What is your ideal running cadence?

Any fool can know. The point is to understand.
- Albert Einstein

Cadence is one of those topics in the running and triathlon community that pops up again and again. Much like Donald Trump as President, to some people it's a bit of an anomoly. It's not because we don't have ideas about cadence, but how many people really take the time to understand it and think for themselves? I think that a lot of coaches and athletes place so much emphasis on cadence without thinking about what they are trying to achieve and the possible impact that it may have for different runners. In my mind, running cadence is definitely NOT one size fits all.

Running cadence is definitely NOT one size fits all.

What is your ideal running cadence?

Is there such a thing? Here's my take on it.

Speed = Stride Length x Stride Rate (cadence)

Manipulation of either of these two variables results in change to your speed, For the purposes of this article I may also refer to cadence and spm (strides per minute)

Why change your running cadence?

This is the big question and one that I think must be addressed before anything is implemented. We constantly hear about the 'magic' 180spm (strides per minute) or that you need to run with higher cadence, but this may not always be the way to go depending on your running characteristics. A lot of people believe that drastic changes to cadence will automatically make them a more efficient runner. In essence it will change a series of specific movements and forces in the body, but is this always a positive thing?  Although there are a vast array of contrasting studies in the area, I think the ones that align closest with my experience as an athlete and coach are the ones that give latitude for application across a range of athletes, not the ones that state explicit advice.

Why 180spm?

Jack Daniels wrote a book (Daniels' Running Formula) which addressed a range of topics including conclusions about running cadence and efficient running. His observations of elite endurance track runners at the 84' Olympics made very accurate findings about the relationship of high cadences in elite athletes compared to the general running population. While these conclusions may have some merit, they are anecdotal and not necessarily transferable to every type of runner is all situations.

Daniels is a renowned coach with a lot of experience and his book, which I have and value highly for its information on training methods, is far more than a lesson on cadence.  The basic conclusions drawn of elite runners he observed in the Olympics is that they all ran at cadences of 180spm and higher. What isn't necessarily conveyed well to the general running population is that all of these runners were running at exceptionally fast paces. These were also very highly trained athletes with a long and illustrious track running background, good mobility and ranges of motion and stride length. I agree that slower cadences can put certain runners at a higher risk of injury by spending longer time in the air, potentially higher impact at landing, but there are also other variables to consider for each individual athlete. I also don't agree and rarely see evidence to suggest that elite runners maintain a similar cadence all the time and simply adjust their stride length to bring about changes in speed.

So, should I change my cadence?

In my mind changes in cadence should be an end result. After a 10 year career as a teacher and then moving into coaching, I have passion is for learning. This is hopefully demonstrated in the way I try to work with athletes. I understand that cadence is an easy way to track data and getting an athlete to hit a specific cadence is an easy way to monitor changes on your run and potentially bring about other adaptations to the way the body moves. If an athlete I work with is experiencing a change in their running cadence, it's because we have most likely been working to address the root cause of something else in their running. I never aim to make changes to my athletes cadence numbers, I never prescribe cadence values alone. I believe that to learn to be a more efficient runner, manipulating changes by hitting cadence targets is not a process of learning - It's like getting to the conclusion without doing the work.

For example, an athlete may be experiencing injury problems or an aspect of their running style looks inefficient (posture, hips collapsing). We will aim to make changes to these core aspects of their running which is the problem, maybe shifting the body's position, manipulating our centre of gravity or improving awareness of gluteal activation. A knowledge, understanding and feel for these changes will have a stronger impact on the athlete long term. If they bring about a change in cadence (which it may likely do) then that's fine too.

In the study linked below it describes how the impact of stride length was tested for a group of experienced and less experienced athletes. What the study essentially showed is that runners were more economical (in using lower levels of oxygen) when they self-selected their own stride length rather than a prescribed one. The point? Other studies have shown similar trends where runners create natural efficiencies at self prescribed stride length and stride rates. Often changes in cadence can require big changes in the way our bodies work, which are often less efficient for us as an outcome.

(Stride length of distance runners - http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/ijes/vol10/iss3/13/)

What overall impact does changing cadence have on your running?

So you read that you need to change your cadence to 180spm? Or some one prescribed to you to run closer to 180spm? So when are you supposed to do this? Should you run at 180spm for all yours runs, at all paces, on all terrains? What if I am 185cm and have run for 20 years and my friend is 165cm and is new to running, do we both run at 180spm or at least try to run at a higher cadence to be more efficient? What if I run marathons and my friend is a 5km runner? Is the advice still the same?

I think the message that gets lost in translation with running cadence is that it needs to be appropriate to the individual and the situation, otherwise the impact may not always be positive. As I've mentioned in previous posts I do not run with the same cadence rate when I run a 3.00/km as I do when I run a 4.45/km. What I try to do is manipulate my stride rate and stride length as I speed up to generate the additional pace I need, this way I can maintain a stable posture and run technique. I think this is a better approach and can be applied to all runners.

When Mo Farah drops a 53 last lap in his 5km his cadence will be above 200spm, he will not be running 200spm on a warm up jog at 4.30/km. If you don't have the ability to alter your stride length and stride rate together you will struggle to make changes to your speed efficiently.

In the study, linked below, it aims to ascertain common gait characteristics in efficient elite Kenyan runners, it showed (as do other studies) that elite athletes display very similar characteristics in their efficient running technique. This includes low vertical oscillation, short ground contact time, lower oxygen uptake, stable forces produced, increases in cadence as they speed up. What it also shows is that elite athletes of similar speeds produced varied cadence rates. While the elite athletes stride characteristics were similar some ran at 170spm while others are at 182spm. To me this says that the cadence number isn't the most important factor, but the characteristics of an efficient running stride are.

(Gait characteristics of elite Kenyan runners - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27157507)

The cadence number isn’t the most important factor, but the characteristics of an efficient running stride are.

Overall message

Athletes, coaches, writers and physios all have a role to play in the responsible delivery of information about running cadence, but ultimately the decision and implementation is yours. My advice is be aware of cadence, but be more aware of your body movement. Use cadence as a guide, but not as the only way to evoke changes to your run! Be aware that the increase of cadence and shortening of your stride can also have an affect on other movements of your body, and be prepared for this if you make the choice to change. If you do change, make it gradual.

I'd love to hear you thoughts on running cadence, so drop me a question or comment below to let me know what you think and what has worked for you.

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