Should We Worry About a Runner’s Cadence?

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Running Cadence

Assessing a runner’s cadence, or step rate, is a common practice for many runners, coaches and clinicians. Any runner with a GPS watch can now look down and view their cadence both while running or at the end of a workout. Much like changing a runner’s foot strike, the idea of increasing a runner’s step rate has been proposed by many as a way to either stay healthy or run faster.

Like any aspect of running form, our cadence is constantly changing. If we run faster, slower, over different terrain or even in different shoes, our cadence is often adjusting itself to help us get from point A to point B. Today, I wanted to discuss a few key concepts around running cadence that I try to consider when working with runners.

Changing Our Preferred Running Form Often Makes Us Less Efficient

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In order to run faster, we can do two things. We can take more steps or we can take bigger steps. Runners will often do a combination of both as they increase their speed. More recently, it has become common for runners to think they have to hit a certain step rate on their runs in order to stay healthy or improve their performance. Often this means increasing their cadence to somewhere around 180 steps per minute which is normally credited to coach Jack Daniels.

Chris and I expanded on this idea in our latest Runners Zone Podcast HERE.

The problem a lot of people run into is the idea that simply running at a higher cadence will lead to performance benefits. Izzy Moore did a great study on what we can do to improve our running economy. Her study (HERE) found increasing our cadence by 3% has some positive benefits.

I’ve talked with many adults that felt like consciously increasing their cadence. The idea that in order to run at our best we have to run at 180 steps per minute, or even close to 180 steps per minute, is absolutely false. As runners get better at running their mechanics often change. Whether it’s changes in their arm usage, step rate or how big of steps they take, these changes happen almost automatically. It’s not something to consciously think about. If you have to think about increasing your cadence, there is a chance you are actually making yourself run less efficient. 

Our Cadence Often Changes as We Run More

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I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of college and high school runners on incorporating strength training in their programming or managing a running injury. Since many of them start working with me at the beginning of their running career, I’ve had the opportunity to watch them change as runners through high school and college. One thing that often changes is their step rate as they get older and faster. They have accumulated years of running and are often better runners because of it. This was also published in a really good research study HERE. I see the same thing in a lot of adult runners as they gain more training volume over years of consistent training. Our cadence can change as we change as runners.

Increasing Your Cadence Can Be Helpful for Many Running Injuries

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A growing amount of research exists showing how simply altering a runner’s step rate can have a positive change on the loads going through many lower body structures. Chris has a nice summary on his website HERE. Cadence manipulation is something I use with a lot of my patients dealing with running related injuries. Changing our cadence in the presence of an injury can serve as an easy way of either keeping us running or progressing us back to running without aggravating a runner’s symptoms. Simply having a runner increase their step rate by 5-10% of their preferred cadence can be very helpful under the right conditions.

If I have someone is healthy, but displays a low cadence and longstanding history of tibial stress fractures or anterior knee pain, they might benefit from a small increase in their running cadence in order to load those tissues less.

Anatomy Matters with Running Form

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Anatomy matters when we look at running form. If we don’t have a good understanding of how someone is set up, we can’t make appropriate decisions. The actual length of our bones will have an affect on how quickly we like to turn our feet over.

Longer legs often equals a lower cadence.

The above picture is of two of my clients during a run this winter. They’re both super easy to work and have shown awesome consistency with not stellar running conditions in Kansas City. This picture is to highlight the difference in their leg lengths. When running at the same pace, Elizabeth (on the right) is more likely to adopt a lower cadence than Jessica (on the left) simply because her legs are longer.

Imagine this. If we magically lengthened each one of your legs by a foot, would it be easier or harder for you to pick up your feet when running?

More difficult.

If we have a runner with long legs, there is often a tendency to have a lower cadence. On the other end of the spectrum, runners with shorter legs often find it easier to adopt a higher cadence. These are not absolutes, but something we have to take into account.

Take Home Messages

Cadence retraining is a great tool to implement with a lot of running injuries as we are trying to build a runner back up to consistent training.

Thinking too much about your cadence or any other variable related to your running form is probably less helpful than you think it is.

If you feel like you need to change any aspect of your running form, consult a professional that will take into account your past history, individual anatomy and goals before changing too much.

Thanks for reading!

Nathan Carlson PT, DPT, USATF