Proper running technique is a key factor for you to run without injury and become a more efficient runner. However one of the most common errors I see runners make with their running form is running with a slow cadence. This often forces them to over-stride and put more stress on joints such as their knees and hips.
To increase your running cadence, focus on running with shorter, quicker steps. It will feel strange at first, but your body will adapt quickly. Research suggests increasing your running cadence by no more than 5-10% at a time.
These shorter quicker strides will have you landing your foot closer to beneath your hips and therefore your centre of mass. This helps to reduce impact and braking forces your body has to deal with every stride.
While this is a widespread problem, it’s also easily addressed. Later in this article, I’ll explain how I go about coaching runners to increase their cadence.
What is Running Cadence?
Running cadence (also known as step rate, or stride frequency) is the number of strides you make per minute. Usually, this is expressed in steps per minute (spm).
For many, this in itself may not be ground-breaking news… However, runners often ask me to put a figure on what rate of running cadence they should specifically be looking to achieve to stop themselves from over-striding.
A sometimes misleading goal cadence often cited is 180 strides per minute (spm) as described by Coach Jack Daniels. He noted that elite runners tend to run with a cadence in the range of 180-200spm. Subsequently, 180spm has become somewhat of a “magic number” for runners to try to work their cadence up towards.
However, this advice doesn’t take into account two specific factors:
- The wide variation between individual athletes. Specifically with regard to the initial rate of their running cadence before any changes are made.
- Cadence across differing running speeds. We’re not all elite runners! Optimal cadence rates vary between individuals and even within an individual athlete for differing running paces.
Running Cadence Research
Research published in 2011 by Heiderscheit et al. indicates that running at a 5-10% higher rate of cadence (than your norm for a given pace) results in a reduction of impact and therefore loading on the knee and hip joints, a decrease the amount of vertical displacement of the centre of mass (bounce), a shortening in stride length, and created less braking force at contact with the ground.
All of these reported responses to an increase in cadence are positive and desirable in terms of creating a more efficient running form. Coincidentally, if you take a runner who currently runs at 164spm (which is very common) and increase his cadence by 10%, his cadence will fall within Daniels’ 180-200spm range.
The important point is how you achieve the increase, and how far do you push your cadence upwards. Just as with anything running related, you don’t want to make too big a change too quickly.
How to Measure Your Running Cadence
Back when I started coaching, wearable cadence sensors weren’t as readily available as they are now. These days many running watches have the function in-built, which makes life very easy!
If you want to measure your running cadence manually, it’s as simple as counting strides for 30 seconds and multiplying by two. Be sure to maintain a consistent pace while you’re counting, as your cadence will shift as you increase and decrease pace, along with your stride length.
How to Increase Your Running Cadence
I usually recommend that if you feel you are over-striding, you first measure your current running cadence, to get a baseline figure, then train your body to increase this rate by 5% initially.
For example: if you find you’re currently running your long run pace at 156spm, you would initially target 164spm as your new running cadence for that easy pace. This will feel much more achievable and sustainable than jumping straight to 180spm.
Would such a small increase make a difference? Well, the research cited above tells us that a 5% increase in running cadence results in reduced stress on the knee (10% reduces stress on knee and hip).
Anecdotally, I’ve seen the same in terms of runner’s knee symptoms being reduced at a 5% increase in running cadence.
Once comfortable with the new cadence, you can then increase your running cadence incrementally, from 5% increase to 7.5% then perhaps 10%, or until you’re no longer over-striding.
Try Using a Digital Metronome to Increase Your Running Cadence
One great way to train your body to increase your cadence is to practice running using a small digital metronome, set to a specific rhythm (desired cadence). Try for short bursts initially to match your running cadence to the beeping without speeding up your running pace.
Initially, this will feel strange, even a little forced, but you will get used to the increased rhythm.
The goal shouldn’t just be to continue to increase your cadence rate, but more so to elevate it to a comfortable but more active rate (for a desired pace). You can then use a metronome to work on sustaining this rate of cadence as you fatigue. The tendency will be for cadence to naturally drop as you fatigue.
Unnaturally forcing an uncomfortably high cadence too soon can result in it’s own technique issues; if you start making strides that are too short and quick, you’ll be pushed forwards onto your forefoot. This kind of forefoot running which will place much more strain on your calf muscles and achilles. This is the main reason for suggesting that you don’t jump straight to 180spm, rather you increase by 5%, then ~5% again once comfortable, and so on…!
I’d rather see distance runners like you and I run with high enough of a running cadence for a given pace to be able to avoid over-striding, and strike the ground with a gentle midfoot strike.
Test Your Running Cadence at Different Paces
It’s quite normal for your running cadence to increase as you run faster, along with your stride length. In fact, these are the two main variables you use to increase and decrease pace! Often runners will show more of a tendency to over-stride at a specific pace or intensity of running. Many runners start to over-stride at a slow and steady pace, as their gait gets a little “lazy”. Some other runners, however, those who struggle for top-end leg speed, will over-stride when they’re trying to perform faster reps on the track.
With that in mind, try measuring your cadence across different running paces, and see how it varies. Here’s an article on running cadence range, and how you can train to improve your cadence across all paces of running.