Does Running Cadence Matter?
If you’re new to running and wanting to learn more about the sport, a Google search will send you down a rabbit hole of topics related to gait analysis or Nike’s newest shoe that makes you 4% faster. We’ve taken one of the most basic human actions [in running] and have scrutinized the smallest details of the movement. However, if you were to watch a pack of elite runners, there will be noticeable differences amongst the group. In this series of blogs covering various running topics we’ll break things down to help you understand what is important, what is fact, and what is fallacy.
In regards to running, cadence is defined as the number of steps per minute. Measuring it can be useful for a couple reasons that we’ll discuss but it is only a small piece in the puzzle of becoming a stronger and more injury-resilient runner. This metric only recently became “relevant” and it did so for a couple of reasons.
The “Barefoot Running” movement encouraged a quick cadence since the discomfort of long strides, heel striking, and high impact forces is exacerbated without a cushioned shoe
In his book Daniel’s Running Formula, Jack Daniels came to the conclusion that 180 steps per minute was the perfect cadence by observing elite marathoners. However, like folklore, what he said was a bit misconstrued; it was actually “180 steps per minute or more”. Regardless, a cadence that is significantly lower than 180 could lead to a couple of issues.
The first of which is overstriding. In attempting to improve your speed by increasing your stride length and reaching further forward you will likely overextend at your lower back and heel strike in front of your center of mass. This places you in an unstable position to absorb force. By increasing your cadence instead of your stride length you are reducing the likelihood of this happening. You simply can’t take excessively long strides if you’re also attempting to take “quick” and frequent strides.
The other issue with a low cadence is that it would increase vertical oscillation. This is a fancy word for how much your body is bobbing up and down as you run. With running being a horizontal movement, any excessive vertical motion is both wasted energy and increasing the degree of impact forces that your ankles, knees, and hips are absorbing. Vertical oscillation and cadence should have a fairly reciprocal relationship. If your cadence increases, vertical oscillation should decrease.
Overstriding, foot strike, and vertical oscillation are all important factors to consider when attempting to minimize injury risk. By increasing your cadence, you may also reduce impact forces and improve your foot strike patterns. While these are all essential components of gait, load management (how far, how often, and how fast you run) and proper recovery play equally important roles in improving as a runner.
So to summarize: There is no magic number for cadence. However, if your cadence is substantially less than 180, it may be in your best interest to increase it. Not because elite marathoners are doing it but because by doing so it is likely that you’ll improve other components of gait, reduce the wear and tear on your body, and maybe even run a bit faster.
To begin taking steps towards increasing your cadence, meaningful repetition is the best course of action. Count the number of steps you take over 30 seconds and multiply that number by 2 to see where you’re at. If you need an external cue you can run to a metronome set to 180 beats per minute. Next time you go out for a run, observe your pace and how it changes as you alter your cadence.