October 24, 2011

Cadence As a Running Tool

by: Grant Robison
October 2011

In the last few years minimalist footwear and running form have become hot topics of discussion, not just in print, but online and in shoe stores everywhere. Ideas and techniques that have been mentioned by elite coaches for many years have now crept to the forefront of conversation in the running world. Ideas like ‘running tall’, and focusing on ‘shortening the stride to increase stride rates’, are not new ideas. Renowned coaches like Arthur Lydiard, and Gordon Pirie would be proud to know that many of the same methods they used to train their elite athletes are now helping runners of all abilities. Now days, one has to look no further than Google or YouTube to find an abundance of information and knowledge relating to running technique. However, for many runners, this flood of ideas and opinions can at times create more confusion than education. One of the key, and often misunderstood, aspects of running form that can be extracted from the mass of available information is cadence. Cadence is arguably the most effective tool for maximizing the efficiency of your running stride.

With regards to running, cadence is simply defined as the rate at which you move your feet. It is measured by counting the number of times each foot contacts the ground in the span of one minute. While cadence is one of the basic parts of running mechanics, it is not one that comes without work and practice. Many runners take between 150-160 steps in a minute. A cadence of 20 more steps per minute (170-180) has the potential to greatly increase the efficiency of each stride, and dramatically decrease the stress and impact on your joints. To better understand the value of cadence as a tool, it is important to first understand its purpose.

The goal of cadence is simply to eliminate over-striding, reaching out in front of your body with your feet, so that every ounce of energy put into your stride moves you forward efficiently. Cadence is effective in achieving this by providing a simple, measurable tool to hone in on. By focusing on counting your steps to shortening your stride, or just keeping up with a metronomic rhythm, you can essentially eliminate over-striding and train your body to operate a more efficient set of muscles. When over-striding is minimized and your foot is landing beneath your hips, it requires less energy to propel you forward. Plus, the braking and torsional forces created by over-striding not only make you less efficient, but also more susceptible to injury. Basically, when you take 180 steps in a minute it is difficult to heel strike, which fundamentally contributes to many running injuries. Additionally, for runners who run on their forefoot or who have a bouncy stride, an increase in cadence will minimize inefficient push-off and save energy that is otherwise lost in unnecessary vertical motion. An awareness of cadence is necessary for any runner who wants to run efficiently and stay injury free.

To begin refining your cadence, go for a run. A few minutes into the run, count how many times your left foot touches the ground in 20 seconds. Multiply this number by three and this is your ‘strides per minute’; your cadence. Once you have an idea what your cadence is, work to fine tune it by trying to get a few more strides into those 20 seconds without speeding up your pace. You can use a metronome, or music that plays at 180 beats per minute, or just by counting you steps. The most important thing to remember is that cadence is about making your stride extra efficient, not just running harder. In fact, the best speed to work on cadence is 10-15 seconds per miles slower than your normal pace. You don’t need to run faster to increase your cadence, you want to ‘shorten’ your stride to increase cadence. Stride rate is only part of the equation in determining speed, and it happens to be the more constant part. More than cadence, pace is controlled by stride length. A stride should increase in lengthen by using a pawing like motion to pull your foot through underneath your body (like riding a skateboard), and thus creating a ‘longer’ stride behind you. Trying to lengthen your stride in front of you is what creates “over-striding” and the negative forces that come with it. This ‘pawing’ motion is how two people can run at a similar cadence but at very different paces. The important thing to remind yourself when you are running is that using cadence as a tool to create a ‘short’, quick, light stride, helps to minimize over-striding and maximize efficiency.

Runners of any age or ability, regardless of pace, can focus on cadence as a means of improving their efficiency. The idea of a quick stride rate has been taught by elite coaches for many years and scientifically published by physiologist, Jack Daniels. All of that is of secondary importance for most of us as runners. We don’t have to hit 180 exactly, and we don’t have to run any faster. We just want to run as easily and as pain free as we can. Cadence is a tool to help us do that.

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