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How Important Is Running Cadence?

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Often you hear runners talking about running cadence. Some smartwatches calculate cadence, but what is a runner supposed to do with that data? What exactly is cadence? Does it matter? Can it be improved? Why is it important?

What Is Running Cadence?

Simply put, the number of steps a runner takes per minute is the cadence.  Distance coaching great Jack Daniels (not the whiskey guy…the other Jack Daniels) studied professional distance runners and determined that 180 steps per minute were the “gold standard” for which all runners should strive.

ideal running cadence

It stands to reason that if you increase your cadence, you will probably move faster. It only makes sense. More footsteps mean you are covering more ground, faster. In theory, however, this only stands true if you are taking more steps and taking them quickly. You can take 1,598,372 tiny, tiny steps, but if you are taking them slowly, you’re still moving slowly and not covering much ground.

What Is A Normal Running Cadence?

The average runner has a cadence somewhere between 150 and 170 steps per minute for a temp run. Of course, a slow and easy run would have less and speed work perhaps more. You may be surprised to hear that you can find songs with beats per minute to perfectly match this, and it’s pretty easy to do so.

Does music matter in regards to cadence? Well, have you ever paid attention to the music at a fitness class? Turns out they strategically change the tempo of the music to match changes in the workout. Pay attention next time you take a spin or other class!

Can You Improve Cadence?

Sure, you can increase the number of steps you take per minute. First, you need to determine your cadence. An easy way to do this is to count every right footfall for one minute, then multiple by two. Note that your cadence for a steady run will be different than your cadence for track work.  Start with a steady run of an average distance that you typically run.

what is running cadence

To improve cadence you can get a metronome. A metronome makes a sound to keep you moving based on a particular tempo. If you use an electronic metronome, such as one through an app on your smartphone, you need to focus on a footfall for each beat. You slowly add speed by adding beats per minute to your tempo workout. If you start with 160 beats (or steps) per minute, add a few beats per minute every couple of runs.

Some music is set to a particular tempo or cadence.  Believe it or not, there are tools out there to help you pick music based on beats per minute.

Structuring the Run

As you are preparing to try to increase your cadence, plan a 40-50 minute run. The first 10 minutes of the run should be warm-up, at a slower cadence. The “meat” of the workout is the tempo run where you are aiming for the desired cadence. After, of course, you cool down.

You can create a playlist that uses songs of a slower average cadence for the first period by choosing 3 or 4 songs. Then, transition into the tempo part of the workout with songs with beats per minute at the higher cadence. After that portion of the run, slow it back down again both in your run and with the music.

Sure I Can Increase Cadence, But Do I NEED To?

As you can see, runners can increase their cadence with some work and dedicated workouts. The real question is does a runner need to do so? Interestingly enough, there is a school of thought that says you do not need to worry about your cadence as much once thought. Studies of professional runners have also shown that cadence among elites can actually vary a great deal.

Geoffrey Burns, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota studied runners. He had a theory that if he tracked cadence in top finishers of particular races that he would find a vast array of cadences. His theory proved correct. Sometimes runners who finished races within minutes of one another had markedly different cadences. In one study he found a runner who took as many as 203 steps per minute and another taking as few as 155 finishing within moments of one another.

perfect running cadence

Burns determined that cadences are as unique as fingerprints and that you don’t necessarily need to change yours. Furthermore, he stated that increasing your cadence does not necessarily make you faster.

Researchers in the opposite camp argue that the 180 cadence is likely to lead to efficient running with excellent form, which does not only lead to speed but also helps prevent injuries. In other words, running efficiently is simply good for your body. These proponents of perfecting cadence argue that it is worth your effort to consistently perform tempo runs at this quick cadence.

Should You Try To Change Yours?

As a coach for the past twenty-five years, I have worked with hundreds of athletes. Some had excellent form and others struggled. Many had quick feet and others plodded along. Did I ever check their cadence? No, I did not. However, I did encourage athletes to listen to up-tempo music when running. I did carefully choose quick music when doing circuits in the weight room. I choose my own music based on what I am about to do.

I might listen to country music for an easy recovery run, but find something pumping and jumping for speed work or fartleks. Why? Because your body naturally follows the beat it is listening to.

Should you try to change your running cadence? Maybe. It depends on your goals. If you’re trying to run faster, it’s worth looking at. But when you increase your cadence, does your form improve? Are you running faster? If there does not seem to be a difference, why mess with what’s working for your body?

However, if playing with cadence gets the wheels turning a little faster and equals seconds off your splits, keep playing with it. It certainly does seem worth the effort for some runners!


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