Cadence: The Running Form Problem Solver

Jason Fitzgerald
by Jason Fitzgerald
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Cadence: The Running Form Problem Solver

When it comes to discussing running form, there are so many factors to consider:

  • Cadence,  or the number of steps taken per minute
  • Vertical oscillation, or how much “bounce” you have in your stride
  • Ground contact time
  • “Stiffness” or isometric strength
  • Stride length
  • Posture and forward lean
  • Foot strike

That last aspect of form (foot strike) gets a lot of attention. We’ve long heard that runners shouldn’t land on their heels, and instead, should have a more neutral midfoot landing. However, in reality, there is no perfect foot strike or technique for running.

We all have unique mechanics and physiologies — that’s why no two runners run exactly the same way. Even at the elite level, there are wide differences in running form. But there is one principle that can be considered a problem-solver — one fix that solves many problems. And that fix is your cadence.

Before diving into cadence and its impact on your form, a quick disclaimer: If you have no history of injuries and you’re performing well, you probably don’t need to make adjusting your running form a top priority.

WHAT IS CADENCE?

Cadence is very simple: It’s the number of steps you take per minute of running.

It’s important to remember that when we talk about cadence, it’s only applicable when you’re running at your easy pace. None of the following suggestions pertain to running at faster paces because cadence is directly influenced by speed. The faster you go, the faster your cadence.

But at an easy pace, there’s a general range that’s optimal for most runners — but this can be age and size dependent. For example, shorter runners generally have a higher cadence and taller runners a lower cadence.

As a very general guide, if your easy pace is:

  • Faster than 10 minutes per mile, cadence should be 170–180 steps per minute
  • Slower than 10 minutes per mile, cadence should be 160 steps per minute or higher

Legendary coach Jack Daniels, PhD, popularized the idea of aiming for a cadence of 180 steps per minute. While there’s no “magic number,” this is a good number to reach for if you’re a faster runner.

To determine your cadence, simply count the number of times one foot touches the ground in a 1-minute time period. Then double that number (to account for both feet) to get your step rate. Under Armour Connected HOVRs automatically calculates and tracks your cadence using a combination of characteristics like height, weight, age, gender and running pace to provide personalized cadence targets at any pace.

WHY INCREASE YOUR CADENCE?

If you find your step rate is below the recommendations above, it might be worthwhile to increase it. Even though you may feel uncoordinated at first, it’s worth it.

Running form expert and gait analyst Matt Phillips agrees. “Conscious attempts to modify form can eventually become unconscious over time. An active change in running form can be a useful tool in treating a runner in pain.”

The reason cadence is a global problem solver is because the running stride is a global activity. We should avoid the temptation to focus on one individual part of the leg or phase of the stride.

“Many of the specific outcomes I am looking for (decrease overstride, increased stiffness) can be achieved by creating a program involving cadence increase,” Phillips notes.

Just by increasing the number of steps taken each minute, runners can:

  • Avoid overly aggressive heel-striking
  • Lessen the likelihood of over-striding
  • Reduce the impact forces of each stride
  • Encourage a more neutral midfoot strike

As you can see, just by increasing cadence a litany of other running form issues can be solved or helped.

HOW TO INCREASE STEP RATE

Fortunately, you don’t need a biomechanics lab or expensive testing equipment to begin realizing the many benefits of a faster cadence.

The first step is to simply measure your step rate. Go for an easy run and count the number of steps you take in one minute. That’s your cadence.

Next, if you’re running faster than 10:00/mile, you should generally be running at 170 steps per minute or higher. If you’re slower, you should be at about 160 steps per minute or greater.

If not, you can simply try to increase your cadence by taking shorter, faster steps. Some runners struggle with this and find that they simply run faster. But the goal is to run the same pace with a faster cadence.

A helpful strategy is to play with your cadence on a treadmill. By keeping the pace constant, you can find out how certain cadences feel so you’re more effective at it outside.

Several training tools can help as well:

  1.     Running strides or form drills 2–3 times per week
  2.     Running a faster workout once per week
  3.     Spending more time on technical trails

These strategies can all unconsciously increase your cadence, thereby improving your economy and performance while lessening your injury risk.

And what runner doesn’t want that?

About the Author

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald

Jason is the founder of Strength Running, a USA Track & Field certified running coach and 2017’s Men’s Running’s Influencer of the Year. Learn more about how he can help you run faster.

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