Running cadence – also known as stride rate – refers to the number of steps per minute (SPM) you take as you run.
In other words, it’s the speed at which your legs churn over as you pound the trails.
And while it’s often used as a performance metric, the latest studies suggest that perhaps we’ve been too focussed on hitting a target running cadence.
Your running cadence is affected by many different things – including your body composition, your running style, and the type of workout you’re doing. And aiming for a fast cadence doesn’t necessarily make you a better runner.
So maybe instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, we need to start thinking about running cadence differently.
Let’s jump in!
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How Cadence and Stride Length Affects Your Running
When talking about cadence and running performance, it’s important to consider it alongside stride length.
After all, your running speed is simply the combination of these two:
Running speed = running cadence (SPM) x stride length
Therefore, two runners can be pacing each other at the same speed, but with very different cadences.
Runner A has a fast cadence and short stride.
Runner B has a slow cadence and long stride.
While everyone has a natural cadence and stride they gravitate towards, there can be advantages to shortening your stride and increasing your cadence – let’s look at that.
What Is a Good Running Cadence?
It’s now generally accepted that there is no one-size-fits-all recommended running cadence; it is dictated by your running mechanics, height, and strength.
For decades, it was accepted wisdom that 180 steps per minute (SPM) was the optimal running cadence to shoot for.
180 steps per minute means each foot hits the ground 90 times every minute.
This originated with legendary running coach Jack Daniels’ analysis of elite runners during the 1984 Olympics. Sat in the stands and analyzing the Olympians as they passed, Jack saw that the elite runners had a cadence of at least 180 SPM, some as much as 200 SPM.
This gradually became the dominant benchmark in run training – run coaches drilled into us to aim to get your cadence up to 180 SPM in order to improve your running form.
However, that notion has gradually been unpacked and over time, studies have shown there is naturally some variance in each person’s optimal running cadence, depending on a host of factors such as height and running mechanics.
Taller runners, for example, typically have a slower running cadence as they naturally take longer strides.
So Is A Fast Cadence Better?
If the 180 SPM number is more of a rough guideline than a benchmark, is there actually any benefit to running a fast cadence?
Yes – and it ties in with your stride length.
Taking shorter, faster steps makes you a more efficient runner and lessens the impact on your joints.
Over-striding is a common issue, especially with rookie runners, wherein they push their foot out too far ahead of them – stretching the leg further than is necessary, and landing heavily on their heel.
While heel striking is not necessarily bad (that is another debate), over-striding needlessly amplifies the impact forces with each step.
So shortening your stride can reduce your injury risk, and means you’re not over-activating your legs muscles.
And when you shorten your stride, you’ll find it easier to increase your running cadence.
While 180 SPM shouldn’t be your target, it can be a nice reference point as you begin to work on your cadence and stride length.
So Really, Is Cadence Important for Running?
It turns out that cadence is likely less important than what running coaches have previously assumed.
As I noted above, the 180 SPM cadence became a benchmark that was used as the basis of drills and practices.
But the most recent literature suggests that focussing on cadence as a primary factor in your running is probably a mistake – you’re focussing on the wrong metric.
Instead, check in on your cadence occasionally – remember that in general, a faster cadence with shorter strides is a more sustainable form of running.
In other words, cadence should typically be used as an indicator, or barometer – not as a target to aim for.
What Is My Running Cadence? How To Measure Cadence
There are several ways to measure or track your running cadence.
Use a Metronome
Using a metronome – for example the one found in the Run Tempo app – is a great way to run to a specific SPM.
(By the way, I recommend setting the metronome to half of your target SPM – i.e. if you are targeting 170 SPM, set your metronome for 85 beats per minute (BPM). This way, one foot will strike on each beat.).
Run To Music (How To Find a Song’s BPM)
The army, especially marines, have their cadence songs that they chant as they run together to hold a constant cadence.
We can do the same! Using a service like GetSongBPM.com, we can build a playlist of music we like that follows our target BPM.
Remember to divide your target SPM by 2, and use that number in your BPM search.
It’s a perfect solution – you get to listen to some great songs while working on your running!
Running Cadence – The Takeaways
- Despite what running coaches used to tell us, 180 SPM is not necessarily the optimal running cadence for all of us.
- In general, a faster running cadence and shorter stride can improve running economy and lessen our risk of injury.
- Different types of runs have different cadences. When in marathon training, for example, your speed work will have a different cadence to your long runs.
- Rather than using your cadence to dictate your run performance, focus instead on things like Heart Rate Zone training, Rate of Perceived Exertion, and speed.