Running cadence (also known as stride frequency, stride rate or foot turnover) is the often-overlooked secret to improved running efficiency, speed, and reduced risk of injuries.
As a runner, it’s almost certain that you often try to improve at least one of these things, so finding the right cadence for you is critical to optimising your running experience.
If you have heard the term running cadence but aren’t sure what it is or why it matters, we’ve put together this short guide to introduce the concept and show you how it can help you to become the best runner you can be!
Simply put, running cadence is the number of steps a runner takes per minute (SPM).
Cadence varies depending on the individual, the type of run and the running conditions, as factors such as height, pace, fitness levels, and road gradient will all impact your stride frequency.
Why Does It Matter?
Finding your optimal running cadence will help prevent injury, reduce fatigue, and improve overall performance, posture, and technique.
A slow cadence is a common (but easily corrected) error. It causes overstriding, which puts excessive pressure on your joints. Overstriding occurs when the front leg extends too far out in front of the body, putting pressure on the ankles, knees, and hips.
A higher stride frequency combined with a shorter stride length greatly reduces the risk of injury because shorter and more frequent steps mean your foot lands closer to your centre of mass.
It also decreases your ground contact time and the amount of force you need to slow down or stop. All this together helps to reduce the impact on your joints.
A higher running cadence is associated with lower energy expenditure, meaning you are running more efficiently and improving both endurance and speed.
Another benefit to tracking your cadence is that it will help you to identify any changes in your running technique as you fatigue. Generally, as we begin to tire during a run, our body adapts to maintain the same pace, and we won’t necessarily notice if our form starts to slip.
Knowing your ideal cadence makes you much more likely to notice a change in technique when this dips below optimal.
What is a Good Cadence?
Legendary running coach Jack Daniels measured the stride frequency of athletes competing in the 1984 Olympics and concluded that the optimal cadence was 180 steps per minute or more. This has long since been considered the magic number for runners and has been widely used as a benchmark.
However, this number does not consider that we are not all elite athletes nor the differences between runners. What is suitable for somebody else will not necessarily be right for you.
The so-called magic number also doesn’t consider that the ideal cadence will vary depending on the type of run you are completing.
As such, there is not a one-size-fits-all target to meet. Instead, it is best to measure your current cadence and implement simple techniques into your runs to help you increase your stride frequency.
How to Measure It
Nowadays, many sports watches and apps record your steps per minute alongside other valuable metrics and health data to help you measure and improve your performance.
Without a sports watch or an app, there’s always the old-fashioned way: counting! To do this, you should set a timer for one minute. Start the timer after you begin running and count your steps until the timer ends.
If you find it easier, you can count only the steps of one leg and then multiply the result by two at the end. This number is your SPM.
It’s worth bearing in mind that your cadence will vary depending on the type of run you are doing, so you may wish to measure it at different paces. For example, if you frequently run 5k and 15k runs, you can measure it at both your 5k and 15k pace.
Your cadence will also vary depending on the road gradient of your route; you will more likely have a higher cadence running uphill than on a flatter surface or downhill.
How Do I Improve My Cadence?
Now that you’ve measured your baseline cadence, you might wonder how to improve it.
In much the same way as you wouldn’t wildly increase your distance in a short timeframe, you shouldn’t try to increase your cadence by too much or too quickly.
Attempting strides that are too short and quick for you will likely push you onto your forefoot and cause strain to the Achilles heel and calf muscles.
Too much too soon will also have the opposite of the desired effect, as it will cause your perceived effort to increase and your efficiency to decrease.
Research published in 2011 demonstrates that just a 5% increase in cadence compared to your normal SPM can reduce pressure on the knee, and a rise of 10% can reduce pressure on both the hip and knee.
With this in mind, add 5% to your baseline cadence and use that as your new target. You can aim for one or two of your weekly runs at this SPM or do short bursts during each run.
Once you can comfortably perform a run at the increased cadence, you can continue to increase it incrementally until you feel comfortable and are no longer overstriding.
Some apps can provide a cue, such as a metronome, to assist you with training to run at the increased cadence.
If you like to run to music and use a streaming app such as Spotify, search for playlists that have been designed for a certain number of steps per minute.
Another great tool available is the app Weav Run. We’ve previously looked at the best running apps, and this one made the cut specifically because it focuses on music to help you maintain your desired cadence.
Running with shorter and more frequent steps at first may feel unnatural, but your body should quickly adapt as long as you introduce the changes slowly.
Keeping a run journal may be helpful for you to monitor your progress and how you feel as you gradually increase your stride frequency.
Measuring your cadence isn’t the only factor to consider when looking at improving your performance. Still, it is undoubtedly a great tool to use to enhance your overall running experience and prevent injuries.
As there’s no black-and-white answer to the ideal cadence due to the many differences between individual runners, experiment with what works best for you and enjoy yourself as much as possible along the way!