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.
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.
There are a few self-assessments you may want to conduct as you look to improve your cadence. First, focus on your range of motion. While a proper range of motion is crucial for any physical activity, restriction in the hips, knees and calves can affect your stride length greatly. Tight hips restrict leg extension and hip flexion. This tightness forces your hips into an anteriorly tilted position making it more difficult to maintain good posture and allow for proper knee drive upward/forward as you run.
Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash
With a good hip position (posterior tilt of the hips), you will be able to cover more ground fluidly while moving forward rather than trying to make it up by over-striding. Tight hips can also develop weaknesses in your posterior chain. These muscles (glutes and hamstring) work to protect your knees and function as the powerhouse of forward propulsion. In fact, IT band issues have been more associated with hip complex discrepancies than any other joint.
Next, we move on to the calves. The ankle, a potentially overlooked joint, has a strong relationship with the calves muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) regarding its functionality. When these two muscles become too tight they enable that dominant heel strike we were talking about earlier.
Addressing mobility issues first is a great start. You can accomplish this through soft tissue work, such as massage, foam rolling, theragun and active stretching. Check out this great heated foam roller!
Next, evaluate your running mechanics. For the sake of this piece, I won’t get into running mechanics, but they are extremely important in how your cadence can be increased or decreased. If you are looking to have your mechanics looked at by a professional, Chaski's very own Sue McNatt offers running mechanics evaluation through the biomechanical analysis.
I can not stress more the importance of resistance training for the hips, core and lower body performance. There is often a lot of concern about gaining “too much muscle” or weight, but in a study done by Jung that looked into the impact of resistance training on endurance runners, they found that runners that participated in a training program had greater neurological adaptation, better running economy and improved anaerobic capacity without compromising aerobic performance. These neuromuscular adaptations can benefit your running performance by reducing some of the energy leaks often seen in runners such as collapsing knees, hip drop and large shaft angles when running.
Lastly, focus on drills that can help prime and train your body towards improving your cadence. I’m sure many of us have heard of the exercise “high knees.” This is a great drill for getting the feel for your feet landing underneath your body as well as getting in tune with what your hips and torso are doing while the legs are in motion. As you become more comfortable with doing this exercise in place properly, begin to gradually move forward while pumping your arms. Be aware that you aren't leaning too far back into your hips and keep your core engaged. Only do these for about 10-20 seconds at a time.
Next are “butt kickers” with a very slight lean forward. Be sure that you are maintaining good posture and avoid leaning too far forward. Try to think about flicking your heels to your butt or hands and be sure to engage your glutes and hamstring.
The “A skip” main function is to help encourage that hip, knee and ankle flexion as well as improve quick feet and proper foot strike. When doing A skips, make sure to keep your core engaged and your hips drawn toward the rib cage. This clears that space to allow for a full range of motion and good posture.
Though we were born to run, I think it’s important to remember that running is in fact a sport and, as is true with any skill, takes practice and care. If you aren't sure what your stride looks like, try taking a video of yourself running and watch it back in slow motion paying close attention to when your foot is making contact with the floor in association to your body as well as your hips and knees. Identify where energy is being wasted or incorrectly distributed.
As I mentioned earlier, your cadence will depend on many factors and what works for one may not always work for another and your recovery days may look different than your race day. If you seek to increase your cadence, start off making adjustments on your easy runs until you are comfortable at a new cadence and then work towards testing that out at your 5k pace.
Louw, M., & Deary, C. (2014). The biomechanical variables involved in the aetiology of iliotibial band syndrome in distance runners–A systematic review of the literature. Physical Therapy in sport, 15(1), 64-75.
Daniels, J: Stride Rate When Running, 2012 http://blog.saucony.com/training/stride-rate-running/
Heiderscheit, B. C., Chumanov, E. S., Michalski, M. P., Wille, C. M., & Ryan, M. B. (2011). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 43(2), 296.
Jung, A. P. (2003). The impact of resistance training on distance running performance. Sports Medicine, 33(7), 539-552.