When searching for ways to improve your running performance, cadence is usually high up there alongside various workouts like interval training and hill reps etc. You’ll find plenty articles from respected publications on it and there are a few popular training programs that are based on it but what if it was actually a misleading metric and turned out to be a less effective way to improve performance?
Cadence is simply the number of strides you take per minute (spm) when you run and it was perceived as a more efficient way to run due to the higher turnover of steps and also likely to reduce the risk of injury due to the shortening of stride length. The trouble is, the way cadence in running is presented is based on seriously flawed data. The figure of 180spm is considered the magic number to aim for when trying to improve running form but this is based on a simple study by running coach Jack Daniels who watched elite runners from the 800m upwards at the 1984 Olympics and observed that the athletes ran on average 180spm in each of the distances. It was simple he noted that the athletes ran at 180spm so that should be the optimum number to aim for.
Unfortunately, he was misquoted and he actually found that the athletes ran at least 180spm. The thing is, he studied elite runners and not amateurs and regular runners like you and I. There have been plenty of athletes who have run with a higher cadence but that’s not been mentioned as much. For regular runners, getting anywhere near 180spm might take a long time to achieve (if ever) and even if you did, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will run faster. There are studies now that prove it may make you less efficient.
Don’t get me wrong, cadence can be good to measure running efficiency but I believe it’s more of something that happens as a result of doing other things and that there are easier (and quicker) ways of improving running form. Indeed, I used to include cadence drills in my training sessions and started to introduce them again in my training for Loch Ness Marathon this year but in reality, it’s a very difficult metric to try to improve. Can you really improve your cadence and maintain a higher rate throughout a run? Triathletes enjoy a higher cadence naturally after a bike ride but it’s not something worth training to improve.
A recent study carried out at Brigham University by a group including Jared Ward, who was 6th in the 2016 Olympic Marathon, tested running stride efficiency and to see whether an efficient running stride comes natural or is learned through experience. The study involved 19 experienced runners and 14 inexperienced runners and involved them running at their own pace and cadence in one part then running at a stride length shortened by 8% in the second part and lengthened by 16% in the third part. In the last two parts, they ran to the beat of a metronome. The results showed that both sets of runners burned the least amount of energy when they ran at their own pace and cadence and started to burn more when they altered their stride length. This goes to show that your own natural running stride is the most efficient for you and you don’t need to change.
On a personal level, I’ve been working on my own knee drive as well as cadence in training. To learn more about the knee drive, check out my vlog on the subject. I started doing 1km intervals with 90 second recoveries where the focus was to drive my knees forward and run to tempo in my head to improve cadence. I did 10 repetitions in that session and I’ve since gone on to repeat that workout but with 8 reps (to improve quality) and also today where I ran 12 miles and tried to run every 3rd mile faster but mostly focusing on my knee drive. The last 2 sessions just focused on the knee drive and not cadence. In the last 2 runs, my cadence has been very similar to that achieved in the other one except I only focused on the cadence specifically in the first run.
I believe running efficiency can be achieved with good mobility at the hips, the upper back as well as a responsive foot strike so that you spend less time on the floor. Most runners (not elite) have poor hip mobility from sitting down all day at work and this reflects their performance in running. Good forward movement at the hip from driving the knee forward can mean more force coming through in the stride and also meaning that you land and push off with greater force also. To me, cadence is a result of efficiency of movement elsewhere in the body and the figure is what it is rather than a figure to be achieved by adjusting your stride length on purpose.