Cadence has been “a thing” in the running community for a few years now. Among all things tech-lovers, data junkies, or sports science nerds like myself can track, this is one that can be easily monitored on a Garmin or other GPS device. (And for all of my fellow sports science people, this 2016 study showed that using a commercially available watch like a Garmin is a reliable, valid way to track cadence, among other factors.1,2 Who hoo! Makes me feel better about the $250 I dropped on mine).
So what the heck is cadence?
We’ve known for years that many running injuries are related to the forces going through the body as it impacts the ground with each step.
Cadence is the number of steps a person takes per minute. The reason we’ve started paying attention to it is because a few years ago, research showed that it correlates with how much impact goes through your lower body while running.
Higher cadence means more steps per minute, which means less loading or impact while running.
Kind of cool, eh?
Increasing your cadence can also help with over-striding. While opening up your stride is a great thing for sprinting, it’s not efficient for distance running (also why Ussain Bolt doesn’t run marathons). Most people who over-stride land with their knee locked, slamming their heel into the ground at the point of impact. It’s almost a braking motion, causing a choppy stride. This puts a lot of excess stress on the joints; and compounded over time can lead to injury (think how many times your leg hits the ground on a 5, 10, 15 mile run).
Do I need to change my cadence? I’m not injured.
A recent study on healthy runners who ran with increased cadence by 7.5% for 8 weeks showed a decrease in their loading rate (force of impact) by 18-20%.3 These runners maintained their new running form for a month afterwards. But…if you don’t have an injury, there’s no need to increase your cadence. Unless you’re over-striding.
Questions about your running form? Schedule a session to analyze your gait and take a comprehensive look at your training, nutrition, and goals.
If you DO have an injury, changing your cadence may help. Studies have shown this helps with issues such as stress fractures and lower leg injuries (shin splints).3,4 Increased cadence has also shown an increase in glute muscle activation5 – better use of these muscles while running can help with biomechanics linked to other injuries like IT band syndrome.6,7
How do I increase my cadence?
The first thing to do is to find YOUR cadence. Count how many times your right foot hits the ground in 30 seconds. Multiply that times 4 to get the total number of foot strikes per minute.
But Runner’s World says I should run at a cadence of 160-180. And more is better, so I’ll shoot for 180!
The media ran with those numbers (see what I did there?) because of studies that were published on cadence a few years ago. In them, participants averaged a cadence from 165-185. But I’ve heard the authors of these studies present their research, and they’re always quick to note their results are based on increasing each runner’s INDIVIDUAL cadence by 5-10%.3,8 The mean of their subjects were at 165-185 but there was a wide variability of ALL the participants in the study.
So run for you, not what a magazine is saying. If you’re at at 140, try 147 (5%). Once you get comfortable with that, try 7.5%. If you’re still over-striding or having pain with running, try 10%. And see a PT.
To all the overachievers out there – you DON’T need to increase cadence past 10%. More than that will put a large hurt on your running economy (basically how much oxygen/energy you need to hold a pace). So you’d be running less efficiently.
The trick is to find a sweet spot for your form- enough that you aren’t “braking” with each stride, but not so quick that you’re struggling to turnover your feet.
Put your phone to good use
Metronome apps can help you put your new, improved cadence into action. I’ve had good results with Run Tempo and Pro Metronome, but there’s other versions that can even sync up your music to your pace (because who wants to hear generic thumping for 5 miles?).
If you’re changing your cadence, be patient. It will seem horribly awkward at first to run with a quicker turnover. Use intervals at first- if you do listen to music, start with 1 song “on” and 2 songs “off.” Then try 2 on/1 off, and work towards a whole run.
Other ways to change your form or reduce injury risk:
Recent research has looked at reducing vertical oscillation, or how much “bounce” a runner has.9 Decreasing this not only reduces ground reaction forces, but it also has an effect on lowering your cadence. So instead of all the counting, try just thinking about keeping your body as low to the ground as possible. Focus on running “softer” and not bouncing. This is also trackable on some wearable devices. *Note- when we talk about keeping your body low to the ground, we aren’t talking about slumping or slouching. Keep your shoulders upright and your hips with a slight forward lean.
You can also try to increase your stride width (versus your stride length). Research has found that stress and load through the shins are influenced by step width. Basically, when your stride narrower, the lower leg has more stress going through it.10
Don’t try all of those methods at the same time though – it’s hard to maintain all those changes over the miles, and you won’t know which factor is actually helping. If you have a question, schedule a gait analysis to pinpoint exactly what will help YOUR running.
Lastly, remember to manage your training load or workout intensity. Your cadence or form won’t matter if you’re constantly overworking your joints and tendons. If you have race goals, ramp up your mileage appropriately – theres a fine line between too much and too little. And it has nothing to do with your cadence.
- Cadence is linked to how much stress or impact goes through the body while running. If you have an injury or have had a running injury in the past, increasing your cadence may be an option for your training.
- Find YOUR cadence. Not everyone should be running at 165-185
- There are other options to reducing your impact or risk of injury, such as increasing your stride width, changing your training load, and reducing your vertical oscillation (bounce).
- Innovations and pitfalls in the use of wearable devices in the prevention and rehabilitation of running related injuries. Willy RW. Phys Ther Sport. 2018 Jan; 29():26-33.
- Validity and Reliability of a Commercial Fitness Watch for Measuring Running Dynamics. Adams D, Pozzi F, Carroll A, Rombach A, Zeni J Jr. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2016 Jun; 46(6):471-6.
- Willy RW, Buchenic L, Rogacki K, et al. In-field gait retraining and mobile monitoring to address running biomechanics associated with tibial stress fracture. Willy RW, Buchenic L, Rogacki K, Ackerman J, Schmidt A, Willson JD. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2016 Feb; 26(2):197-205.
- Lenhart RL, Thelen DG, Wille CM, Chumanov ES, Heiderscheit BC. Increasing running step rate reduces patellofemoral joint forces. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014 Mar;46(3):557-64. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182a78c3a.
- Lenhart R, Thelen D, Heiderscheit B. Hip muscle loads during running at various step rates. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2014 Oct;44(10):766-74, A1-4. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2014.5575. Epub 2014 Aug 25.
- Fredericson M, Cookingham CL, Chaudhari AM, Dowdell BC, Oestreicher N, Sahrmann SA. Hip abductor weakness in distance runners with iliotibial band syndrome. Clin J of Sport Med. 2000; 10(3):169–175. [PubMed: 10959926]
- van der Worp MP, van der Horst N, de Wijer A, Backx FJ, Nijhuis-van der Sanden MW. Iliotibial band syndrome in runners: a systematic review. Sports Med. 2012; 42(11):969–992. http:// dx.doi.org/10.2165/11635400-000000000-00000. [PubMed: 22994651]
- Heiderscheit BC1, Chumanov ES, Michalski MP, Wille CM, Ryan MB. Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Feb;43(2):296-302. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ebedf4.
- Adams D, Pozzi F, Willy RW, Carrol A, Zeni J. Altering cadence or vertical oscillation during running: effects on running related injury factors. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2018 Aug;13(4):633-642.
- Meardon SA, Derrick TR. Effect of step width manipulation on tibial stress during running. J Biomech 2014;47(11): 2738-2744. Innovations and pitfalls in the use of wearable devices in the prevention and rehabilitation of running related injuries.Willy RW. Phys Ther Sport. 2018 Jan; 29():26-33.