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What is Optimal Running Cadence, and Why You Should Care

by
Taren Gesell

Finding your optimal running cadence is one of the best things beginner runners can do to improve their running technique. Running cadence is the number of times both of your feet hit the ground in a minute, and it is one of the biggest things that will contribute to better running if you can improve your cadence.

However, there's a lot of old advice about running cadence that doesn't apply to elite runners or recreational runners.  We'll clear up fact from fiction in this article so you know how to improve your running by focusing on cadence for a few weeks.

In this article you will learn:

  • What is running cadence?
  • What are the benefits of improving your running cadence
  • What is a good cadence for running
  • How to dial in your personal optimal cadence
  • What are drills to improve running cadence
  • What is the best cadence for running

By the end of this article you'll know everything there is to know about running cadence. You'll know how to find measure your running cadence, and how to improve your cadence, all without having to hire a running coach.

David McIlmoyl has been using the MOTTIV app to train for running races and triathlons since the app was launched several years ago. Despite a genetic heart condition, David has continued to get faster and healthier year after year.

What is Running Cadence?

Running cadence simply refers to the number of steps per minute that a runner takes with both feet. If your left foot hits the ground 90 times a minute, and your right foot hits the ground 90 times per minute, your running cadence is 180.  

It is often measured in strides per minute (or SPM) and is one of the most powerful ways to improve all aspects of running form. A higher cadence, closer to 180 steps per minute, is generally associated with more efficient running. Many experts recommend a cadence of around 170 to 180 steps per minute as an optimal range for most runners.

The idea that runners should focus on their cadence originated with legendary running coach Jack Daniels' analysis of elite runner's cadence. He found that elite runners ran with an average cadence of 180 strides per minute, which he concluded was the ideal running cadence for everyone. We now know that 180 isn't a magic number and that everyone has their own optimal cadence in running, we'll help you find yours in this article.

Why Is Running Cadence Important Anyway?

How fast we run can be calculated by the following formula:

RUNNING SPEED = stride length x steps you take per minute.

So to increase your speed you can either take longer running strides, or increase the number of steps you take per minute. Taking longer strides uses a lot of energy, while taking more steps per minute can actually require less energy and has these three additional benefits:

  1. Improve Running Economy: studies have found that slightly increasing your running cadence, while making sure that it still feels comfortable, will make you run more efficiently. You'll be able to run faster at the same effort, or use less energy at the same speed.
  2. Reduced Risk of Injury: studies have found that with just 12 weeks of training for a higher run cadence, runners were able to reduce the amount of impact they experienced with every foot strike; you would expect this would significantly reduce the likelihood of running injuries.  
  3. Improved Run Form: Physiotherapist Brodie Sharpe finds that runners with a slower cadence tend to have more injuries caused by poor run technique.  He has found that getting runners to increase their cadence is one of the quickest ways to improve all aspects of running gait; everything comes into place automatically when he gets runners to increase their cadence.
  4. Better Pacing in Races: when athletes run their first several races they almost always go out too fast at the start of the race, then slow down and fade towards the end of the race. Measuring your running cadence and keeping it within your optimal stride rate can hold you back at the start of the race, then give you a little extra push at the end of the race.

What is a Good Cadence for Running & What's Your Personal Ideal Cadence?

For years, run coaches thought Jack Daniels' magic number of "Optimal Cadence" was 180 steps per minute. Runners all around the world worked to get their cadence at exactly 180 strides per minute.

But what's been found in recent years is that a higher cadence doesn't necessarily mean better running for all runners, and a lower cadence doesn't mean you're not going to be successful as a runner. Faster cadence isn't always better and slower running cadence isn't always worse.

There are a number of factors that will effect what your goal cadence should be:

  • Running Height: taller runners will tend to have a lower cadence while shorter runners will have a quicker running style with a faster cadence.
  • Running Speed: running cadence will tend to be naturally higher for fast running and slower for recovery runs or long slow distance runs.
  • Runner Age: older runners will tend to be less "snappy" than younger runners and thus have a slower cadence.
  • Upper Body Rotation: studies have found that a looser, more natural and slightly faster rotation of the shoulders improves running performance. More shoulder rotation will drive faster running cadence.

What is the Average Cadence for Runners?

Most people find that they naturally run in the range of 170-180 steps per minute, but really the efficient range can be as low as 160 or as high as 190 depending on the type of runner and the type of running that you're doing.

Generally, if people have a base cadence of 165-185 steps per minute they are within an acceptable range. However, roughly increasing your cadence by 5 steps per minute from your current self selected cadence has been found to improve your running efficiency, resulting in running 5-8% faster without using any more energy.

3 Steps to a Good Running Cadence

Most people hear about the benefits of cadence based running then instantly go out onto roads and start trying to turn their feet over faster, but this just leads to people running faster without actually improving their running form.

Here is a proven three step process to increase your cadence on your own, without needing a running coach:

  1. STEP 1: Measure your baseline cadence on a treadmill with the speed of the treadmill set to a comfortable easy run pace
  2. STEP 2: Increase your running cadence by 5-8 steps per minute without changing the speed of the treadmill. You'll have no choice but to change your running technique because the speed of the treadmill is constant.
  3. STEP 3: Immediately change from the treadmill to running on roads or a track trying to stick to your new cadence. You'll have to perform this running drill at home or at a gym with a treadmill, and have easy access to the outdoors or a track so you can go back and forth between feeling the new running cadence on the treadmill, to trying to transfer that higher cadence into your normal running form on the road.

If you perform this drill at the start of your running workouts several times a week, you'll permanently improve your running cadence by 5-8 steps per minute above your naturally selected run cadence. This slightly higher running cadence is your optimal running cadence, and is much more personalized than the arbitrary 170-180 range.

How to Measure Cadence When Running (Metronomes, Watches, Counting)

The final thing you need to know is how to measure your overall running cadence. There are three ways:

  1. Count Your Steps Manually: you can simply count the number of steps you take in 15, 30, or 60 seconds and work out your running cadence over the course of a minute. This can be accurate enough, but it won't allow you to quickly change from one cadence to another on the fly to feel the difference.
  2. Use a Metronome App: you can use a metronome app on your phone like Smart Metronome to set a cadence that you want to run to. There are also apps and playlists that set the beat of the music to the steps per minute that you want to take.
  3. Use a Cadence Measurement Device: most running watches will be able to measure your cadence and display your current cadence on the watch face. This is the best way to measure your running cadence because it adjusts in real time and you'll be able to see your run pace so you can quickly adjust your running cadence and maintain your pace to see how different cadences feel.

Wrap-Up

That covers everything you need to know to improve your current running ability and make your running experience much more enjoyable. Performing the run cadence drills we outlined in this article a few times a week will make you a better runner in just a few short months.

Written on:

2024-01-06

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Taren Gesell
Taren Gesell
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Author

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MOTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast, Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.

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