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The Ideal Running Cadence and How to Achieve It

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Beginner runners often express their dismay at feeling “heavy” while running. They often comment that experienced runners appear to be floating on air, while their own running feels like a burdened slog. Sound familiar? The good news is that this can easily be fixed. And even better news is that you might just improve your running performance and decrease your chances of injury in the process! Sounds great, right? So let’s talk about running cadence.

What is running cadence?

Running cadence, or leg turnover, can be defined as “the total number of ‘revolutions per minute’ (RPM), or number of full cycles taken within a minute, by the pair of feet”. It is measured as the number of times that your feet strike the ground per minute while running, and is usually calculated by counting the number of times that your one foot strikes the ground per minute, multiplied by two.

Why is running cadence important?

So why is this important, you ask? Why do you need to know how many times per minute your feet hit the ground while running? Well, in short, a longer stride, i.e. lower running cadence, causes you to extend your leg out in front of your body, which has a breaking effect. And not only does this slow you down, but it can also lead to injury.

A higher running cadence, on the other hand, generally helps a runner to hit the ground mid-foot. This, in turn, decreases the stress on the skeletal system, and more specifically the knees, hips and lower back. Which decreases the chance of injury.

In addition, a higher running cadence can benefit running efficiency through increasing your running economy. Simply put, an improved running form will most likely positively impact on your running economy (or how efficiently your body uses oxygen at a specific pace), which should lead to faster running times.

What is the ideal running cadence?

So what exactly is the ideal running cadence? And is it the same for everyone? Well, for elite runners, optimal running cadence is generally considered to be in the region of 180 strides per minute.

The figure is, however, believed to be slightly lower for the rest of us mere mortals. According to Lisa Hamilton, certified running coach and 2:42 marathoner, a number of factors affect optimal running cadence. Height, weight, leg- and stride length, as well as running ability all play a role. Hamilton believes that optimal running cadence generally falls between 160 and 170 steps per minute for amateur runners.

And if this one-cadence-fits-all approach isn’t to your liking, you might prefer the following viewpoint. According to Alex Hutchinson, former physicist and now science journalist, biomechanics researchers have found that a running cadence increase of 5% is realistically attainable, yet big enough to make a difference. So, for example, if your original cadence is 160, aim for 168.

How can I achieve the ideal running cadence?

Now that we know what running cadence is and why it’s important – is there a way to improve yours? There certainly is. Just keep in mind that although re-learning cadence is relatively easy for most people, it does take time. Training your legs to run with a faster turnover certainly won’t happen overnight. In fact, Hamilton recommends giving yourself at least six to eight weeks to adapt to running at a faster cadence. Pushing the pace might just do more harm than good.

So where do you start? First of all, measure where you’re at. After a proper warm-up, run at your normal cadence and simply count every step on your right foot for exactly one minute. Multiply this figure by two, and you have your training cadence.

And once you know where you’re at, it may be a good idea to dig up that dusty old metronome. A treadmill and a metronome can be invaluable in helping you re-learn an optimal running cadence. Simply set the metronome to between 160 and 170 beats or clicks per minute, and practice running to the rhythm. Or, if the thought of being trapped indoor with a metronome and treadmill makes you wince, download a metronome MP3 set to 170 beats per minute (bpm), or a playlist of songs at the same tempo. Then simply lace up, switch on and run to the beat. Just remember to stay safe and be aware of your surroundings!

Take it slow

Instead of trying to jolt your cadence up to 170 steps per minute in a single session, remember to gradually work on increasing both leg turnover and time spent running at optimal cadence. For example:

Start by running at a faster cadence for one minute, and then go back to your originally measured cadence for three to five minutes. Then return to a faster cadence for another minute before returning to your original cadence for three to five minutes again. Repeat until you’ve covered your desired distance. Gradually increase the time spent running at your optimal cadence until you can cover the whole distance.

Alternatively, you can work on increasing cadence by distance. Start off by running only every third mile at optimal cadence. Then gradually increase this distance over time, until you can cover your entire run distance at a higher cadence.

Hutchinson also recommends doing some additional weekly workouts to help train your legs for a faster turnover. One of his suggested workouts involves taking as many steps as you can in 10 meters by using short, quick strides. Aim to keep ground contact as minimal as possible. Follow this with 10 meters of “normal” jogging, and repeat five times.

Just remember to give yourself four to six weeks for optimal cadence to become second nature.

The takeaway

So if your runs feel heavy and you can’t help but envy your fellow runners, who appear to be effortlessly floating on air, try working on your running cadence. Taking the time and putting in the effort may be more than worth your while. Because in addition to improving your running form and getting rid of that “heavy” feeling for good, you might just decrease your chance for injury too. What are you waiting for?

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