4 reasons to increase your cadence

Working on increasing your cadence when running can help you in a number of ways. But first – what is it? Simply put, cadence is the number of steps per minute you take when running. While a much-touted ‘golden standard’ cadence is 180 steps per minute – and certainly a lot of studies of top distance runners have shown that most of them run at around this mark – I usually suggest my clients aim to run at between 170 steps (on their easy runs) and 180 steps per minute (for their quick 5km or 10km runs) depending on the pace they are running.

Whenever I meet with new clients, cadence (along with breathing technique) is one of the first things I have them work on. So, why should you be looking to increase your steps per minute? Well, here are four good, inter-related reasons you should pay closer attention to cadence.

1. injury: reduce the risk of over-striding

Want to stay injury-free and reduce the wear and tear on your knees, hips and ankles? Of course you do. There is no getting away from the fact that running is sport that involves pounding the pavement, grass or gravel repeatedly with each step. Every time your foot hits the ground, the force produced is approximately three to four times your body weight with the pressure impacting not only on your feet and ankles, but also your shins, knees, hips and up into your pelvis too.

The way you run and how your foot strikes the ground with each step can reduce or increase the effect of this pressure. One common pitfall runners make is to over-stride, extending their legs straight and way out in front of them so that they land on their heels. Excessive heel striking (i.e. hitting the ground heal first) has been shown to exacerbate the pressure on your joints and increase the risk of injury as the shock of landing on your heal with a straight leg travels up through your foot and lower leg towards your knees and into the hips and trunk.

Running with a higher cadence is all about learning to turn your legs over quicker and taking shorter, lighter steps. Running at a cadence of 170 or above makes it nigh on impossible to over-stride and much more likely that you will land further towards the middle or front of your foot. You’ll also be more likely to land with your feet under the centre of your body mass with your knees bent and therefore better able to cope with the repetitive force that comes with each step. And the best thing? Simply by focusing on upping your steps per minute, you will pretty much do this automatically without having to worry too much about how you are placing your feet as you run. Bingo!

2. Effiency: stop putting the “brakes” on

Everybody wants to run more efficiently. A high cadence will increase your running efficiency in two ways. Firstly, and allied to the point above, over-striding and heal-striking creates a braking force each time your foot hits the ground. What do brakes do? Exactly – they slow you down. Landing heal-first will check your momentum each time your foot hits the ground. Landing on the mid- or forefoot, on the other hand, helps you keep your momentum going through your stride and is therefore more economical. Because a higher cadence makes it harder to over-stride, upping your steps per minute will help you avoid this inefficient braking effect and instead glide over the ground.

3. efficiency: stop bouncing

The second point related to efficiency is that a slower running cadence tends towards more bouncy, up and down movement. It should be pretty obvious that an overly vertical motion as you run wastes energy because precious energy is put into taking you up and down rather than moving you forward. Running with a faster cadence cuts out much of this up and down motion. Try it yourself: count your steps – 1-2-3-4 over and over – as you run, timing your steps to hit the ground with each beat. Start off counting slowly at first before speeding up your count and therefore your steps. Fix your eyes on the horizon and notice how much you bounce while you count slowly. As you speed up your count and your steps, you’ll notice the horizon begins to jump less before your eyes. More of your energy is being channelled into propelling you forward rather than wasted on vertical motion.

Interestingly, many of the bouncy runners I have encountered began running on a treadmill. Why is this the case? On a treadmill, the ground literally moves beneath your feet and so big, bouncy steps means more time off the ground allowing more of the treadmill to move under your feet. But while this might feel great on the running machine, out on the trails and the pavement, the ground – unfortunately – stays put and extra bounce gets your nowhere!

4. injury: cut out the heavy landing

Just as landing heal-first channels more force up through the whole of your leg, it stands to reason that bigger bouncier steps increase the force with which you land. If you have a low cadence, you spend more time off the ground, up in the air, and hit the ground harder when you come down. Taking more steps per minute equals less up and down motion, less time in the air, and therefore a softer landing with each step. Quicker, lighter steps will significantly reduce the stress on your body and help minimise the risk of injury.

I’m Convinced! So… How can I up my Cadence?

The first thing you’re going to want to do is find out what your cadence is on an average run. If you have a running watch – lucky you! Most modern sports watches are going to count your steps automatically and feed you the data whenever you upload to Strava or Garmin Connect or wherever you record your runs.

If you don’t have a sports watch or your watch doesn’t measure cadence, then you can manually count your steps. I’d recommend choosing a leg (right or left, I’m not picky!) and counting every time that leg hits the ground while running over a 30 second period. Times that number by four and you have your total steps per minute for both legs. For example, if you count that your right leg hits the ground 40 times in 30 seconds, multiplying by four will give you a cadence figure of 160 steps per minute.

Now you know your cadence, if you’re below the 170-180 steps per minute mark, you’re going to want to try and up your rate. Here are a couple of things I’d recommend. First, if you listen to music while you run, there are a whole host of Spotify playlists and YouTube videos that bunch together songs at a particular BPM. A quick search for songs at 170bpm or 180bpm will return a tonne of results. And while the music might not be to everyone’s taste (happy hardcore seems to feature prominently!), run to the beat as you hit the pavement, and you’ll be instantly increasing your cadence.

MetroTimer allows you to set the metronome to beep for a minute.

Second, if you’re not a fan of listening to music whilst running (or you just can’t stomach the playlists on offer), download a metronome app for guitar or piano. You can set the metronome to the desired number of beats and run in time to that. An app I often use with clients is called MetroTimer. It allows you to set the metronome to beep for a period of one or two minutes at a time rather than indefinitely. This is great if you want to establish your rhythm when you start to run but don’t want your phone to beep constantly for the duration of your workout. I recommend clients hit the one minute button every time they hit a mile or a kilometre to ‘check in’ with their cadence every once in a while, drop into the desired step count, then try to maintain the rhythm once the metronome falls silent. After a little practice, you’ll be running the cadence you want automatically.

So, give it a go! Given the benefits you’ll gain, it’s worth the effort!

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