What is Running Cadence?

I completely forgot about running cadence until I visited my physiotherapist for an injury back in the fall. A mild ache I ignored for months had turned into an angry and sharp throb whenever I ran more than 3 kilometers. I also couldn’t squat, rotate or extend my knee without pain. It goes without saying that this was a complete bummer. Luckily, my physio is also a runner and was able to identify my injury as a knee meniscus tear. 

One of the many things he suggested was to monitor my cadence. He sent me a few resources detailing how cadence is determined, how it works, and how to monitor it. Many coaches, authors, and runners posit that higher cadence can boost running performance, economy, and form. Improving run economy can be interpreted as running more efficiently. Instead of taking longer, more impact-heavy strides I should try to make smaller and quicker strides. This would effectively lessen the impact as well as the wear and tear on my knee injury. 

Before physio, the last time I heard about cadence was years ago, from old track and cross country coaches from when I was in school. Even then, I don’t think I fully understood what it meant or how it translated to running more effectively. Which is why I thought it would be an interesting topic to explore today – what even is running cadence? 

What is Running Cadence?

what-is-running-cadence
Photo by Andrew Tanglao on Unsplash

I want to introduce this topic by stating that I am not a running coach, physiotherapist, or professional in the field of kinesiology and running mechanics. I am at best a casual runner who has been confronted with the word “cadence” in relation to running and was curious enough to look it up. 

So what is running cadence even? A basic understanding of cadence is the total number of strides (steps) that you take per minute (SPM). The shorter the stride and the faster the speed of the stride – the more efficiently you run. Running speed is the byproduct of your cadence. Because of this, SPM is a common metric used to assess running form. A high SPM (a high cadence) would then suggest a more efficient, and therefore faster runner. Increasing your cadence means more than simply quickening your pace – you’re also subconsciously changing how and where your feet land. As Wahoo Fitness states,

Rather than having your foot land in front of your hips, with a higher cadence, it lands underneath you – in your center of gravity. This naturally decreases your stride length and increases your turnover, which means you’re wasting less energy moving up and down (from the ground to the air and vice versa). Rather, your body is focused on moving forward, making you faster.

What is the Relationship Between Cadence and Injury?

Increasing your cadence restricts the amount of force that occurs when your feet hit the ground. 

Runners who have lower cadence are more likely to lock their knees and experience a harder impact when their heels hit the ground. Taking longer strides typically means that you are spending more time in the air, shifting your bodyweight so that when you do hit the ground, you do so much harder than you would with a higher SPM. This hampers your speed, results in an uneven gait, increases pressure and stress on your muscles and bones, and ultimately makes you more prone to developing an injury

What is My Ideal Running Cadence?

Many running experts posit that 180 SPM is ideal for pro runners to achieve the most efficient running economy. 180 SPM goes all the way back to the 1984 Olympics, where running coach Jack Daniels observed that most runners exceeded 180 SPM – cementing this number as the ideal for optimal SPM for decades to come.

However, there has been much debate about the effectiveness of that number – as not all of us are pro runners. So is it still worth trying to ramp up our SPM to 180 as a one-size-fits-all number?

Alex Hutchinson in his piece, “It’s Time to Rethink the Ideal Running Cadence”, questions the effectiveness of stringently adhering to the 180 SPM rule, and finds that it’s not always a rigid guideline all runners need to follow. There are other factors at play such as height, weight, age, speed, experience, etc. that also contribute to variation in SPM impact. While it’s a useful metric to be conscious of, everyone is different. 

Featured Image by Gary Butterfield on Unsplash