Cadence: Is 180 the ultimate goal?
A few years ago, it was stated that pro runners have a cadence (steps per minute) of 180 and so all runners should run at a cadence of 180. Additionally, it was stated that a low cadence caused injuries (due to over-striding) so another reason to run with a higher cadence was to reduce injuries. And lastly, many running watches began to display cadence so runners became more aware of their cadence. This all led to a new focus on cadence with 180 being the target number.
If you know my thoughts on most things running, you’ll not be surprised to read that I’m not sold that every runner has to run at 180 steps per minute. (I actually find 170-190 to be the sweet spot for most runners.)
But, I do think that runners with a lower cadence (under 170 steps per minute) would be well served to experiment with a faster cadence more frequently in their training. Higher cadence running (for runners with low and even “normal” cadences) pays big dividends in many aspects of performance running (running economy, finishing kick, etc.), which is why you’ll see leg speed, strides, fartlek and speed workouts sprinkled throughout all of my training plans.
What is Cadence
As mentioned, cadence is the number of steps you take in a set amount of time (usually steps per minute). Running speed is the product of your cadence (often called stride frequency) and your stride length. Increase your stride frequency (cadence) and/or your stride length and you run faster.
But, it’s not as simple as it may seem. That’s because your body searches for efficiency when you run and the running form (including cadence) that you used when you first began running becomes engrained in your neuromuscular system over time. It’s becomes your signature stride. (Also see my article on Running Form).
I find that past training history is highly correlated with a runner’s cadence. For instance, many runners get into the sport through a marathon charity group. Common training for these groups focuses on preparing to complete the distance and there is often very little fast running involved. It’s more about running farther and farther. Speed work usually isn’t a high priority so these runners often have slower cadences.
Whereas runners who either ran in high school or college or played a sport like soccer, basketball, etc. that involves a lot of fast running, tend to have faster cadences than runners who didn’t do speed work when they started running.
This is not a hard and fast rule but in general people who frequently train(ed) fast have a higher cadence, even at slower speeds, than runners who train(ed) slow most of the time.
For the latter group and any runner with a cadence slower than 170, I suggest a focus on improving cadence. Luckily, it’s very easy to do (and a lot of fun).
A good way to start increasing your cadence is to download a metronome app on your phone. Set it for 5 steps per minute faster than your current cadence (which you can retrieve from most watches or you can count your steps – left and right foot falls – during 30 seconds of running and multiply by 2). For example, if your current cadence at your easy run pace is 160, then set the metronome for 165.
Find a flat, smooth area of around 100 meters (a track works great) and, after a warm-up of 10-20 minutes of easy running, do Strides. Strides are fast but controlled runs over very short distances where you work on excellent running form. They are not all-out sprints and you should not get out of breath doing them. But, they are faster than your easy run pace and for most runners typically equate to 5K (first few repeats) to mile race pace (last few repeats). But again, the exact pace is less important than perfect running form.
Really focus on fast feet and a very quick turnover that matches the beat of the metronome. Flick/pull your feet backwards. Don’t reach out in front to go faster. Kick/pull your feet and legs backwards to go faster. Imagine a ladder is on the ground and your feet must land in between the rungs of a ladder. So, instead of striding out to go faster, think of short, quick steps to increase your speed.
The recovery between each stride is 45-60 seconds of walking/jogging. You do not want to be out of breath before your next stride so it’s better to take more recovery rather than less.
Perform 8-10 strides at this faster cadence, cool down for 10-20 minutes and call it a day. See how your body feels the next day.
Then, perform this type of Stride workout 2-3 times per week for 6 weeks. (You can perform these during or after an easy run.). Gradually increase the metronome by 5-10 steps per minute. So for our example runner, she’d gradually move to 170 then to 175 and then to 180 (or higher).
Notice if this cadence work spills over to a faster cadence on your normal easy runs. Most watches collect cadence data so begin to review your cadence on all your different runs – easy runs, long runs (especially towards the end) and any faster workouts that you perform.
WARNING: Running with a faster cadence may feel weird. And, it may feel really “hard” at first. As mentioned, our bodies/minds get really comfortable and efficient at our “normal” cadence so any time you run differently, it is very energy costly. But, don’t let that deter you. Stick with it. Just focus on a fast turnover and quick feet. It will get easier in time.
In fact, I find that after just a few stride workouts, runners can jump 10-20 steps per minute faster than their old cadence so don’t be surprised if you quickly make great strides in your cadence training (pun intended).
In the end, more frequent faster running usually leads to a faster cadence so it’s a good idea that you never go too many weeks without at least some type of leg speed training.
If you want to have a good visual for your strides, here is Coach (and Olympian) Andrew Lemoncello doing strides.
Once your natural cadence falls within the 170-190 range, you’ll probably notice that for most of your running (easy runs, long runs, marathon pace runs, steady state runs, tempo runs and tempo intervals) your cadence will stay about the same, even though the pace may vary by 1-2 minutes per mile. But, as you do faster workouts like cruise intervals, speed work and sprint work, your cadence will increase by 10-20 steps per minute.
A slower cadence isn’t “bad” but it’s just not conducive to faster running and racing. The only way to go faster is to either increase cadence and/or increase stride length. Both require training to become efficient at them since you are efficient at whatever your current cadence and stride length is. But, increasing cadence is the easier of the two to work on and even a slight increase in cadence yields much faster training/racing. And usually, stride length increases as well with leg speed, speed workouts and hill training that you’ll find in the training plans. So, you can see why it’s important to have a variety of training types in your training plan.
If you have a slower cadence than you’d like, try a few stride workouts. I’ve seen even slight increases in cadence yield breakthrough performances. It just takes time and running faster more often.
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