Sometimes, running is hard. Let’s admit it: Running feels difficult the majority of the time. But well all know those runs where something just clicks and you’re listening to the best song and hitting your target pace and barely breaking a sweat. Those runs can erase even the worst miles from our memories.
But what if we told you there was a way to make running easier and scientists are actively refining technology to help you do it? There is a way — and it all comes down to cadence.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT CADENCE
Simply put, cadence is the number of steps you take per minute. It’s easy to find out what yours is using a stopwatch and counting the number of steps you take when running for one minute. If you’re wondering whether you should be hitting a specific number, the recommendation used to be 180 steps per minute was the ideal running cadence (key words: used to be). With more and more research, we are learning cadence is highly personal and can vary between runners.
Studies have been looking at what exactly influences a person’s running cadence and we have some answers thanks to researchers. For example, one study published in 2019 on elite runners found that not only did speed play a role in the number of steps a runner took, but also their stature. It also showed what didn’t have a direct impact: sex, weight, age or experience level. Another study published in 2016 even suggests that “morphological characteristics” — or the form and structure — of the leg might play a role in determining a runner’s optimal stride frequency (again, think stature).
Of course these observations are great, but how can the average runner determine then what their optimal step count is and, once they do, determine that they are consistently hitting their number? In the previously mentioned study, researchers Geoffrey Burns, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, Jessica Zendler, PhD, an adjunct research assistant professor at the University of Michigan and Ron Zernicke, PhD, director of the Exercise & Sports Science Initiative at the University of Michigan, specifically highlight the new and noteworthy ability to monitor cadence thanks to wearables. “Stride frequency (SF; or the synonymous “cadence”) has become a popular point of monitoring and manipulation in runners,” they note. “Advances in wearable technology have enabled continuous monitoring of SF.” If you’re a MapMyRun user, you already have this ability and may not even know it.
HOW CADENCE CAN MAKE RUNNING FEEL EASIER
Jeff Knight, senior manager of digital product science for Under Armour, has been working with cadence data within MapMyRun to help runners find their target range (and coach them to learn what that range feels like to stay within it). Studies first done in the 1980s aimed to look at energy expenditure and cadence found there was a relationship between the two. Taking too few steps or too many steps increases the amount of energy you expend, but finding your optimal step cadence allows you to run with as little energy expended as possible (Knight relates this to fuel efficiency).
Most of the studies that have been done on cadence involve a low number of subjects — often in the range of 30 or so runners — but Under Armour has the ability to study cadence on a much larger scale. This helps create features such as Personalized Form Coaching, which predicts your ideal cadence or stride length to provide real-time feedback. This is all done based on physical characteristics — to utilize the relationship between your stature (remember it’s importance noted above) and pace to then find your target cadence.
Because it has been found that cadence varies with speed, Knight notes that the target zones for a runner within MapMyRun adjusts relative to pace — and it all has the end goal to help you make running easier. Knight adds that often people are running at a cadence that is too low (especially during a recovery run when you are sore and not running on optimal energy levels) and it is usually because they simply need to increase their cadence.
Does this all sound too good to be true? Is there really a concrete way to make running feel easier? Well, it isn’t just Knight and his team who say it works. A study from 1994 found “short-term audiovisual feedback training can be effective in optimizing step length and producing a decrease in aerobic demand among distance runners exhibiting uneconomical FCSL.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
In other words, getting feedback can help you find your ideal cadence so you can decrease the amount of energy you expend on the run, therefore, making running feel easier.