January 23, 2023

Zipper Team

What is Running Cadence and How Can it Make Me a Better Runner?

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What is Running Cadence?

Running cadence refers to the number of steps a runner takes per minute (or "SPM"). Runners will often hear that there's a perfect cadence to target, however, this isn't necessarily true. While there is supporting evidence that an increased cadence has a number of benefits, which we'll detail below, there isn't a 'one size fits all' solution. A higher cadence won't always translate to a faster runner, and vice-versa, but there is certainly a strong argument to be made for runners working to increase their cadence. Below, we'll do a quick dive into a background on cadence and some tactics you can use to optimize yours.

Cadence is often paired with another metric runners love to study: stride length. Logically, these two measurements are intertwined. A runner's speed will be a function of their cadence and their stride length. For example, a runner with long strides and a high cadence will move at a faster speed than a runner with short strides and a slow cadence.

What's the Perfect Running Cadence?

Generally speaking, if you ask a runner or a coach what the "ideal cadence" is, they'd probably reply with 180 steps per minute. Historically this would be the gold standard for runners to work towards, some surpassing this figure by more than 20 steps per minute. However, more recently, studies have shown that each runner will have a target cadence figure more suited to their body type and running style. As an example, someone with shorter legs would likely have difficulty achieving a long stride, so they'd naturally gravitate towards a higher cadence to make up for this shorter stride length.

While the target of 180 spm isn't necessarily for everyone, doing running drills to increase your cadence can be beneficial to your performance and longevity in the sport. First and foremost, a higher cadence translates to less ground contact time and lower impact forces on your legs. When runners take long strides or "bounds," they're opening themselves up to heavy landings and hard impacts, potentially in the form of heel-striking (or making initial, forceful contact with the ground with their heel). Additionally, shorter stride lengths with higher leg turnover will help runners have a more balanced stride to take some of the load off the hips and knees.

How Can I Track & Improve My Running Cadence?

Now that you know what cadence is and the arguments to be made in support of a higher cadence, how can you get started on improving yours? First, figure out what your cadence is. There are a few quick ways to do so:

  1. Most smartwatches will have a metric to track and report cadence after a run. Check your post-run event in your smartwatch app to see if it's a reported metric.
  2. If you do not have a smartwatch, it's a very easy metric to calculate! Start a timer for 60 seconds and count the number of times one of your feet hits the ground, then double it. It's that simple! Since there's a bit of flexibility around this test, it's helpful to try this two or there times to get an average. Run natural & what feels comfortable. Remember, this is your starting point.

Like most things, it's wise to increase cadence at a reasonable rate. Pick something about 5% higher than your current cadence as a target. If you run at 160 steps per minute, aim for 168 steps per minute in the below tests. Once you find yourself comfortably running at or around 168 spm without focusing on it, then increase your target another 5%. Now that you have your natural cadence figured out, here are a few methods to improve it.

  1. Metronomes. Personally, my favorite tactic is to use the built-in metronome on my Garmin watch. This feature allows the user to set a 'buzz' to occur on their wrist in line with their target cadence (or half of their cadence). Alternatively, there are phone apps to play a simple metronome into your headphones or you can pick a song with a bpm ("beats per minute") in line with your target cadence. These metronome-based tricks are simple, but effective ways to allow a runner to remain focused on their target. They allow the runner to constantly check in on their cadence in real-time based on how well they match up with the metronome.
  2. The treadmill. Training on a treadmill often forces runners to maintain a higher cadence because they must keep up with the belt. While we don't recommend only running on treadmills, using one to lock into a higher cadence run for muscle memory and formwork can prove beneficial when it's time to return to the road.
  3. Focus on your arms. Believe it or not, your arms pumping often roughly align with your cadence and leg turnover. Focusing on your arm movements is often easier and more digestible during a run. Pumping your arms a bit quicker will often result in a higher cadence. Try it next time you're out there!

Hopefully, these three tricks can help you notice some improvements during your next training block. After all, a higher cadence can often lead to fewer injuries, better form and stronger performances!

Image by 7721622 from Pixabay

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