor.

Do Workouts That Require Faster Leg Turnover

Runs like strides and downhill sprints train the muscles in your body to react and move quicker, helping improve stride rate naturally.

Just be careful when performing these workouts since they can increase injury risk if you run with bad form or if you’re out of shape.

Strides

Strides consist of fast acceleration of running at 80 to 90 percent of maximum effort. One stride should take you about 20 to 30 seconds.

Here is how to add them to your training routine.

At the end of your workout, run hard for 20 to 30 seconds—or the equivalent of 100 meters—while keeping the focus on fast leg turnover and strong arm drive.

Next, give yourself two minutes to fully recover, then repeat.

Start with four strides a couple of times per week, then after three to four weeks, increase that to six or eight.

Hill Reps

After a thorough warm-up on a flat surface, find a hill with a 4 to 6 percent gradient incline.

Next, sprint hard up the hill for 20 to 30 seconds. Keep a quick stride rate and upright posture throughout.

Then jog back do to recover.

Rinse and repeat for 15 to 20 minutes.

Here are five hill workouts to try.

The Conclusion

What I like about cadence is that it’s a straightforward concept.

It’s easy to measure and monitor (provided you have the right tools for the job and are willing to do the work).

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David Dack

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