Listening to an avid or professional runner talk about how they prepare for and perform their craft is similar to listening to a mechanic of a Formula 1 racing car. There’s so much that goes into high-level running that it becomes more of a calculus equation than a way to get some exercise. For the average runner or even just someone trying to get started, hearing or reading about things like your respiratory rate, cadence, and running volume – just to name a few – can be so intimidating. While all of these are important for running performance, if you’re just looking to run for health while trying to avoid injury, the easiest thing to focus on is your running cadence.
Running cadence refers to how many steps are made, often measured in one minute intervals. Some people focus on individual legs (it’s easier to count while you’re actually running) while others will count steps from both legs. Counting both legs tends to be more accurate for various reasons. One major reason is that you can take a longer step on one leg and a shorter step on the other, which leads to asymmetry and potentially increases risk of injury.
So what does a “good” cadence look like? There’s a lot of debate regarding the effect of running cadence, so it’s not one size fits all. In professional or competitive groups, you’ll see most competitors reach 180 steps per minute (spm) as a baseline, with some achieving upwards of 200 spm. In recreational runners, the number is much more variable ranging from 120-160 spm. The takeaway is that people tend to have higher cadences when they are higher level runners, which probably isn’t a surprise.
The benefit of a higher running cadence is that you have less force produced per step, which is hypothesized to be why there’s a lower risk of injury. To better visualize this, imagine that you’re trying to punch a hole in a wall (just roll with me here). If you make a ton of fast, little punches, you’ll probably never break through. If you start making bigger and harder punches you’re more likely to break through despite needing more time between punches (probably because your hand hurts, but I digress).
So how do you go about assessing and changing your cadence?
- Get a metronome – Find a free metronome app for your phone (there’s tons of them – Metronome Beats for Android phones is a good example). Once you’ve warmed up, start running at your normal pace and try to match the metronome to your cadence – start your metronome around 140-160 spm and you’ll probably be pretty close. Some fitness trackers and smartwatches can measure your cadence for you.
- 160 spm – There isn’t a “magic” number for cadence, but once someone is able to sustain 160 spm, injury rates tend to decrease. If you’re hanging around 130-140, make goals to bring that cadence up. If you’re already above 160 spm, you can still see improvements in running speed or distance with increasing cadence.
- Slow and steady wins the race – If you jump from 130 spm to 180 spm in one run, it’s going to go poorly, I promise. You should aim to increase your cadence by no more than 5 spm per week. Increasing your cadence too quickly will almost certainly get you injured. While you’re adjusting your cadence, do not increase your running volume – keep your planned distance the same or even decrease your distance slightly. Do not add additional runs to your normal routine either.
- Set your pace – Set your metronome to your desired pace and simply run your metronome every few minutes to check if you’re maintaining pace. If you have a smart device that can do that for you, simply peep at your cadence every couple of minutes. You can also find music that has the beat you need. Services like Spotify have playlists that are filled with songs at specific cadences, which makes it much easier since you can just step to the beat. Just remember to be safe while you’re running!
Manipulating your cadence takes a lot of focus and effort, but it can be a great way to reduce your risk for injury with running. If you aren’t already, doing some bodyweight or resistance training a few days a week is a necessity for runners to make sure they’re keeping up their strength.
For some scientific reading, there are 2 articles linked below regarding cadence and injury rates.
Altering Cadence or Vertical Oscillation During Running: Effects on Running Related Injury Factors – Link
Influence of Stride Frequency and Length on Running Mechanics – Link
Have questions? Feel limited in what you’re able to do? The staff at Limitless Physical Therapy in Eugene, OR and Albany, OR can show you how to discover your future without limits.
***The above information, including text, images, and all other materials, is provided for educational purposes only, and not as a replacement or supplement to professional medical advice. Please contact a certified healthcare professional or your primary physician for any personal concerns.