Running Cadence – What is it? And why is it important?

Running Cadence - how important is it?

Running cadence (or stride rate) is considered a vital part of efficient running technique. Not only is it linked to improved efficiency and performance, but also injury risk.

So what is it and why is it important?

In this article we take a look at the science of running cadence, how it can reduce injuries, and improve efficiency. And take a look at how to improve your cadence, stride length and running speed.

Table of Contents

What is running cadence?

From a sports perspective, cadence provides a measure of the rate or rhythm of a movement. When this is related to running, it provides a measure of your stride rate, or number of steps you take per minute (spm).

It can vary significantly between different runners. It’s also dependent on the speed that you’re running and generally increases inline with increasing running speed.

Is there an optimal cadence for running?

If you’ve been running for a while, then no doubt you’ve heard reference to 180spm being the optimal cadence range.

But is that really the case? Should you be aiming for 180spm?

The short answer to this is…no!

Every runner has their own “individual” optimal cadence range – essentially a cadence range where you are most efficient and have a reduced risk of injury. However, there are two very important points to consider…

  • Firstly, there is no set cadence value that is optimal for every runner
  • Secondly, your optimal range should change depending on running speed 

How does pace affect cadence?

For most runners, cadence increases inline with increasing speed. At this point, it’s important to remember that running pace is also determined by stride length, which also tends to increase inline with running speed.

Why is cadence important?

Whilst there are many factors that affect performance, at it’s simplest, there are only two metrics that ultimately determine running speed:

  • Stride length
  • Cadence

It’s an unbreakable law of running that your speed, will always be determined by your stride length multiplied by your cadence.

Clearly, your cadence is a key part of the running speed formula – but that’s not all…

Three benefits of optimal cadence:

  • Faster running pace
  • Improved efficiency
  • Reduced overstriding and lower injury risk

As we’ve seen, running pace is determined by a combination cadence and stride length.

However, this can vary significantly between runners:

  • Some runners make use of a faster cadence and shorter stride length,
  • Others have a slower stride rate and longer stride length.

However, if you really want to maximise performance, then you need to develop the conditioning to maintain a fast cadence and a good stride length.

Before taking a closer look at cadence, let’s quickly look at how to measure it – feel free to skip over this part.

How to measure cadence?

The simplest way is to use a gps watch capable of recording cadence. There’s also a variety of footpods (Stryd footpod, Garmin, Zwift RunPod, Polar etc) that provide greater accuracy along with a number of other metrics.

Another option, is to count the number of steps you take during one minute of running.

One point to note: it’s a lot easier to do this by just counting the steps taken on one leg, and then multiplying that figure by 2. Alternatively, count the steps on one leg for 30 seconds and multiply this by 4.

Cadence and injury risk

Increasing cadence can be very effective for reducing the injury risk associated with overstriding.

What is overstriding?

Overstriding is where your feet land, or strike the ground, too far in front of your centre of mass.

Why is this a problem? When this happens, it creates a slight braking effect, which can have a number of negative effects:

  • Reduces efficiency by increasing the ground contact time – the time your feet spend in contact with the ground
  • Disrupts your natural running rhythm.
  • Increases the risk of injury – especially if you land too far in front of the centre of mass, and with an extended knee.

So how can you reduce overstriding?

One approach is to focus on technical aspects of running form, so that your foot lands under, or nearer to, your centre of mass.

However, improving technique can be a difficult and slow process. It requires regular feedback and monitoring, and a lot of conscious effort and focus. Having said that, most runners will see improvement with consistent purposeful training.

A quicker approach is to work on increasing your running cadence, particularly if this is low.

Run cadence and overstriding

If you overstride then increasing cadence can be beneficial. This is supported by research, which has shown that that runners can reduce vertical oscillation, ground contact time and reduce the braking impulse by increasing cadence (1).

Does a low stride rate mean you are overstriding?

Is that really the case? Well, yes and know – while a low stride rate is linked to overstriding, a low cadence doesn’t inherently mean that you’re overstriding.

It really depends on running pace, and where your foot is landing – under or in front of your center of mass. 

As an example, my cadence varies depending on my running pace:

  • If I run at 2:45/km it can be over 210spm,
  • At 3:20/km it’s ~185-190spm,
  • Then at 4:00/km it’s ~175-180spm,
  • At 5:00/km it’s ~165-170spm,
  • And if I was to run at 6:00/km it might be as low as 160-165spm.

In each case, I’m not overstriding, my stride rate and length naturally adjust to match my running pace. The data below, shows how this changes as pace increases.

In this case, stride frequency and length are dynamic and increase as pace increases.

Running pace, cadence and stride length data

How to increase cadence and reduce injuries

Research has shown that increasing your cadence by ~5-10% can help to reduce overstriding, reduce loading of the hip and knee joints and potentially reduce injury rates (1, 6). 

Here’s a simple approach you can use to increase it:

  • Start by gradually increasing cadence over a period of weeks.
  • To do this, start by increasing stride rate by ~3-5% during your easy/moderate pace runs. You might find this easier if you do this for short intervals during your run. As an example, you could alternate between 3-5minutes run at 3-5% higher cadence, and 3-5minutes at your normal stride rate.
  • As this gets easier, increase the length of these intervals, until you can maintain this throughout the run.
  • If you’re still overstriding, try increasing stride rate by a further 3-5%.
  • One point to note here: don’t make too many changes and seek advice if you’re unsure.

Remember, that cadence should increase as pace increases, so you may need to increase this at faster speeds as well.

Cadence and running efficiency

Research has shown that stride frequency is linked to running efficiency (2-5). As such, increasing run cadence has gained attention as a way to improve running efficiency.

So, will this make you a quicker and more efficient runner?

This really depends on your optimal cadence, and also, your training experience.

What determines your optimal stride rate?

It’s determined by a number of factors including: height, limb length, aerobic fitness, muscular endurance, percentage of slow twitch muscle fibres, training history, flexibility (specifically in the hips) as well as stability in the knees and core strength.

Let’s not forget that stride length also influences stride frequency. Some runners naturally have a longer stride. As such, their optimum cadence, may be lower than runners with a shorter stride length.

Research looking at cadence and efficiency

Research looking at runners preferred vs optimal cadence…

Optimal cadence is affected by training experience

  • Inexperienced runners tended to use a cadence that was below optimal, and by increasing this slightly they can improve running efficiency (3).
  • In contrast, trained runners were much closer to optimal (4): trained runners cadence was ~3spm lower than optimal vs ~6spm lower in novice runners.

Optimal stride rate varies for each runner

One important point here: these were based on group averages – there was actually wide individual variation between each runner (3).

With this in mind, just increasing your cadence to a one size fits all range (such as 170-180spm) is not the best approach.

For most runners, this is unlikely to significantly improve your efficiency and may be detrimental. It’s also worth considering your level of conditioning – if you’re in the ‘well-trained’ category then you’re more likely to be near your optimal range.

So, while cadence can influence efficiency, it’s important to first know your ‘individual’ optimum cadence. It’s also important to remember that this will be different for different running speeds.

Finding your optimal cadence

To find the optimal range, researchers (3) measured the runners heart rates across a range of cadences and speeds. Each run consisted of 3 minutes at a set cadence, followed by 2.5minutes of walking. From this, researchers were able to identify the athlete’s optimal range.

How did they do this?…the process was quite straightforward: they simply identified the cadence with the lowest heart rate.

To test this yourself follow this simple formula:

  • Run at your preferred cadence for 3minutes – this should be at a submaximal speed (ideally below threshold/tempo intensity).
  • Rest for 2-3minutes, then repeat at the same speed across a range of cadences. As an example you could test this at 2-3% and 5-6%, below and above your preferred cadence.
  • The cadence with the lowest heart rate indicates greater efficiency.

Important note: your optimum cadence will likely be different across different running speeds. It may also change as your running fitness changes.

Another consideration is cardiac drift. This is where heart rate continues to rise even when intensity, or pace, is kept the same. Cardiac drift has a greater effect as intensity increases, making this test less effective at faster speeds.

Cadence and running speed

Will increasing cadence make you a faster runner? In short, if cadence naturally increases because your running fitness improves then you will run faster. However, just increasing your stride rate is unlikely to make you significantly faster.

Running fitness must also improve

The simple truth is: running pace is always determined by a combination of cadence and stride length. And both of these are affected by your current running fitness and conditioning level.

To be able to achieve the fast cadences and long stride lengths seen in elite runners, takes many years of specific training.

While most runners are unable to maintain such a high cadence and long stride length during sustained running; interval training gives you the opportunity to improve your ability to sustain these for short periods. And overtime you will develop the conditioning to sustain these for increasingly longer periods.

This is one of the reasons why interval training is so beneficial for endurance running performance.

Using intervals to improve run cadence and stride length

So why use intervals?…The real advantage here is: they train you to run with a faster cadence and at the same time they increase stride length.

Contrast this with using a fast cadence at slower running speeds – such as those who advocate 180spm, whatever the running speed. In this case, it has the opposite effect. 

A combination of fast cadence + slow running speed = significantly shorter stride length! While that might benefit stride rate, it won’t benefit stride length.

Simply making yourself run at a faster cadence, during all of your runs is not the answer.

The charts below really illustrate how in my case, both run cadence and stride length increase significantly as pace increases.

Cadence and stride length vs running speed

You can see from the chart, how faster than race pace intervals (in this case 3k pace intervals and 200m repetitions) were a very effective way to lift cadence and stride length. And while race pace Intervals (in this case 10k pace intervals) were less effective, they do improve running efficiency at the ‘specific’ cadence and stride length used when racing.

For this reason, I prefer not to focus on deliberately running at a specific cadence. Instead, focus on training in ways that push the upper limits of cadence and stride length, without actively trying to control these.

So, don’t focus on hitting a specific cadence, focus on including key sessions that push your current limits of cadence and stride length – such as faster intervals and hill sessions. As a consequence they will naturally improve, along with your endurance running performance.

8 Ways to improve running cadence

Firstly, achieving a real improvement in cadence requires a consistent approach to training.

Secondly, there are a number of training approaches that are effective for improving cadence. Importantly, these approaches should be the staple of any endurance runner looking to improve their running speed.

So, rather than focusing specifically on increasing running cadence, ensure that you’re using a multitude of different training methods that will help to improve your running. Consequently, this will elevate your cadence to a higher level.

With that in mind: here’s 8 training tips that will improve your cadence, stride length and running speed.

#1 Use hill repeats

Hill repeats are a great way to improve running speed. And when done correctly they benefit both running cadence and length.

Why is hill training so effective?

Firstly, when you run hills you apply more force per foot strike, which is a great way to develop stride length.

Secondly, by running the hills at a high intensity you also develop cadence. To do this effectively, we need to endure that: 1) the hill isn’t too long; and, 2) it isn’t too steep – read more about the best gradients for hill sprints.

Short hill repeats and hill sprint workouts can be really effective.

#2 Include lactate threshold training

Whilst hill repeats can push the upper limits of running cadence; lactate threshold training improves your ability to sustain a fast cadence and good stride length over prolonged periods. Importantly, these workouts help you to develop the muscular endurance required to maintain run cadence.

Example sessions include:

  • 25-30minute tempo run
  • 2-3 x 10 minutes at threshold pace,
  • or, 2 x 15-20 minutes at half marathon pace.

You can see some examples of these within the 10k advanced running training plan.

#3 Include faster running intervals

Including intervals, run at faster than race pace, is also beneficial. So, why include these? By running at faster than race pace, you will become more efficient and find it easier to maintain a good cadence during your target race distance.

Overtime this leads to improvements in run efficiency, cadence and stride length at race pace.

As an example, if your focus is on 10k running, you could add in some 10k pace running intervals and run these at slightly quicker than race pace.

You would also want to include some 5k, 3k pace as well as some 1500m/mile pace intervals to develop cadence across a range of speeds.

#4 Short Sprints to Improve maximum run cadence

Working in a similar way to hill sprints, these are great way to improve maximal running speed. They’re also great for developing your maximum cadence and stride length. In turn, this will “pull-up” your normal cadence across a range of speeds.

How to include maximal sprints:

  • One approach is to add in some short sprints before your weekly interval training workouts.
  • This should actually improve your interval workouts as well.
  • Examples include: 4 x flying 30s (30m acceleration, 30m top speed, 30m deceleration), each separated by a couple of minutes of rest
  • Another option is to include running strides, with the last 30-50m run at close to top speed.

To be effective these need to be completed early on in the session, otherwise fatigue will prevent you hitting top speed.

#5 Include running drills

Running drills improve neuromuscular coordination, technique and your ability to apply force efficiently. Including the correct drills can be really beneficial for both cadence and stride length. They also help to improve ground contact time balance which is important for running efficiency.

In terms of running drills, two of the most effective include high knees and A-skips.

High knee drills are particularly effective:

  • Try adding in 3 sets of high knee running for 20-40m, into your training schedule.
  • Start at 20m and progress by 5m as your conditioning improves.
  • Aim to include this 2-3 times per week – ideally before high intensity training sessions.

Key points:

  • Maintain a tall posture.
  • Aim for a fast cadence.
  • Knees should reach hip height (or above).
  • Also focus on a good arm drive.
  • Don’t move forwards too quickly – the focus is on a fast cadence, with high knee.

Progression: Run these on the spot for 20-30seconds.

#6 Don’t forget strength training

Strength training can improve your stride length and your ability to maintain a fast cadence, by improving muscular power, strength and muscular endurance.

An often overlooked area is Improving hip flexor strength, which is one of the reasons hill running can be so effective.

Good strength training exercises include:

  • Lunges
  • Squats
  • Straight leg deadlifts (single leg)

#7 Maintain flexibility and mobility

Working on flexibility, so you can maintain a normal range of motion, is vital.

Why is this important? Put simply, a reduced range of motion limits stride length, whereas good flexibility allows for a longer stride length and a fast efficient cadence.

A good approach is to ensure you include a dynamic warm up, and work on mobility after training.

Another option is to set aside some time to work on mobility and flexibility – using a foam roller can be beneficial.

#8 Include longer runs

Including regular low and moderate intensity endurance runs helps to improve muscular endurance, running efficiency and aerobic fitness.

Longer runs can be particularly useful, especially if you pay attention to when your cadence begins to decrease.

It’s during these longer runs where cadence decreases as fatigue sets in – often, you need to take yourself to that point for an adaptation to take place.

So what do you do when cadence begins to decrease? If you feel like your cadence is dropping off during longer runs (a good indication is heavy foot strike), then try to focus on pulling your foot quickly from the ground. By being aware that your foot strike is heavy, and focusing on quickly pulling your heel towards your glutes, you can decrease ground contact times and help to develop cadence. And by continuing to focus on maintaining cadence as fatigue sets in, you will improve muscular endurance and develop the specific endurance required to maintain cadence.

Overtime, these improvements will make it easier to maintain a higher cadence when running across a range of different speeds.

Key points

  • Running performance is determined by your ability to run at a fast cadence and good stride length.
  • It’s linked to running efficiency, performance and injury risk.
  • Runners have an individual optimal cadence, which varies depending on the speed they are running.
  • Increasing cadence, may benefit less well-trained runners by improve efficiency, reducing overstriding and ground impact forces.
  • This is less beneficial for well trained runners, who are more likely to running in their optimal range.
  • Rather than looking specifically to improve cadence, focus on improving running fitness (specifically using faster intervals, hill repeats, drills, and threshold runs).
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  2. Lieberman DE, Warrener AG, Wang J, Castillo ER. (2015) Effects of stride frequency and foot position at landing on braking force, hip torque, impact peak force and the metabolic cost of running in humans. J Exp Biol. 2015 Nov;218(Pt 21):3406-14. doi: 10.1242/jeb.125500.
  3. van Oeveren BT, de Ruiter CJ, Beek PJ, van Dieën JH. (2017) Optimal stride frequencies in running at different speeds. PLoS One. 2017 Oct 23;12(10):e0184273. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0184273. eCollection 2017.
  4. de Ruiter CJ, Verdijk PW, Werker W, Zuidema MJ, de Haan A. (2014) Stride frequency in relation to oxygen consumption in experienced and novice runners. Eur J Sport Sci. 2014;14(3):251-8. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2013.783627. Epub 2013 Apr 14.
  5. Tartaruga MP, Brisswalter J, Peyré-Tartaruga LA, Avila AO, Alberton CL, Coertjens M, Cadore EL, Tiggemann CL, Silva EM, Kruel LF. (2012) The relationship between running economy and biomechanical variables in distance runners. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2012 Sep;83(3):367-75.
  6. Heiderscheit BC, Chumanov ES, Michalski MP, Wille CM, Ryan MB. (2011). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Feb;43(2):296-302. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ebedf4.

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