Running Cadence – how important is it? And how can you improve it?

Running Cadence - how important is it?

Running cadence (or stride rate) is often considered a key part of efficient running technique, and with good reason. Take a look at any elite runner and one thing they all have in common is a fast efficient leg turnover speed.

Not surprisingly, a lot of attention has been placed on the importance of run cadence. But, how important is running cadence?

In this article we are going to take a look at running cadence, how it can reduce injuries, and improve efficiency. Then we will take a look at 8 running training tips you can use to improve your cadence, stride length and running speed.

Table of Contents

WHAT IS RUNNING CADENCE?

Running cadence (sometimes referred to as stride rate) is a measure of the number of steps, or times your foot strikes the ground every minute.

For most runners, this tends to be lower at slower speeds, and as your pace increases so does your cadence.

However, it’s important to remember that running pace is also determined by stride length. And in the same way that cadence increases at faster running speeds, we would also expect to see an increase in stride length as your running speed increases.

Whilst running with a fast cadence and long stride length may seem easy during a sprint. To run well in any endurance running event requires the ability to maintain a high cadence and good stride length for prolonged periods.

The good news is: both cadence and stride length can be improved with consistent and specific training – we’ll take a look at that later in this article.

Let’s start by looking at why cadence is important.

Why is running cadence important?

Whilst there are many factors that affect running performance; at its simplest, there are only two metrics that ultimately determine running speed:

  • Stride length
  • Cadence

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

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

Three benefits of increasing run cadence:

  1. Faster running pace – providing you are able to maintain the same stride length
  2. Improved efficiency when running at your optimal cadence
  3. Reduced overstriding and injury risk, when running at optimum cadence

As I’ve just mentioned, running pace is determined by a combination cadence and stride length.

However, this can vary quite significantly between different runners:

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

Having said that, if you really want to be competitive in endurance running events, then you need to develop the conditioning to maintain a fast cadence and a good stride length.

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

How can you measure cadence?

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

If you don’t have a gps watch or footpod, simply 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 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.

Another point to remember: cadence changes at different running speeds. So, ideally you’ll want to monitor this over a range of paces.

Now we know how to measure cadence let’s look at running cadence, overstriding and injury risk.

RUNNING CADENCE AND INJURY RISK

Increasing running cadence can be very effective for reducing 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 when running.

When this happens, it creates a slight braking effect. This can cause a number of negative effects:

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

So how can we reduce overstriding?

One approach is to focus on technical aspects of your running form, so that your foot lands under, or nearer to, your center 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 an improvement with consistent purposeful training.

A quicker approach to reducing overstriding is to work on increasing your running cadence. This can be particularly useful if you normally run with a low cadence.

Run cadence and overstriding

If you overstride then increasing cadence can help to reduce overstriding.

This can also help to reduce ground contact time, vertical oscillation, and the braking impulse associated with overstriding. All of which, are important for efficient running. In fact, research has shown that runners can reduce vertical oscillation, ground contact time and reduce braking impulse by increasing cadence (1).

Does a low stride rate mean you are overstriding?

One thing you hear a lot is: overstriding in linked to a low cadence.

Is that really the case? Well, yes and know – a low cadence doesn’t inherently mean that your overstriding.

It really depends on how fast you’re running, and where your foot is landing – under or in front of your center of mass. In this way, runners can have a low cadence and not be overstriding – providing their stride length is not too long for their current cadence or running pace.

It is true that you are more likely to over stride if you have a low cadence; however, this is very much dependent on running pace.

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

  • If I run at 2:45/km my stride can be over 210spm,
  • At 3:20/km it’s ~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 cadence and stride length have naturally adjusted to match my running pace.

The data below, shows how my cadence and stride length changes across different running paces.

You can see a chart of this data, later in this article, that really illustrates how aiming for one specific cadence range, is not always the best approach to run training.

In this case both stride frequency and length are clearly dynamic with both showing significant increases as pace increases.

Running pace, cadence and stride length data

How to increase run cadence and reduce injuries

Whilst I wouldn’t normally recommend deliberately increasing cadence – if you over stride, then increasing running cadence can help to reduce injury risk.

So how much should you increase cadence?

  • Increasing cadence by ~5-10% can help to reduce overstriding, reduce loading of the hip and knee joints and potentially reduce injury rates (1, 6).
  • Start by gradually increasing this 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 faster cadence intervals, until you can maintain this throughout the run.
  • If you’re still overstriding, try increasing stride rate by another 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.

RUNNING CADENCE AND EFFICIENCY

Research has shown that stride frequency is linked to running efficiency (2-5). So, not surprisingly, increasing run cadence has gained attention as a way to improve running efficiency.

So, will increasing your cadence really make you a quicker and more efficient runner?

This really depends on your optimal cadence and training experience.

Research looking at run cadence and efficiency

In one study, researchers compared runners preferred cadence with their individual optimal cadence.

Optimal cadence is affected by training experience

What did they find? 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 tend to use a cadence that’s closer to optimal (4); with trained runners choosing a cadence that’s ~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 averages for the group. There was actually wide individual variation for each runner (3).

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

For most runners, this is unlikely to significantly improve efficiency and in some instances may actually decrease efficiency. It’s also worth considering your level of conditioning – if you’re in the ‘well-trained’ category then you’re more likely to be using a running cadence that’s near your optimal.

So, whilst cadence can influence efficiency, it’s important to first know your ‘individual’ optimum cadence is.

In addition, just because an increase in cadence may improve efficiency at submaximal speeds, this doesn’t mean that you will be more efficient when running at race pace. And your optimum cadence will likely be different across different running speeds.

Finding your optimal run cadence

To find the runners optimal cadence, researchers (3) measured the athletes heart rates across a range of cadences for each speed tested. 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 cadence.

How did they do this? Simply put, they identified the cadence with the lowest heart rate. And since heart rate is strongly linked to oxygen uptake, this gives a very good indication of which cadence is most efficient.

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.
  • The cadence with the lowest heart rate indicates your most efficient cadence.

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

Another consideration is cardiac drift. Cardiac drift is where heart rate continues to rise even when intensity, or pace, is kept the same. As such, this test will not be as effective at faster (more intense) speeds.

What determines your optimal stride rate?

Your optimal cadence is determined by a number of factors, such as your 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 also not forget that stride length also influences stride frequency. Some runners naturally have a longer stride. As such, their optimum cadence, will be different to runners who naturally have a shorter stride length.

CADENCE AND RUNNING SPEED

In short, if your cadence naturally increases because your running fitness has improved then you will run faster.

That said, if you just increase your running cadence, without there being any improvement in running fitness, then it’s unlikely that you will run significantly faster. You may see a slight improvement, if the increase leads to improved efficiency, but this would likely be small.

Running fitness must improve to allow you run faster

The simple truth is: your 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. With that in mind, changing your cadence won’t increase your running fitness and therefore won’t make you significantly quicker.

Why is that? Well think of it this way: if you were to increase your cadence, and at the same time maintain the same stride length, then your work rate will have to increase.

So, unless your fitness level has also improved, then this becomes unsustainable and your stride length (or cadence) will have to decrease.

To be able to achieve the fast cadences and long stride lengths seen in elite runners, takes many years of specific training. Whilst most runners are unable to maintain such a high cadence and long stride length during sustained running, you may be able to get somewhere near to this, when running very short fast intervals.

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

Using intervals to improve run cadence

So why use intervals for run cadence? Running intervals train you to run with a faster cadence, whilst at the same time developing stride length.

This is in contrast to when you increase, or, push up your cadence during slower running speeds. When you do this, it has the opposite effect. Here, you are actually running at a fast cadence with a shorter stride length than normal.

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

You can see from this, how faster than race pace intervals (in this case 3k pace intervals and 200m repetitions) are an effective way to train cadence and stride length. And whilst race pace Intervals (in this case 10k pace intervals) are less effective for developing cadence and stride length, they do improve running efficiency at the ‘specific’ cadence and stride length used when racing.

Running cadence and stride length chart

This is why I prefer not to focus on deliberately running at a specific cadence. Instead, I prefer to train in ways that push the upper limits of cadence and stride length, without actively trying to control these.

As we know, for running performance to improve, either cadence or stride length must have improved to allow this to happen – simply making yourself run at a faster cadence during all your runs is not the answer.

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 cadence and stride length will naturally improve, along with your endurance running performance.

8 TRAINING TIPS TO IMPROVE RUNNING CADENCE

One question I come across a lot is: how can I improve running cadence?

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

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

So, rather than focusing on running cadence itself, ensure that you’re using a multitude of different running training methods that will help to improve your running cadence.

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

TIP#1 Use Hill Repetitions for Run cadence

Hill repetitions are a great way to improve running speed. And when done correctly hill repetitions can improve 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.

Ideally use a moderate gradient (4-6%) and keep the hill repetition to less than 60seconds.

Examples of good hill workouts for developing running cadence, stride length and speed include:

All of these hill workouts help to develop the upper limits of running cadence and stride length.

TIP#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.

TIP#3 Include Faster Running Intervals

Including intervals, run at faster than race pace, is key component in developing cadence and stride length. So, why include these? By running these 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 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.

TIP#4 Short Sprints Improve Maximum Run Cadence

Working in a similar way to hill sprints, these are great way to improve maximal running speed.

So, why include these? When we run at close to our maximum running speed we’re developing our maximum cadence and stride length.

Why is this important for endurance runners? Well, when we improve our upper limits we also gain the potential to run at faster ‘sub-maximal’ speeds. In the same way, when you develop the upper limits of your running cadence, you also gain the potential to run at faster cadences at race pace.

Importantly, when your maximum running cadence increases, it will help to lift up your normal running cadence across a range of paces.

How to include maximal sprints in your running training:

  • 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.

TIP#5 Include Running drills

Running drills improve neuromuscular coordination, running technique and your ability to apply force efficiently. Including the correct running 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.

TIP#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)

TIP#7 Maintain Flexibility and Mobility

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

Why is this important? Simply put, 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.

TIP#8 Include Longer Running Workouts

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 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.

How to improve running cadence and stride length

Key points

  • Running performance is determined by our ability to run at a fast cadence and good stride length.
  • Run cadence is linked to running efficiency.
  • Runners have an individual optimal cadence, which varies depending on the speed they are running.
  • Less well-trained runners can improve efficiency, reduce the risk of overstriding and lower ground impact forces by increasing running cadence to nearer to their optimal level.
  • Well trained runners are more likely to already be using a run cadence that’s close to their optimal range.
  • Rather than looking to specifically improve cadence, focus on improving running fitness (specifically using faster intervals, hill repetitions, running drills, and threshold runs) and your run cadence will improve naturally as a consequence of improved running fitness.

References

  1. Adams D, Pozzi F, Willy RW, Carrol A, Zeni J. (2018) ALTERING CADENCE OR VERTICAL OSCILLATION DURING RUNNING: EFFECTS ON RUNNING RELATED INJURY FACTORS. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2018 Aug;13(4):633-642.
  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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