Running Cadence – how important is it?

Running Cadence – how important is it?

There are many factors that contribute to endurance running performance - VO2max, running efficiency, lactate threshold, muscular endurance and strength to name a few. However, if we break running down to its simplest form, there are only two metrics that ultimately determine how fast you run: your stride length and running cadence. It’s a simple law of running that the speed you run at over any distance, will always be determined by how long your stride is multiplied by the number of strides, or steps, you take per minute.

With endurance running, it’s our ability to run with both a high cadence and good stride length, over prolonged distances, that is key to maximising endurance running performance. Whilst many other metrics are important (ground contact time, vertical oscillation, running power, leg spring stiffness etc), ultimately these all influence running performance by either increasing our ability to run at a faster cadence or extending the length of our stride.

In this article we'll take a look at cadence, how it influences running efficiency and stride length. We'll also take a look at how increasing stride rate can help to reduce overstriding and injury rates. We'll also take a look at how to find your optimal cadence and look at the best ways to improve this along with improving stride length.

What are running cadence and stride length?

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. Typically, at slower speeds this will be lower, and as your pace increases so will your cadence. The speed, or pace that you run at is also determined by the length of your stride. 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. 

As stated above, running pace is determined by a combination cadence and stride length. This can vary between different runners, with some runners having a faster cadence and shorter stride length, whereas others may have a slower stride rate and longer stride length. However, the ability to compete at a high level in endurance running events requires the conditioning to maintain a fast cadence, whilst still maintaining a good stride length. 

How can you measure cadence?

Most gps watches now record cadence as standard, in addition there are a number of running footpods that can also record cadence along with a number of other metrics. If you don’t have a gps watch then simply count the number of steps you take during one minute of running and you have your cadence - it’s a lot easier to do this by just counting the steps taken on one leg and then multiplying that figure by 2, rather than counting steps on both legs for a minute. Alternatively, count the steps on one leg for 30seconds and multiply this by 4. However, it’s important to remember that cadence changes at different paces, so to get an accurate measure you need to monitor this over a range of paces.

Why run cadence is important?

Running cadence is important for three primary reasons: 1) a faster cadence gives you the potential to maintain a faster running pace - providing you are able to maintain the same stride length; 2) running at your optimal cadence can improve efficiency; 3) running at optimal cadences can reduce overstriding and potentially reduce injury rates.

Before taking a look at how it affects running efficiency and running performance, let’s first look at cadence and over striding.

What is overstriding?

Overstriding is where your feet land, or strike the ground, in front of your centre of mass when running. When this happens, it can create a slight braking effect. This can reduce running efficiency by increasing the ground contact time (the time your feet spend in contact with the ground when running) and disrupt the natural running rhythm. Overstriding, can also increase the risk of injury, especially if you land in front of the center of mass with an extended knee. 

One way to reduce overstriding is to work on technical aspects of your running form, so that your foot lands under or near to your centre of mass. However, improving technique can be a difficult and slow process that requires regular feedback and monitoring, although most people should see an improvement with consistent purposeful training. A quicker approach to reducing overstriding is to work on increasing your running cadence, this is particularly beneficial if you normally run with a low cadence.

Will increasing run cadence help with overstriding?

If you overstride then increasing cadence can help to reduce overstriding, and importantly can reduce ground contact time, vertical oscillation, and the braking impulse associated with overstriding, all of which are important for efficient running. Research has shown that runners can reduce vertical oscillation, ground contact time and reduce braking impulse by increasing cadence (1).

Does a low cadence mean you are overstriding?

You will often hear reference to runners who have a low cadence overstriding, although technically this isn’t always true: runners can have a low cadence and not overstride, providing their stride length is correct for their current cadence and they are not landing in front of their center of mass. It is true that you are more likely to over stride if you have a low cadence, but this is very much dependent on the pace you are running. For instance, if I run at 2:45/km my cadence will be over 210, at 3:20/km it will be around 190spm, at 4:00/km it will be 175-180spm, at 5:00/km it may be around 165-170spm and if I was to run at 6:00/km it might be as low as 160-165spm. However, this doesn’t mean i’m over striding when running at 5:30-6:00/km - it just means that my stride rate and length have decreased in proportion to the speed that I’m running. It would be unrealistic and wouldn’t be beneficial for me to run with a cadence of 180spm when running at 6:00/km - my stride length would simply be too short. 

The data below, shows how my cadence and stride rate 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 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

Should you increase cadence to reduce injury rates?

Whilst I wouldn’t normally recommend deliberately increasing cadence; if you have a low running cadence and are prone to common running injuries, then increasing this by around 5-10% can help to reduce overstriding, loading of the hip and knee joints and potentially reduce injury rates (1, 6). If you’re looking to reduce overstriding and injury rates, then consider gradually increasing your cadence over a period of weeks. Start by increasing this by around 3-5% during your easy/moderate pace runs – you might find this easier if you do this for short intervals during your run, rather than for the whole run e.g. 3-5minutes intervals run at 3-5% higher cadence, separated with 3-5minutes at your normal running. 

As this gets easier you can increase the length of the faster cadence section until you are able to maintain this throughout the whole run. If after this you are still overstriding, then you can consider increasing this by another 3-5% – although you would be wise to speak to a run coach before significantly increasing this.

Remember, that cadence should increase as pace increases, so you should look to increase this at faster paces as well as slower paces.

What about cadence and running efficiency?

Research has shown that stride frequency is linked to running efficiency (2-5). As such increasing running cadence has gained attention as a way to improve running performance, efficiency and reduce injury rates. So, will increasing your cadence really make you a quicker and more efficient runner? When researchers looked at the optimal versus an athlete’s preferred (freely chosen) cadence, they found that inexperienced runners can improve efficiency by increasing their stride frequency (3). However, trained runners tend to already use a cadence that is closer to optimal than novice runners (4), with trained runners choosing a cadence that’s ~3spm lower than optimal vs ~6spm lower in novice runners. However, it’s important to note that these were the averages and there was wide individual variation for each runner (3). Therefore, just increasing your cadence, to a one size fits all range such as 170-180spm, without knowing your (individual) optimal range, is unlikely to make you significantly more efficient and in some instances may decrease efficiency. It’s also worth noting that the more well trained you are, the more likely you are to be already running with a cadence that is near optimal. 

So, whilst cadence can influence efficiency, it’s important to know what your actual optimum cadence is before you consider whether it’s worth adjusting this. 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.

How can you find your optimal run cadence?

To find the 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, by finding the stride rate where heart rate was lowest. 

To test this yourself, simply 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 where your heart rate is lowest will indicate your most efficient cadence. However, you should be aware that this will likely be different at different speeds and will likely change as your running fitness changes. You should also be aware that due to the effect of cardiac drift, this will not be as effective at higher intensities.

What determines your optimal running cadence?

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, and therefore both their freely chosen and optimum cadence, will be different to runners who naturally have a shorter stride length.

Will increasing cadence make you a faster runner?

In short, if your cadence naturally increases because your running fitness has improved then you will run faster. However, 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 as a consequence – you may see a slight improvement if the increase leads to improved efficiency, but this would likely be small. The simple truth is that your running pace is always determined by a combination of cadence and stride length, both of which are determined by your current running fitness/conditioning level - changing your cadence won’t increase your running fitness and therefore won’t make you significantly quicker. 

If you were to increase your cadence, whilst maintaining the same stride length, then your work rate would increase to accommodate this. So, unless your fitness level had also improved, then this would be unsustainable and your stride length would have to decrease accordingly.

To be able to achieve the high cadences and long stride lengths seen in elite runners, during endurance running events, 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 intervals. 

This is why interval training is so beneficial for endurance running performance – it trains you to run with a faster cadence, whilst at the same time maintaining a longer stride length. This is in contrast to when you increase, or, push your cadence at slower running speeds. When you do this, it has the opposite effect; in this situation you are actually running at a fast cadence with a shorter stride length than normal, and we know that in order to maximise performance we need to be able to run with a high cadence and a good stride length.

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 with both a faster cadence and longer stride length. Intervals run at race pace (in this case 10k pace intervals) are an effective way to improve running efficiency at the same stride frequency and length as you will use when racing.

Running cadence and stride length chat

This is why I prefer not to focus on deliberately increasing cadence, but rather I prefer to train in ways that focus on improving running cadence and stride length by improving running fitness/conditioning.

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. Therefore, don’t focus on hitting a specific cadence, focus on including key sessions that push the current limits of your cadence and stride length, such as faster intervals and hill sessions. As a consequence of this your endurance running performance and your cadence will both improve.

How to improve running cadence and stride length

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 their optimal level.
  • Well trained runners are more likely to be already running at a cadence that is close to their optimal range.
  • Rather than looking to specifically train to improve cadence, work on improving running fitness (specifically using faster intervals, hill repetitions, and threshold runs) and your run cadence will improve 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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