Cadence is a word used to describe a balanced, rhythmic flow that can be applied to music, speech and movement alike. Cadence is also a common term used to define a runner’s turnover rate or how many times their feet hit the ground during a given period of time, usually in one minute.
Running is a high impact activity that produces relatively high impact forces that must be absorbed and distributed via the joints and muscles of the feet, ankles, knees, hips, and back. Cadence is one of a few variables that can help all runners reduce stress on the body and lower their risk of injury while becoming more biomechanically efficient.
An optimal cadence tends to be a higher cadence. Most beginning and recreational runners have a cadence of 160-165 steps per minute and over-stride, demonstrating a long, loping stride and heavy foot strike with a lot of up and down movement or “vertical oscillation”. More experienced runners and elite, competitive runners, tend to average 180-192 steps per minute and run “on top of their feet” with a more compact, “athletic” stride and less vertical oscillation. Take time to observe other runners and note the differences between the ones that appear to move with more effort and those that appear more fluid and run effortlessly.
Of course, everyone is different and not everybody needs to run like an elite athlete. Training and race paces will differ and cadence will fluctuate as a result. But for those that are on the lower end of the cadence spectrum, a higher turnover rate can be helpful for a few reasons:
- A higher cadence reduces over striding by shortening the stride and promotes a foot strike that is closer to the body’s center of mass (COM). This reduces the “braking effect”, or “loading rate”, of each foot strike. Every time the foot hits the ground it acts like a “brake”, or resistance, that has to be overcome in order for the body to move forward and over the foot. The further out in front of our COM the foot falls, the greater the resistance; the closer to the COM the foot falls, the less the braking effect.
- A higher turnover rate reduces the amount of time the foot spends on the ground, also known as ground contact time. Less time on the ground also reduces the braking effect, the loading rate and the energy required to absorb and distribute the forces associated with impact and stance. Decreased stance time also reduces vertical oscillation.
- A higher cadence encourages more of a bent (flexed) knee posture at initial contact. This promotes a “softer”, quieter landing for shock absorption and further reduces the loading rate and consequent energy absorption of the muscles and joints of the ankle, knee, hip and spine.
All in all, proper running cadence results in a significant reduction of impact forces and the resultant stress within the muscles and joints of the lower extremity.
Due to the considerable debate on foot strike, and what type is better, which is worse and why, another point worth mentioning is the effect cadence has on foot strike. Generally speaking, a higher cadence encourages more of a mid foot strike. This is due to the fact that a shorter stride encourages an initial contact that is closer to the runners COM. A mid foot strike is advantageous over the more dominant heel strike associated with longer strides because it produces less force at impact.
Another hot topic is that of shoes or no shoes and the contention held by some that those who run in well cushioned shoes, or any shoe with a positive heel-toe drop, is ‘forced’ into a heel strike contact and thus more likely to get injured. I have found that shoe type doesn’t matter much. In other words, there are runners who run on their heels, some who land on their forefoot and others more mid foot strikers, no matter what type of shoe they wear.
I believe running technique is a skill and proper technique can be learned ("proper" meaning more efficient and with less impact for a given individual). There is no reason any runner, no matter the choice of footwear or non-footwear, and everything in between, cannot learn and utilize proper technique.
And while proper equipment and technique is definitely part of the injury prevention equation, the variables of frequency, volume, intensity and adequate recovery within proper training programs, as well as proper conditioning, is often overlooked. Training errors and incorrect or non-existent conditioning programs are probably the #1 reason for running injuries. I am continually surprised at how many runners do not include strength training in their programs! But I digress...
OK, back to cadence: so what is an optimal cadence? Some use 180 steps per minute as the “gold standard” and try to mold a runner into a 180 steps per minute turnover rate, no ifs, ands or buts. Again, everybody is different. Just like a pair of running shoes where one size or type of shoe does not fit all (if you wear shoes), an “optimal” cadence for one person is not necessarily optimal for another. Some runners may be more efficient at 170 steps per minute and others 182 or higher.
I personally use 180 steps per minute as a reference point and work with the runner, taking into consideration other variables that affect his or her individual technique and fit a number to the runner instead of trying to force the runner to a number. Location of initial contact, individual postures, fitness levels and goals often trump a “number”.
How do you figure your optimal cadence? Pretty simple, really. Next time out, wait until you’re a few minutes into your run count the number of times your right (or left) foot hits the ground in a 10 second period and multiply by 6 (or 30 seconds and multiply by 2). 25 steps x 6 = 150 steps per minute, 28 = 168, 30 steps with one foot in 10 seconds = 180 steps per minute, etc. If you find yourself at 23 - 26 steps per 10 seconds, just shorten your stride; maintain your pace but shorten your stride. A higher turnover rate does not necessarily equate to increased speed and the average runner does not necessarily need to run faster to increase cadence.
Generally speaking, 26 – 30 steps per 10 seconds is a good starting point. The “new” cadence will probably feel awkward at first and the further you are from a 176 to 180 cadence, the more awkward and unnatural it will feel, but keep at it; practice, practice, practice. Get the feeling that you are running “on top” of your foot strike and not behind. As you shorten your stride, it is common to lose some flex in the knees and run a bit more stiff legged. If you find yourself doing this, exaggerate your knee flex by lifting your knees and your heels towards your butt while maintaining the shorter stride. Stay relaxed in the shoulders with a slight forward lean at the hips maintaining a neutral spine posture. Practice on a treadmill next to a mirror if available. For a demonstration, check out my attempt with video.
If you have the opportunity, have someone experienced in gait analysis look at you or video tape you run. A trained eye will provide more informed feedback. Keep at it and before you know it you will feel awkward and unnatural when you’re not running at the higher cadence and you will be able to quickly self correct; when you deviate from the new, higher cadence you will “feel” more impact and “feel” more inefficient.
Other variables that may influence cadence include height, weight, fitness level and, to a degree, speed. Vertical oscillation, posture, elbow, hip and knee flex also play a role.
The take away: all else being equal, the variable of cadence can single handedly influence many variables that can improve running technique and the body’s ability to more efficiently absorb and distribute the forces associated with running and make it less physically stressful for the body. And when combined with a structured and appropriate training program that includes flexibility and strength, will reduce the risk of injury.
So the next time out, count your steps and see where you fall in the cadence spectrum. If you’re not already near 175 to 185 steps per minute, try shortening your stride and running more on top of your feet. Don’t be surprised if some of your aches and pains suddenly disappear.
Partial list of references
Cavanagh PR, Lafortune MA. Ground reaction forces in distance running. J Biomech 1980;13:397–406.
Davis, Irene S, Bowser, Bradley and Mullineaux, David; Do Impacts cause Running Injuries? A Prospective Investigation Department of Physical Therapy, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, USA Drayer Physical Therapy Institute, Hummelstown, PA, USA Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY
Heiderscheit, BC, Chumanov ES, Michalski, MP, Wille, CM, Ryan, MB. Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running Med Sci and Sports Ex 2011 Feb;43(2):296-302.
Henderson, William, MD The Religion of Running Technique March 14, 2011 www.iRunFar.com
McMillan, Greg Creating Leg Turnover and Raw Speed pp. 26-27 in Daniels' Running Formula by Jack Daniels, Ph.D., Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 1998, pp. 80-82
Sheila A. Dugan, MD, Krishna P. Bhat, MD. Biomechanics and Analysis of Running Gait Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am 16 (2005) 603–621
Youngren, Jack Improving Stride Mechanics by pp. 12-20 in Run Strong ed. by Beck, Kevin Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 2005