Running, Triathlon
June 23, 2020

Cadence – Starting Off On The Right Foot

Two runners

I spoke about cadence and how it can help your training in my last post. In this post, I will share some techniques I used to improve my original natural cadence of 130+ spm to its current 170 -180 spm.

How To Get Started

Short TL;DR answer: Increase your cadence gradually (over weeks/months), towards your cadence goal, and you will get there in time.

Long 10 minute answer – I hope you enjoy the read.

1. Motivation

Why do you want to increase your cadence? Is it because everyone you know is doing it, and there is some peer pressure? Or is it because you think that it might help you run faster?

My initial motivation was the potential for a higher cadence to reduce chances of getting running injuries. I had experienced the pain of shin splints and plantar fasciitis before, so I had become acutely aware that I needed to do more to preserve the longevity of my new-found hobby.

Low cadence could be one of many factors (e.g. shoe & sole selection, weak gluteal muscles, foot strike, and so on) contributing to injuries, and I saw little harm in trying to push my cadence higher. “Why Not” became “Why, Yes!”.

2. Record And Measure.

a. Recording your cadence is important – as it helps you become aware of where you are presently, and how near / far you are from your objective.

b. The ideal cadence seems to be in the region of 170 to 180 steps per minute (spm). The final exact number doesn’t matter as much as how you feel when you start raising your cadence. Decide on a number, aim for it and reflect.

c. I raised my cadence in small increments. When I first started running in Nov 2016, I ran at a natural, untrained 130-140 spm. It was only around Nov 2017 that I tried to increase my cadence by around 5 spm in all my runs, even in warm-up runs, at all HR intensities (level 1 easy to level 4 hard), most notably in Long Slow Distance (LSD) runs.

When I got comfortable at the new elevated cadence, I tried raising it further, by another 5 spm or so. The exact increase did not matter to me – it could be +2 spm, +4 spm, – as long as I was able to increase and maintain my cadence, I was satisfied.

3. Tricks I Used

These are things that you might try, as they worked for me and were relatively easy to do.

a. Jog To Music.

Not any music, but music that plays at the exact cadence SPM you want to train at. Make a playlist that plays around that targeted range of SPM, or rather in musical terms, BPM (beats per minute). Then land your foot on the exact beat that the music plays at.

I mentioned earlier that I started out running at around 130+ spm.

My first go-to song to raising my cadence towards 140 spm? Feel Good Inc by Gorillaz, which plays at 138 BPM. A bit too fast? Try Radioactive by Imagine Dragons, which plays slightly slower at 136 BPM. The music need not be ‘fast-paced’ either – it’s just perception. For example, Side to Side by Ariana Grande feels relatively slow but plays at a higher 159 BPM. Finding the BPM of your favourite song is relatively easy. Just use something like this: https://songbpm.com/

If you’re not a fan of running to music, you can also try running to an audio metronome – readily available through mobile apps.

Garmin has an app that buzzes the watch according to the desired cadence. These work great as well if you don’t mind the annoyance. Some find the constant rhythm very grounding.

To me, music is comparatively more relaxing. Find your zen – metronome or music – if it works, don’t fix it.

b. Jog Without Music

After a while, you might “progress” to running without listening to music at all, which I managed to do in January this year. I still had music, but it was internalised, the way you recall an entire song from memory. Funny reveal – my 170-180 spm head-music is “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, Running without music is helpful in several ways. You become more aware of your present effort, breathing, foot strike, the scenery, the wind on your body, the footfall of other runners, the dangerous whiz of PMDs / bicycles… I think one becomes more… mindful…, without the distraction of music.

c. Getting To 170 SPM Or Higher

When I got used to 170+ spm, I used the second timer on my watch to help pace myself towards 180 spm. There are 60 seconds in a minute. To hit 180 spm, I only need to take 3 steps every second (60 x 3 = 180 spm). My breathing dovetails into my stride by inhaling/exhaling every other second (i.e. on every 1st and 4th accent of a 6/8 waltz beat). Something like this:

1———-sec———cond
step——step——–step
Breathe-in—————–
ONE——-Two——Three

2———-sec———cond
step——step——–step
Breathe-out—————-
FOUR——Five—–Six

And so on for around 5-10 seconds. By then, I fall into a rhythm, can look away, and run normally without staring at my watch. I would check again intermittently to see whether I need to quicken my spm, and over time, I would get used to the targeted cadence to follow.

d. Regulating Heart Rate With A Higher Cadence

I achieve this by varying my stride. Shorter strides take less energy to perform, thus lowering your heart rate. When my HR goes near the training session’s upper HR limit, I might shuffle my feet, with stride length just 1.5 – 2 shoe-lengths apart, to bring my HR down. What I found is that over time (in weeks), my body adapted to this stride length, and I was able to open up my stride while maintaining both a higher cadence and lower HR.

Even when performing interval training or hill repeats, where effort, pace and HR vary in quick succession, I remained focussed on maintaining the same cadence throughout. It wasn’t easy at first, but with practice, the body adapts over time.

e. Running Drills

The “fast feet” running drill that I learnt at Coached was critically important.

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 (more than 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.

Summary

In this process, you may feel that your higher cadence runs are a bit more efficient – with the feet feeling lighter, the footsteps sounding softer, and generally feeling more relaxed.

Injury-free running requires a host of good habits, from proper nutrition, adequate rest, good running posture, foot strike, to shoe selection – the list goes on.

Ideal cadence will never be a cure-all but should form an integral part of any runner.

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