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Running Cadence: Is There Really An Ideal Running Cadence?

Does Your Stride Rate Matter and How Can You Improve It?

Running cadence, also called stride rate, step rate, or stride frequency, refers to the number of steps you take per minute (spm) as you run. 

You can determine your running cadence by counting how many times your right foot hits the ground in one minute and then multiplying that number by two.

For example, if you take 85 steps with your right foot in 60 seconds, your running cadence—or the number of steps per minute—is 170 spm.

But, how do you run with a higher cadence? What is a good running cadence or the ideal cadence for distance runners?

A person running.

What Is A Good Running Cadence?

As with many aspects of running form or running technique, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, “best stride rate,” or “perfect stride frequency” for all runners.

Many running coaches suggest that the ideal running cadence is around 180 spm, but generally striving for 170 spm or greater is a good running cadence for recreational runners.

Several factors will affect the ideal cadence for a runner, including the following:

#1: Sprinting Vs. Long Distance Running

Generally, sprinters demonstrate a longer stride length coupled with a higher cadence because the race is so short, and power, acceleration, and ground contact time are all critically important.

For distance running, running speed will impact what constitutes a good running cadence.

Typically, long-distance runners—such as those training for a half marathon or marathon—will want to land on their midfoot and use a higher stride frequency, but we tend to see distance runners (recreational distance runners) overstriding and heel striking. 

A person sprinting.

#2: Leg Length

Because taller runners have longer legs, they can use a comparatively lower cadence and greater stride length than a short runner while still not overstriding.

#3: Terrain

Trail running typically requires a faster cadence with short, quick steps rather than long, loping strides with a low cadence.

Similarly, a higher stride frequency and shorter step length require less energy as you ascend the hill.

In contrast, for downhill running, you can lengthen your stride because you are working with gravity, so a low cadence can be more appropriate and will use less energy. 

A person trail running.

Why Does Running Cadence Matter?

Many recreational runners are interested in improving their running form to decrease the risk of injury, improve running economy, and hopefully run faster.

Interestingly, although all of these goals can theoretically be addressed simultaneously by working on increasing your stride rate or running cadence, plenty of recreational runners assume that their stride length is actually too short and that by increasing stride length, they will have a smoother running stride like elite runners.

However, in fact, certainly one of the most common issues with the running mechanics or running form for many recreational runners is actually overstriding, which means that the stride length is too long.

Overstriding (heel striking) can decrease your running speed and running economy, and more importantly, overstriding increases ground contact time, and impact stresses, and therefore increases the risk of injury.

With overstriding, or heel striking, the stride length is ultimately too long, which means that the runner is extending the leading leg too far forward relative to their center of mass while running.1DAOUD, A. I., GEISSLER, G. J., WANG, F., SARETSKY, J., DAOUD, Y. A., & LIEBERMAN, D. E. (2012). Foot Strike and Injury Rates in Endurance Runners. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise44(7), 1325–1334. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0b013e3182465115

‌Then, instead of having the tibia (shin) in a relatively vertical position as they are just about to land on the foot, the tibia is angled forward with the heel pointing down.

Two people running.

This ends up causing them to land on the heel instead of the midfoot or the ball of the foot because the toes are pointing up and away, and the stride length is too long.

So, what is the problem here?

From a running economy standpoint, overstriding wastes energy because you compromise your forward momentum.

If you can recall back to physics class, when you apply a force with a direction (think vectors) to the ground, the ground pushes back with the same amount of force in the equal and opposite direction.2Hall, N. (2023, August 7). Newton’s Laws of Motion. Glenn Research Center; NASA. https://www1.grc.nasa.gov/beginners-guide-to-aeronautics/newtons-laws-of-motion/

‌If a runner is overstriding, the shin, knee, thigh, and hip complex are all angled backward relative to the ground at heel contact.

Therefore, instead of helping to propel you forward, the ground pushes backward on the body.3Souza, R. B. (2016). An Evidence-Based Videotaped Running Biomechanics Analysis. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America27(1), 217–236. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmr.2015.08.006

‌Therefore, not only are you conserving the momentum you are generating, but you are actually having to work against a force that is pushing you backward.

A short stride length.

Increasing your running cadence or stride rate can help decrease your stride length.

When your legs are moving faster and taking more steps per minute, the spread of those steps, so your step length or stride length, shortens and quickens.

Then, when the leading leg advances forward in the air during the swing phase, it isn’t extended so far out in front of your body that your shin is angled relative to the ground, and your heel is pointing down. 

Instead, your shin drops vertically, closer to your center of mass, setting you up for a midfoot strike at ground contact.

Landing on your midfoot and using a shorter stride length uses less energy because now, returning to our concept of vectors in physics, the ground isn’t pushing backward on your foot.

Instead, it springs you right back up in the forward direction, ready to advance your body for the next running step.

Another problem with overstriding or heel striking is that it increases ground contact time. 

A sprinting cadence.

Because you are landing on your heel, and your body is further behind your foot, your foot stays on the ground longer as your center of mass has to travel from further back behind the heel to over the midfoot before pushing off on your toes.

Greater ground contact time while running has been shown to decrease stride efficiency, decrease running economy, and compromise running speed.

In contrast, the longer you are in the “flight phase“ of running, meaning that both feet are off of the ground, the faster you will run.

Elite runners have a very short ground contact time with a greater stride frequency.

Using a faster cadence and shorter stride length will help you become a better runner from a running speed and running efficiency standpoint, and it can also help with injury prevention.

Evidence suggests that increasing stride length can increase the risk of injuries by increasing impact or loading forces.4Baggaley, M., Vernillo, G., Martinez, A., Horvais, N., Giandolini, M., Millet, G. Y., & Edwards, W. B. (2019). Step length and grade effects on energy absorption and impact attenuation in running. European Journal of Sport Science20(6), 756–766. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2019.1664639

In contrast, research suggests that increasing your cadence by about 5-10% can reduce the risk of injuries.5Heiderscheit, B. C., Chumanov, E. S., Michalski, M. P., Wille, C. M., & Ryan, M. B. (2011). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise43(2), 296–302. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ebedf4

‌There is less impact stress on the foot and leg when you land on your midfoot, less braking force, and less vertical ossification (bouncing motion).

A trail runner.

Essentially, a higher cadence allows quick, light steps and keeps your feet closer to your center of mass. 

Additionally, as discussed, having a shorter stride length and taking a greater number of steps per minute rather than using longer strides with a low cadence decreases ground contact time.

We discussed that this can help you be a better runner by supporting a more efficient stride and faster running speed, but it can also decrease the risk of running injuries.

As the number of steps per minute increases and the ground contact time decreases, every step has less impact.

Essentially, using a running technique with a higher cadence allows the runner to land lightly and quickly on each foot rather than take heavy, trodding steps where the heel crashes into the ground, and the foot is almost stomping or slapping into the road.

If you’ve ever seen (or heard!) a recreational runner running on a treadmill at the gym, you might have even heard the slap, slap, slap of their feet seemingly banging down on the running deck rather than gliding lightly with quiet, smooth running steps.

For the most part, if we were watching or listening to an elite runner on the same treadmill, they would be using a higher average cadence, less contact time, less impact, less energy, and overall being a more efficient runner.

A person running.

How Do You Improve Your Running Cadence?

So, it’s clear that there can be benefits to increasing the average cadence for distance runners.

Here are some tips on how to increase your cadence while running:

#1: Use a Metronome App

Metronome apps such as Smart Metronome and Run Tempo are one of the best ways to not only monitor the number of times per minute you are landing on your feet (spm), but also to help be methodical and more gradual in your progression towards changing your average cadence for long distance running.

After your warm-up, turn on the metronome and dial it down until the bpm matches your current running cadence.

Then, start to increase the bpm by 5% and try to maintain the higher running cadence for just the next mile.

Gradually increase the percentage of your run at this faster stride rate until the whole run after the warm-up is at the new cadence.

#2: Run Strides

Run strides at the end of easy runs and work on quick turnover. Imagine running over hot coals.

#3: Pump Your Arms

Pump your arms faster—the arms drive the legs.

A person trail running.

#4: Run Downhill

Incorporate short downhill sprints to practice using a faster stride frequency.

#5: Shorten Your Steps

Think about shortening your stride length. This will force you to run at a faster stride rate to maintain your pace.

Gradually trying to run with a higher cadence rather than jumping ship and trying to overhaul to a new cadence rapidly is typically a better approach to working towards a good running cadence and improving your running technique without increasing the risk of running injuries. 

If you have been running for a long time, suddenly changing an aspect of your running technique drastically will introduce completely new stresses to your body, increasing the risk of injury. 

Taking time to increase your step rate gradually will allow your body time to adapt to the higher cadence and shorter stride length. 

If you are looking to improve your running form in general, check out this next video:

References

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

4 thoughts on “Running Cadence: Is There Really An Ideal Running Cadence?”

  1. Hi Thomas and everyone at Marathon Handbook.

    I just wanted to say thanks for providing me with the information and guidance I needed to run my first Marathon (Manchester, UK, 10th Oct 2021) and to go sub-4 hours. The training plan worked like a dream. I used the 8,46 rule for as long as I could and that left enough in the tank to reach my goal depsite a major slow down over the last 8 miles. I can now say I am in the sub-4 crew for the rest of my life, which is amazing.

    Reply
  2. Hi. I always read these very interesting articles but in the end over the years I’ve learnt to listen to my body rather than a myriad of sometimes conflicting advice. I was once told by the physio dep at norwich. I should be able to run for a bus let alone run marathons. And yet after a couple of years I regularly knocked out sub 2.45 marathons pb of 2.35 and half marathons of between 1.10 to 1.12 as a club runner. I was happy with that. So yes read and absorb but listen to your inner self! Great stuff!

    Reply

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