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Most consistent runners are primarily interested in three things: getting faster, being able to run longer without getting injured, and running farther. These objectives help maintain motivation and longevity in running.
You may be asking yourself, “How do I run faster?” It can be hard to know where to start, so it helps to have a little background.
Two aspects of running can lead to an increase in speed. The first is increasing stride length. The second is increasing stride frequency, also known as running cadence (
Running cadence has lately received increased attention in research and the media because it’s associated with increased speed, improved endurance, and decreased risk of injury.
Running cadence is the number of steps per minute a person takes during a run. It’s also known as:
- stride frequency
- step frequency
- foot turnover
The number of steps you take per minute depends on several factors. One of the most notable is your height.
Taller runners moving at a constant speed tend to have a longer stride and a slower cadence than shorter runners. The shorter runner has to take more rapid steps to cover the same ground in the same amount of time.
In addition, running on an incline or decline affects cadence.
When running uphill, you tend to increase your cadence. Consequently, your step length shortens. These two factors help you adapt to the increased energy demand of running uphill (
When running downhill, your cadence decreases (while step length increases) to keep your body controlled.
Running cadence is the number of steps you take in a minute. It can be affected by many factors, such as your height and the incline of the surface you’re running on.
As mentioned earlier, cadence has an effect on running speed. An increase in running cadence helps you run faster.
One study involving stride frequency of ultrarunners showed that faster speeds consistently were associated with higher strike frequencies (
Understanding your running cadence can help you decrease fatigue so you can run longer.
A higher cadence is associated with decreased ground reaction forces. These are the forces exerted on your body by the ground when your foot hits it. More simply put, a higher cadence means less impact.
In addition, a higher cadence is also associated with decreased injury risk.
In other words, the shorter your stride and the more steps you take per minute, the lighter the load on your body becomes. As a result, there’s a change in the biomechanical forces associated with injury.
These include (
- decreased vertical displacement of the body during running
- decreased ground contact time
- increased shock absorption with decreased impact forces at the ankle, knee, and hip joints
One study also noted reduced VO2 consumption with a higher cadence. This means that with a higher cadence, you can maintain a certain aerobic level of work with less energy spent, and that decreases fatigue (
Braking forces are also reduced when running at a higher cadence.
Your peak braking force is the amount of horizontal force needed to slow down the forward momentum of a runner. It’s what happens when your front foot hits the ground and sends energy into your leg from front to back.
One study found that when peak breaking forces were higher, runners had a greater risk of injury (
So, the more steps you take per minute, the smaller your stride — and the smaller your stride, the less force you’ll need to slow down or stop. This contributes to a reduced risk of injury.
A higher running cadence is associated with increased speed, decreased contact time with the ground, and increased shock absorption. In addition, increasing your cadence decreases your energy cost. All of these factors reduce your risk of injury.
Determining your running cadence is relatively easy. Follow these steps:
- Set a timer for 60 seconds but don’t actually start the timer.
- Begin running at your preferred pace.
- Start the timer and begin counting each step (each time either foot hits the ground) as you run. It may be easier to count every time just one foot (for example, your left foot) hits the ground instead of each step.
At the end of the 60 seconds, the numbers of steps you have is your cadence. (If you counted using only one foot instead of each step, multiply that number by 2. For example, 92 left-foot steps over 1 minute equals a cadence of 184 steps per minute.)
One thing to note is that counting your steps can skew your result slightly because you know you’re testing yourself. This can cause a performance bias. However, counting steps per minute is still an easy and accurate way to measure cadence.
Some sports watches, such as the Garmin Forerunner 245, can also measure cadence. Cadence is considered a more advanced metric, so it isn’t available on most wearable trackers.
Having a continuous measure can give you a more realistic idea of your cadence over a certain distance.
To determine your running cadence, count the number of steps you run in 1 minute. It is best to use a countdown timer. You can also use a wearable tracker or use an app on your mobile phone to measure cadence.
Older running wisdom said an optimal cadence was 180 steps per minute or more. This measurement came from the 1984 Olympics, when Jack Daniels (a famous running coach, not the whiskey namesake) counted the steps of the elite runners competing.
But the reality is, most recreational runners are probably more in the range of 150–170 steps per minute. Still, a higher cadence can certainly benefit anyone.
Improving running cadence involves consciously increasing your steps per minute above the number you typically perform.
The easiest way is to use an external cue, such as a metronome. It might be simplest to find a metronome app for your phone.
If you’re attempting to maintain a higher cadence over a distance, start with a small increase of 3-5% more steps per minute.
However, if you’re performing short interval runs, attempting to achieve a higher rate may be more appropriate.
Try to maintain a relaxed body when you increase your stride rate. Think of keeping your movement smooth and light. This will help decrease the perceived effort.
You can use an external cue to help you increase your pace, such as a metronome or music. It is best to try small incremental increases in cadence during a distance run or larger increases during interval runs. Either way, try to maintain a relaxed body when increasing your cadence.
Increasing running cadence has been shown to be beneficial for increasing speed and endurance as well as for decreasing risk of injury.
What’s more, improving your running cadence may help lead to a more enjoyable and easier running experience — and keep you running for a long time to come.