Injury Prevention? Focus on Cadence.

Updated: Jul 26

Anmarie Moreno is a collegiate-level Certified Athletic Trainer from Southern California. She completed her undergrad at Concordia University Irvine with a BS in Athletic Training and went on to get an MS in Exercise Science from CSULB. As a former collegiate athlete and now runner, she has always been passionate about understanding and researching the science of exercise, movement and physiology of the athletic population!

In this guest blog, Anmarie reviews the science on running cadence and how it can be improved. Read on to see what the science says and how you can incorporate some small changes to make a huge impact.

The Science

What is running cadence? Running cadence, also known as step rate or stride frequency, is the total number of steps taken per minute while running. Many of us who use a smartwatch or other training devices can find this number somewhere either in an app or on the device itself but what does it mean or say about our running efficiency?

There are a few reasons why knowing your cadence can be both beneficial to your performance and in reducing injury risk. Before we get into that, let's first look into some of the debate around what an ideal cadence is and how to determine what's best for you.

If you have been in the running world for some time you may have heard of Jack Daniels - no, not the whiskey, the running coach. He conducted a study back in the 1984 Olympics looking at the running cadence of several elite runners. What he found was that of the 46 participants, almost all of them ran at a cadence of at least 180 strides per minute (spm) and some even faster.

Though it's amazing to marvel at these runners' ability to maintain such a quick turnover, we aren't all elite runners and we may find ourselves running somewhere between 150/160-180 spm. You’re probably wondering... is it bad if I'm running below 180 spm? Well, the answer isn’t clear as our cadence depends on so many factors such as our height, age, pace, the terrain we are running on that day and so on. We do know that when running at a slower cadence (particularly under 160 spm), you become more likely to over-stride, resulting in a number of potential injury risks such as excessive heel striking, landing with an overextended knee and excessive joint force loading.

To understand this visually, overstriding is when your foot makes contact with the ground too far ahead of your center of gravity, this being your body and hips. Thus, you will spend more time in contact with the ground and reduce the body's ability to absorb and utilize that force created to propel yourself forward. Additionally, you will spend more time in the air increasing the displacement of your center mass before your foot meets the ground. There are a few other mechanical issues which stem from overstriding and are important to take note of due to the repetitive nature of the sport of running. While these may seem like small discrepancies, they add up over time and can severely set you back in training if not addressed.

Photo by Charlotte Karlsen on Unsplash

With a longer stride you will find that, at contact, your knee is in a more extended position. This acts as a brake for your body, creating a halt in energy transfer and reducing the springy mechanic of your lower half. More stress is then put into the knee joint leading to injuries such as patellofemoral pain or IT band restriction. In a study conducted by Heiderscheit et al. that looked into stride length modification, they found that by decreasing the stride length (which would increase cadence) there was a decrease in hip and knee joint loading, meaning less stress taken by the joints.

A longer stride length also puts the body higher in the air for longer periods of time, leading to a greater impact and force, than is already generated by the body while running. By working towards making an adjustment to an overstriding running gait, you can reduce the chances of producing a dominant heel strike, and increase running efficiency, shock absorption and reduce wasted energy expenditure. Remember that stress to the tissue costs calorie and fuel source that runners desperately need during long runs or races.

If you don't have a smartwatch or a device that automatically calculates this for you it's pretty simple to do for yourself. All you have to do is count how many times one foot makes contact with the floor in a 30-second bout, then multiply that by 2 twice and you will end up with your cadence.

For example, let’s say you got 42. Times that by 2 is 82. 82 x 2 is 164 for both feet. That’s your cadence.

Improving Your Cadence

I’m sure your next question is: how do I improve my cadence? First and foremost, the key is to approach this slowly and gradually. It’s recommended that if you are trying to increase your cadence, that you do so in about 5% increments at a time. Trying to make a large jump too quickly may feel unnatural or choppy and lead to joint restrictions, improper running mechanics, and potential harm on the body.