Running, Triathlon
June 9, 2020

Cadence – Putting Your Best Foot Forward

Man running on running track

What Is Running Cadence?

Cadence is one of the most fundamental but often overlooked aspects of running. Instead of thinking about how fast our feet move, we instead often obsess about how fast we move. While pace is important, it’s an output of your training. To affect the outputs, we have to look at the inputs, and this is where cadence lies. It goes further upstream – the number of steps we make per minute (spm) is an input, and it’s a building block of running well and long. In this post, I hope to share some thoughts of why I think it’s something that you should care about – with the best part being that once you’ve done the hard work to reach your “ideal cadence”, you get to keep it with minimal effort.

The Ideal Cadence

Numerous articles have been written on this, and point to the belief that there is no single magic number. I do think however, that there is a magic range: that being in the region of 170 to 180 steps per minute. This is the Goldilocks region where your feet are landing in the safest place – neither over- nor under-striding. In this sweet spot, your foot landing is directly in line and below your torso, or just slightly behind it. Cadence varies individually because of differences in height and weight, but if your cadence is too far below or above this range, some problems may start to creep in.

Below 170 Steps Per Minute

If your cadence is below this number, there is a higher likelihood that you are overstriding, with a higher degree of this the lower the cadence goes. When a runner overstrides, the foot will be in front of your body, making it land heel-first. The overstriding motion just doesn’t allow a forefoot or midfoot landing. There are a few problems with this.

Firstly, you increase the braking force and ground contact time, which in turn reduces momentum and wastes a part of the energy your back leg used to push you forward.

Secondly, due to the extension of the leg away from the body, the impact up the kinetic chain (foot, heel, knee, hip, spine) is higher. When done over time, this has a cumulative effect and may lead to various ailments like shin splints, runner’s knee and joint strains.

Beyond being painful, this can be expensive as well if you need to rehabilitate with help from a physiotherapist.

Above 180 Steps Per Minute

On the other end of the scale, if your cadence is above this, then there is a chance that you are understriding. Unless you are going at a full sprint, any pace below this usually means that instead of running at your most optimum stride, you are doing a quick-shuffle of sorts.

In this case, you are not putting enough energy into every push off, and this could be seen in a limited range of motion of your legs. A funny image of this might be comparing the running style of an understriding short-legged dog (e.g. dachshund) versus an overstriding long-legged one (e.g. greyhound).

The main upside of understriding is that your chance of heel-landing is non-existent, which significantly protects the joints from injury. This is because the understriding motion doesn’t allow a landing on heels.

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How Running Cadence Helps You in Training

Ok, so each of us has to look for a sweet-spot cadence to avoid trouble. But does having a better cadence help in training? I’d say yes. Once you’ve learnt the skill of changing your cadence, you can use it in various situations in daily training.

  • When going up inclines: cadence has a lot to do with managing your stride length. And for tackling inclines, knowing how to change your stride length while keeping the foot turn-over consistent will aid in keeping to intensity zones, even as you climb up the hill.
  • When running down slopes: learning to make your legs move quickly will help to reduce a tendency to brake when going downhill. I’ve noticed that the steeper the decline, the faster the cadence needs to be, to maintain momentum. If your cadence doesn’t increase, then there will be a lot of overstriding and increased landing impact when descending.
  • On your Long Runs: a sweet-spot cadence protects your legs from injuries, which is critical insurance a runner needs when doing long-duration runs of 1-2 hours.
  • Breath and intensity regulation: a 170-180 spm cadence equates to 3 steps every second. When matched to breathwork, this is a great way to gauge the perception of how hard you are running. For example, a 3:3 breath means I breathe in and out on every third step. Extended to the concept of intensity training zones, a 4:4 breath may sit somewhere between Zone 1 Easy to Zone 2 Steady, a 3:3 breath within Zone 2 Steady, and 2:2 breath anywhere from Zone 3 Moderate Hard and higher.

Your Running Cadence is your BFF

Unlike detraining or training reversibility, where your pace may suffer from prolonged inactivity, cadence stays very much in place. If you have no problems whatsoever with your current cadence, then that’s a personal victory – you’ve found your BFF. But if you’re trying to change it, once you’ve nailed down your new ideal rhythm, that becomes your BFF that sticks with you no matter what.

Quick Start

In my next post, I intend to share some techniques I used to improve my original natural cadence of 130+ spm to its current 170 – 180 spm. But as a quick start, you can look at the “fast feet” running drill that I learnt at Coached.

The specific method is something (but not entirely) like the videos found from searching “fast feet running drill” in Youtube.

Running drills are great in that they exaggerate the motion and thus condition you to feel and understand the movement more intimately. I think the benefit of the Fast Feet drill is that by speeding up your cadence to extreme highs (in excess of 200 SPM?) and knowing what that feels like, doing any other run at cadences lower than Fast Feet feels relatively simple and manageable.

Do try it out, but try to get a coach to help spot your mistakes in posture and movement.

Assistant CoachMing LeungMing Leung is an assistant coach at Coached, a personal training programme that helps runners & triathletes optimise, track and enjoy their training.