Maintain Running Cadence Under Fatigue on Race Day

Jul 31, 2014   //   by James Dunne   //   Biomechanics & Running Technique  //  8 Comments  //  Affiliate Disclosure  

There are so many sources out there providing the standard technique advice of increasing running cadence (stride frequency) to help stop athletes from over striding, and amongst other things helping to increase in limb stiffness.

Many of these sources suggest 180 strides per minute as being a good rule of thumb for ‘optimal cadence’…

However, in reality optimal running cadence will vary from person to person, and improtantly from pace to pace within one individual athlete. As with anything else running form related, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

More thoughts on running cadence as a variable factor here:

The 5-10% Cadence Rule

Many of the runners I see experimenting with cadence indeed do so in an effort to stop over striding… and rightly so!

Commonly one of the biggest sources of frustration they cite however, is that the increased cadence they’ve been working to achieve is perhaps too far increased from their habitual cadence for a given pace, and thus unsustainable / uncomfortable.

Maintain Running Cadence Under Fatigue on Race Day

Example:

A typical example would be a runner with a marathon race pace of 5:00 min/km, who runs at this pace with a habitual cadence of 160 strides per minute (spm). Suddenly asking the athlete to run at 180spm is a significant increase! Sure, stride length will decrease if they keep the same pace and increase cadence. It has to! But how long will the athlete be able to maintain running with this quicker rate of turn-over before cadence slows with fatigue as longer runs progress in duration?

Given how we know that a cadence increase of just 5-10% for a given pace results in positive changes in loading at the knee and hip (more here), a more achievable and importantly sustainable 5-10% increase of cadence to 168-176spm will be enough for the athlete in our example to improve running form for the better.

More importantly this 5-10% change in cadence will be far easier for the athlete to maintain later into longer runs, and the marathon itself.

In distance runners, ironman triathletes, ultra runners etc… I consistently see great results in getting athletes comfortable with a cadence increased to the point where it achieves the desired outcome (increased limb stiffness, reduced over stride, shorter contact time) yet is also sustainable, using the 5-10% rule. We then use digital metronomes to develop the athlete’s ability to maintain this increased cadence into fatigue during longer runs in training.

Cadence & Training Specificity

Regardless of event or distance, we should always be trying to deliver a certain element of race specificity into our training. For endurance athletes this means preparing the body in training for the rigours of competition over long distances, training it to endure local muscle and systemic fatigue.

As anybody who has run a marathon will tell you, running form changes with fatigue! One of the first elements to slip is usually cadence – the legs slow down! At this point your body has two choices, run slower or begin to over stride as you fight to maintain the same pace with a slower cadence…

This characteristic of cadence slowing under fatigue is something we can successfully improve with some simple strategies in training. Simply put, the goal is to teach the body to maintain cadence (think ‘leg speed’) as fatigue hits.

The graph below (via @RussMCox) provides a great visual of how on like-for-like training runs, the only change being the use of a digital metronome to maintain cadence, consistency can be developed and the body trained to maintain a given cadence for longer.

Running Cadence

From Russ’ Accompanying Blog Post:

I ran the same thirty minute route on Tuesday and Thursday this week, the first unaccompanied and the second with metronome. As the graph shows they both occupy a narrow cadence range, but the difference is consistency – with the metronome everything is a little more crisp and controlled; the beat guides me. To further this anecdotal evidence I will note that while I was fresher on Tuesday it was then my cadence fell towards the end of the run. Fatigue would predict Thursday to be the day I struggled, but the bleeps kept me honest….

Read in full

Try For Yourself

You can easily try this at home. On your next long run, try taking a digital metronome with you set to the desired cadence. Once you feel your legs getting tired, turn it on and try to match your cadence to the beat, while running at the desired long run pace.

Learning to maintain cadence under fatigue is a great way to teach your body to maintain good form under duress.

For those who run with music, try putting together a playlist of songs at a given BPM, for when the legs tire. Here’s a free resource that will help with some inspiration when playing DJ!

About The Author

James has an academic background in Sport Rehabilitation and a special interest in Applied Biomechanics. He currently coaches a large number of Runners and Triathletes across all levels of ability and performance. He's grown a strong reputation for enabling athletes to improve their running performance and overcome running injuries through improving their Running Technique and developing Running Specific Strength.

 

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8 Comments

  • Great article but one thing that I noticed specially on my long runs is that my cadence usually increases as I get tired instead of the opposite. Any clues why? Of course since it’s a long run in not giving it all during the run. Anyway it would be nice to read your opinion on this.

  • My running improved a lot with the running technique course. I can now run faster, on more days a week, without having had an injury for several months now. According to my forerunner 620, all bar one of my running metrics are somewhere between good and excellent. The exception is cadence. This is in the poor to fair zone the whole time, except when running down a hill, when it improves a little. I have tried using a metronome but I find it very hard to keep up with the speed of leg turnover, and as soon as I put it aside, I go back to bad old ways. There’s just so much to think about when out running, such as staying in the right pace zone and other aspects of technique, even when the heel lift becomes second nature, like leaning forward from the ankles, keeping the hips up high. I think I will need to improve my fitness quite a bit before I can get my cadence up.

    • Hi John,

      Unlike many of the commenters on our blog, I’ve had the benefit of seeing you run in-person.

      Picturing your old running style in my mind’s eye, I can certainly understand cadence being an ongoing challenge. I seem to remember it being pretty low, and being accompanied by an over striding gait pattern.

      The big thing to keep in mind is that you should only be looking to increase your cadence by a comfortable amount from your baseline cadence *for a given pace*. If you were at 160bpm for 9min/mile, I’d be more than happy to see you increase to 168-172bpm for the same pace.

      Of course, the question also is what does Garmin class as “good” – given that cadence is so subject specific… :)

      Bottom line is: does it feel better? If so – crack on what what you’re doing!

      Sounds like you’re doing really well.

      Cheers,

      James

  • Thanks, James. I have to say it does feel really good at present, and so many of the niggles etc I used to get seem to be a thing of the past. I suspect that the low cadence has something to do with all the hills round here, and doing a lot of running on grass, so I am often running up hills on grass, which puts the cadence down. That said, my ground contact time is usually pretty good. Garmin class a cadence below 150 as poor and I’m afraid I do seem to go into that zone sometimes, but often my maximum is up into the 170s or even higher. The challenge will be to make that the norm! Many thanks again for the running technique course. It really was incredibly helpful. Best wishes. John

  • Focusing on keeping my cadence from falling is generally something I focus on during races or longer runs when fatigue sets in, as I’ve noticed it’s often the first thing to go. That, and posture!

  • Any tips for deaf people like myself to maintain my cadence?

    • Hi Jonty,

      Interesting question. I’d suggest perhaps investing in a Garmin foot pod (or similar) which will enable you to monitor cadence as you run. With such a device, if you see your cadence dropping you can then focus on the feeling of shorter quicker strides to restore your cadence.

      I hope this helps.

      Cheers,

      James

  • Firstly, interesting post, my metronome has just arrived and i cant wait to go out and experiment.

    Secondly, is increasing cadence (shortening stride) just avoiding structural imbalances/weaknesses which cause the injuries in the first place and is overstriding that bad or is it only bad in individuals who lack the strentgh to cope with it? I appreciate this isnt a simple answer but would be good to have a summary.

    Look forward to meeting you in Norwich on Sunday for the run technique session.

    Martin

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