For a long time there has been a lot of confusion around cadence when running. For a lot of us we will have heard the magic 180 number tossed around with this being the target we should all hit.
Where did this number even come from? Well the magic 180 cadence was an observation made by Jack Daniels back in 1984 of the relatively uniform cadences of the top finishers in a Marathon race. It was only an observation and was also only of elite runners at the end of a marathon race. It was never intended to become a gold standard.
So, although we now know there is no magic number this misconception been perpetuated in running circles and has certainly opened up a lot of conversation about the significance of cadence and how it can be used to improve your running.
So for our newer runners cadence is the number of times your feet strike the ground in a minute.
Cadence and stride length are the two main variables in speed. If you want to go faster you can increase your stride length or you can increase your cadence or both.
Unfortunately, this is where a lot of the confusion sets in as cadence is often used as a tool to avoid injury. One of the common commentaries being “well if you increase your cadence you will reduce your injury rate” This is not strictly true as there are many things that influence cadence.
For those of you that have been advised to increase your cadence to avoid injury or improve your running performance then you are left with two options either increase your speed and run faster or take smaller steps. If you are anything like me the prospect of having to run faster to maintain a higher cadence sounds too hard and will mean I am at a maximum effort when I may not want to train that hard. Ironically in this example changing cadence to avoid injury may cause it, if you change stride length and train at too high an effort.
This is hopefully where the clarity comes in around cadence. I once heard a very smart person say cadence should be used as a barometer not an absolute. Meaning it should be used as a guide to measure where YOU are at regarding your speed, strength, mobility and co-ordination.
As you improve each of these things you will be able to maintain a higher cadence with less effort and this is a great gauge of running ability.
So, to begin the journey to discover the optimal cadence and stride length for YOU it is a good idea to go for a long slow run on a reasonably flat level course to get a base line cadence. This can be measured in many ways. A lot of smart phones and watches will do this automatically for you (be aware this may not always be accurate), you can use a footpod or you can do it the old fashioned way by counting how many times your feet hit the ground in 30 secs and multiplying by two.
Once you have your base line you can then begin to think about changing cadence. I cannot stress enough that this is an individual number and comparing yourself to the next person is not helpful at all as cadence is also affected by height and strength.
However, we do know that if you are having difficulty with injuries, in particular shin, knee and heel pain then increasing cadence can be helpful. One of the main reasons for this is that most of these problems may be caused by over striding and as we have already established if you are going to increase your cadence but still run at the same speed you must reduce your stride length which in turn will most likely reduce your over stride (not always though 🙂 !)
If you do not have any injuries, then the most obvious reason for wanting to increase cadence is to increase running efficiency and performance. If this is the result you are looking for then increase your cadence slowly over a period of weeks.
By taking this process slowly you should be increasing your strength as you increase cadence therefore allowing you to run at a higher cadence at faster speeds with less effort then before.
So the trick here is if your baseline is 160 steps per minute (SPM) then aiming for 162 SPM is a reasonable aim. And, in the beginning, you would not focus on this for all your runs. I would start with a shorter run at your long slow distance pace with the aim to maintain a steady cadence for the whole run.
If cadence is dropping off at the end of your run, then you are simply not strong enough or flexible enough to run at this cadence and need to do continue to strengthen your legs. While you work on improving strength and flexibility you can also continue to work at maintaining your target cadence over longer distances and more training sessions.
Golden rule, as with all changes in running, do not try and increase your target cadence until you can hit the first target (162 SPM in this example) comfortably without over stressing any of the other parameters such as heart rate.
Hopefully this has clarified some of the confusion around this topic. We look forward to hearing how you go with this and if it makes a difference for you.