Keys To Quick Cadence

Stay the CourseIt’s an exciting time to be a runner. Technological advancements in the last five years alone have brought us social-media training-data sharing with websites like Strava, technologies like Stryd, which measures running-power output, and products like Lumo, which measures elements of running biomechanics, even in real time. All this data, but what to do with it? It is one thing to know; it is another thing, however, to know what to do with it, and how best to use this information to improve running efficiency.

In both the competitive and clinical realms, running cadence is at the forefront of run-mechanics awareness. While consensus on run strides is fleeting, the strongest data to come out of running research consistently show that quicker cadence–the number of steps taken per minute–decreases leg stress (potentially decreasing injury) and improves running economy. This is triply salient for ultra-trail runners. The terrain on which we run and the duration of our events often result in major challenges to quick, efficient running cadence.

Research recommends an ideal of 180 (total left and right) steps per minute. To improve, they simply recommend using a metronome set to 180 (or, to decrease psychosis, listening to songs at 180 beats per minute tempo) and, quite simply, trying to increase your foot speed. Anyone who’s ever tried to improve cadence this way knows that this is far easier said than done. Besides tedious, it can be exhausting and often times ends in failure: either an inability to improve, or–ironically–getting injured in the process.

Critics would come back and say, “You’re supposed to only increase by 10 beats per minute at a time!” So if you’re a 160-a-minute runner, train to 170 first, and then 180. But while this progression may be more sustainable, it hardly improves outcomes. To my knowledge, while studies have shown decreased ground-reaction forces and decreased short-term injury outcomes with faster cadence, there has yet to have been a study that shows runners are able to sustain a high cadence over the long term of a running career.

Improved running is all about sustainable improvement, right? So if quick cadence is the ideal (and I believe it is), how do we sustainably improve it? Is it possible? The answers is yes but it takes more than just “moving your feet quicker.” Fixing one thing may break two (or more) others. Simply moving feet faster causes other problems.

What I love about my job is that it is equal science and art form. Running-stride analysis is very easy: run, record, analyze. Computer systems can spit out volumes of data on force vectors, joint angles, and countless other variables. Research has correlated these forces and angles to healthier and faster running.

But how, exactly, to change and improve–efficiently and sustainably–one’s stride mechanics is another skill set entirely. This isn’t analysis, it is coaching: the art form of seeing a deficit and tailoring the appropriate intervention (and even the ideal wording) to enact a positive change in the runner. The goal isn’t simply change, it is overall improvement. Increasing cadence may improve cadence, but what effect does it have on the rest of the stride? Improving one thing at the expense of one (or often several more) variables is a net loss and can be disastrous. The key, then, is to improve cadence as well as other components of the stride at the same time.

Quick Feet Equals… Quick Shuffle: The Folly of Moving Your Feet Faster

The most common approach to cadence training is using a metronome and simply “moving the feet faster.” This may, indeed, improve steps per minute, but both runner and coach/medical professional must ask, “What is the overall effect on the stride?”

Faster feet almost always results in loss of hip drive. Simply moving your feet faster often results in a low-swinging shuffle stride: a quick swing of the foot forward, and then the other. But amongst coaches and well-trained biomechanists, its well-known that hip drive (also known as hip separation) is the most important kinetic (force-producing) variable in running. Quicker feet at the expense of less hip use is a terrible trade.

Other common side effects from “moving the feet faster” may include:

  • Loss of forward trunk engagement. Deficient forward lean decreases hip engagement and increases overstride stress.
  • Persistent forefoot strike. This causes lower-leg-muscle overload.

This overall strategy of quicker feet for improved cadence is a common coaching error. In essence, in doing so one is coaching an outcome to change an outcome. A baseball analogy might be to ask an athlete to “swing the bat faster” but not showing them how to do so. This is seldom a successful strategy, as it leaves it to pure biomechanical chance (and compensatory movements) in creating that effect. Instead, changing outcomes requires changing one (or more) processes.

Focus Areas for Sustainable Cadence Improvement

Sustainably and efficiently improving cadence requires addressing the following areas. Which area gets more training depends on the individual deficits of each runner:

Forward Engagement
The most important element of cadence training and overall stride efficiency is forward engagement. Forward momentum is important for full hip utilization in order to orient the hip in a forward-drive, rearward-push position. Trunk forward is also vital in minimizing overstriding stress. This is when (any part of) the foot lands in front of the body. Establishing ideal forward-trunk engagement is rule #1 for any stride adjustment, including cadence. Once the body is forward engaged, less energy is wasted and more energy is produced, and runners will naturally spend less time on the ground.

Arm Swing
Simply put, the arms reciprocate the legs, and sluggish leg movement makes for a sluggish arm swing. When runners attempt to only improve foot speed, arm swing may be neglected. Failure to increase arm-swing rate will invariably drag down leg speed. Arm swing amongst endurance runners should always be compact and quick. (More on this below.)

Lower-Leg Strength
Last but not least, foot strength and athleticism is at the foundation of quick cadence. The foot and ankle is where the rubber meets the road, and a strong, athletic landing and push off is critical to instantaneously (less than 3/10s of a second) landing, and then bouncing off the ground. This is a true plyometric effect, requiring significant lower-leg strength.

Training Tips for Improving Cadence

Forward Engagement
Very simply, lean forward. There are many (some conflicting) strategies on how best to do so, but a sustainable forward engagement is a “lean at the ankles,” with a very slight bend in all three running joints, the ankle, knee, and hip. In doing so, it often feels like one is running straight legged. A forward lean takes a lot of focus, and often great fitness and confidence. We tend to lose forward lean with fatigue or on challenging (fearful) terrain. Recommendation: When in doubt, lean forward an extra inch. However, don’t forget to stay tall. The net effect may be the feeling (or image) of having rope tied to the top of your head and being dragged forward from above.

Ankling
For starters, lower-leg strength can be improved with a whole-foot engagement and lower-leg-strengthening regimen. But while running, improved lower-leg strength comes from improved active push off at the ankle and foot. My favorite drill for this is ankling, which practices this “active, athletic foot” in front of the body. Recommendation: Try this ankling drill, then while running, focus on a “relaxed but athletic” foot strike, then push off behind you.

Arm swing
There are various ways to improve arm swing, but simply focusing on a smaller, stronger and faster swing–oriented behind you–will ensure the arms move as fast as the desired foot cadence. Recommendation: Small, strong, rearward-oriented, and quick arms behind when running.

Plyometric Strength
Off the trail, improving plyometric strength–the instantaneous reversal of energy, usually in small to medium hops–should be a top priority, not only in improving cadence but overall foot speed and stability on technical terrain. Runners new to plyometric training should start with very small hopping drills such as this one. The focus should be on alignment: forward engagement, staying tall (but with very slight bends at the ankle, knee, and hip), then stability throughout the trunk while avoiding side-to-side movements. Recommendation: Try this single leg cross-over hop drill. Do in small-repetition sets.

Lastly, stride cues (specific adjustments) are challenging. They require great focus and can be very difficult to maintain. Trying to change three or four different variables at once is not feasible for most, and is not recommended. Rather, if you find your cadence lagging, try to figure out which variable (forward lean, arms, foot strength) is most deficient and focus on that area first. Once that feels locked in, shift focus to the other variables.

Training the processes of efficient running…

  • Forward engagement
  • Leg strength
  • Arm swing

…will develop the tools necessary to improve cadence and make it easier and more sustainable for “quick feet.” In doing so, everything–including speed, efficiency, and enjoyment–improves, and this is the ultimate goal of stride training and coaching.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How is your running cadence? Is it close to the ideal of 180 steps per minute?
  • What area of your stride do you think is most deficient, forward engagement, leg strength, or arm swing? What makes you think this?
  • What self cues help you maintain good cadence and therefore efficiency when you are running?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 35 comments

  1. Robert

    I think about my cadence all the time while running. Normally I’m in the 160-165 range. I believe I’m probably most deficient in forward engagement.

    Self cues for me are staying tall, trying to get quick turnover and very short contact time.

    It’s an area I’m constantly trying to improve.

  2. francis

    I am a slow runner, but my cadence is 200 steps a minute at easy pace, all the way to 210 steps per minute during speed work… I do get injured just like every other runner I know, I dont improve any faster than other runners, but at the end of a marathon, I have more steps count that most other runners!

    1. Joe Uhan

      Francis-

      Thanks for the comment.

      You may be among those runners who – while having a fast cadence – might be lacking in the other efficient stride fundamentals, namely efficient hip mobility: the degree of how high/forward you drive your upward leg + how rearward you push-off.

      The most common flaw in simply running with faster feet is a loss of active hip mobility.

  3. SageCanaday

    While there is some individual variation, there is a lot of science to back the “180” stride rate as a fairly optimal efficiency (especially when running marathon pace or faster on a flat road). Some people might dip closer to 170 and others 190, but those still seem to be still very efficient.

    Obviously sheer speed/velocity is somewhat of a factor as if one does an all-out 100m sprint (or races downhill on a smooth surface) they may hit 220+ steps per minute or more…even racing a 1-mile race may yield closer to 200 spm or more easily.

    On the flip side, running at a very slow relaxed/easy run pace (maybe even ultra race pace), one may drop slightly below 170 and find it hard to maintain a faster rate. We’ve found this especially to be true when running uphills and when running on techy trails (where even some powerhiking can slow the average stride rate down as well).

    I think too many people focus on stride length and “hip drive”…which may be key for sprinters and “shorter distance” runners….but think key is more about landing under your center of gravity (something that a faster cadence usually takes care off).

    1. Andy M

      So glad to read your reply, particularly about cadence and it’s relationship to speed. On faster runs I’m good at 170-180 RPMs or better, but not in ultras or on LSD runs.

      Joe — Biomechanically, what is the variable controlling speed if our stride length stays short and our cadence is a steady 180?

      1. SageCanaday

        yeah it’s generally the trails (uphills) that slow cadence (as well as extreme fatigue in ultras) and then any powerhiking of course.

        I’m not Joe, but the variable controlling speed is mainly stride length. Cadence/stride rate at an “easy pace” and at “marathon race pace” may only increase from 170 to 180spm, but stride length would have to increase relatively the most for such a velocity change (say that is 1:30 per/mile faster in velocity on a flat road..from “easy pace” to “marathon race pace”). Of course an increase in stride length requires muscular power (hip mobility to), but more leg drive and a powerful push-off. I believe most people have more than enough muscular power for that longer stride…the key is to have a well developed cardiovascular system (heart, lungs, blood flow) to support that higher work output for longer periods of time! Just my 2 cents.

        1. Andy M

          Thanks Sage. Makes sense. Given technical terrain and elevation change it seems the whole cadence/stride length equation is not as simple on the trails!

          1. SageCanaday

            For sure several variables at play! And for sheer velocity/pace (i.e. on a flat road) I’d guess around 11-12+min/ mile pace there might be some slight drops in that optimal efficiency of stride rate…but to some extent will will depend on other movement patterns (i.e with the core/back/arms/head), body weight distribution and fast-twitch to slow twitch muscle fiber ratios.

            Trails that are smooth and “runnable” (esp downhills) can still yield a very fast cadence even during an ultra. For example taking short quick steps helps reduce impact force…so you’re looking at saving your quads for more downhills later in the race.

        2. Andy DuBois

          I have found that it varies greatly – some people don’t have the muscular strength to create greater stride length and fatigue very quickly although heart rate / breathing feels comfortable – whereas others notice the increased effort in heart and lungs trying to increase drive through hips.

          So in some cases strength work in the gym with some dynamic hip extension will show great benefits but in other cases uphill longer stride hill repeats can really make a difference

          I don’t think lack of hip extension is a problem for most even though they may test tight in hip flexors with a static flexibility test – enough drive through the hips and they’ll get the dynamic extension they need

          Thats what I have noticed anyway !

      2. Patrick

        I’m sure my cadence would decrease on LSD, but I’m guessing that’s not what you’re talking about. What does that stand for?

        1. Andy M

          Hahaha. “Long slow distance.” Old running abbreviation.

          Besides, if the run is long and grueling enough you don’t need the lysergic acid kind to hallucinate and/or have a bad trip :)

      3. Joe Uhan

        A few comments:

        1.) The physics behind 180 steps per minute is likely due to the pasticity of soft tissue: our muscles/tendons/joints can “hold” the energy for about 1/3s, then “return it” to the ground for the most efficient propulsion.

        Faster than that: less energy is built-up in the tissues
        Slower than that: energy is then absorbed by the tissue (and lost)

        The latter is a major factor in injury, and the driver in cadence training among runners.

        2.) Ideal cadence seems to vary based on height. Roughly, those ~6′ or taller tend to always have a cadence under 180 (even super-efficient elite runners), while those shorter in stature (180 steps/minute.

        3.) A whole other column could be devoted to which types of cadence are ideal for trail and/or ultra-distances. While uphill running (even “shuffling”) should maintain 180, most elite trail runners would agree that cadences of 200-240 on steep, technical downhill is preferential.

  4. Andy DuBois

    I have to disagree re the 180 cadence being optimal – cadence depends on speed and any talk on cadence needs to be had in context of speed. Some runners ( like myself ) have pretty much same cadence no matter what speed , other runners have cadence that changes when speed changes .

    As a coach we should identify if someones cadence needs increasing ( and for many runners this is true) then advise them to increase cadence but not aim for an arbitrary 180. I coach some very elite athletes whose cadence in an ultra is around 165-170 but when they do speed work its 190+ . Should their cadence be higher at ultra speeds ? I don’t think so

    We need to look at where their foot lands in relation to their knee – if it lands ahead then a higher cadence can be of great benefit , but if it lands underneath the knee then they probably have a very good running form and telling them to up cadence at slower speeds is not warranted at all.

    Lets dispell this 180 is best cadence for all people at all speeds because it simply isn’t true

    Alex Hutchinson from Sweat Science discussed some elite Kenyans cadence
    here http://www.runnersworld.com/sweat-science/kenyans-cadence-and-ground-contact-time?utm_source=t.co&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=sharebutton

    At lower paces only 3 of 15 had cadence above 170 but at faster paces cadence ranged from 174 to 200+

    1. SageCanaday

      Andy, I wouldn’t believe everything you read in a “Runners World” article.
      In my opinion that article is more about reducing ground contact time (and vertical oscillation for that matter) with a goal of optimal Running Economy (read: efficiency).

      Then this point: The is low number study had elite East Africans “shuffle jogging” at 8:00min mile pace. These guys race marathons at 4:50/mile pace!! That would be like if we had a 3:00hr marathoner and made him go out for a flat road run at 11min mile pace…yeah his stride rate might be a little on the low side! More interesting would be what their cadence is on their “Easy Days” (think 6:00min- 6:30 pace)…I’d bet most would be in the 170s at least at that velocity…so it is all relative. Yeah, on a slow morning slog/warm-up (which for those super elite/fast guys is 7-8+min pace) maybe their cadence drops under 160…but anything remotely close to marathon pace (i.e. within 2-min per mile) and they are likely closer to 180.

      In your first paragraph you contradict yourself:
      “…cadence depends on speed and any talk on cadence needs to be had in context of speed. Some runners ( like myself ) have pretty much same cadence no matter what speed…”
      So personally you’re saying your cadence doesn’t change much with speed? Try sprinting an all-out 800m and compare that to your cadence during a trail ultra. I agree with you that it is all in the context of relative speed/velocity though (As well as running surface/distance to some extent) as I’ve already mentioned in posts above.

      The fact of the matter is that I (and many other coaches) believe that being AROUND the 180 rate is fairly optimal for A LOT of people…especially near their marathon pace to 10km pace on flat, uniform surfaces. Hopefully it will also allow them to reduce the risk of injury as well (less impact force) while improving running economy.

      1. Martijn

        I think you sort of both say the same, but have to agree with Andy that 180 should not be the aim at any speed. So 180 should be your aim for maybe a tempo run or marathon pace run. Many newbies or people looking to improve might take the cue to start even doing their easy runs at 180 at all cost, ie the easy run is not easy anymore though it is still slow.

        1. Martijn

          And (forgot to mention) that article from Runnersworld was by Alex Hutchinson who usually has pretty decent articles (not your typical runnnersworld article and I believe people like Steve Magness supported the view expressed.

      2. Jeremy

        Sage, respectfully, I find your comments a bit jarring. You start off by saying “Andy, I wouldn’t believe everything you read in a “Runners World” article.”, yet we should be compelled to take advice in the comments section from an elite ultra runner who frankly hasn’t realized his potential yet (from road speed) in ultra running? The source of the article is Alex Hutchinson, a Ph.D. and sports science journalist who is highly respected, and was also a national level mid distance runner for Canada.

        You note that for the Kenyan’s in the study 8min/mile would be “shuffle jogging” … kind of sounds like what most do in an ultra. Hell even for guys like you, racing a 50 miler you’re still well below marathon pace, so would it be so surprising to find your cadence below 180 during an ultra race. Anecdotally, Walmsley’s cadence for the R2R2R was just below 160!

        If we can be sure about one thing, the pedigree of the Kenyans in that study tells us they must be *efficient* runners. I think it’s safe to assume, that they naturally settle in to an efficient stride rate for any given pace. If there is a broad observation then, it would be the correlation between stride rate and speed, and what we know (even before this study) is that stride rate tends to decrease with speed.

        Extrapolating that a step further, should we be surprised to suggest that at race distances that have us mortals running at paces that could be slower than a 30 minute recovery jog, that maybe the most efficient stride rate is less than 180?

        If there is a real danger in training, it’s in blindly following “rules”. 180 may be a good baseline point for discussion, but to hold is as gospel feels dangerous indeed.

        1. SageCanaday

          I’ll take the personal insult (this isn’t about me though….this is about runners staying more injury free and improving their running experience with the application of science) For the record though (since you seem to be attacking me a bit): I do feel like i have realized a lot of my “potential” in ultra-trail running…not sure where you are going with that? It is hard to transition to road marathons and mountain-ultra-trail races….from 10km to 100-miles. Any Surface, Any Distance….are you going to say guys like Max King (2:14 marathoner and much faster than me on the roads) also failed to reach their potential in trail ultras as well then? (I really respect Max btw).

          I also respect Dr. Hutchinson’s experience…I still would not believe everything I read in a “Runner’s World” article though. They cited his work. It’s a very limited study with small sample size.

          In defense of my experience: I’ve been running a lot 100+ mile weeks for over a decade. I’ve worked in shoe stores for years looking at thousands of runner’s strides and feet, helping them overcome injury. We’ve coached and consulted with a lot of people on running form and coached dozens to sub 3 hr marathons for the first time. I have BS in Human Factors and Ergonomics from Cornell University where I studied movement patterns, anatomy, chem, bio, and over-use injuries etc.

          I never said 180 is this a magical golden rule. I stated (in my comments above) the variations on that and how in trails (and esp in ultras and on hills ) that cadence likely drops even below 170 at times.

          8-min mile pace on a flat road is a slow, awkward shuffle jog for a 62-min half marathon runner. That is just a fact. It’s no surprise their cadence would be slightly lower at such a slow relative speed for them. It’s all relative to experience, muscle fiber distribution, weight distribution, relative paces and running surface/distance. Stride rate tends to decrease slightly with speed, but stride length drops relatively more; likewise with an increase in speed it is stride length that is more a determining factor (than perhaps the slight increase in cadence).

    2. Joe Uhan

      Andy-

      Thanks for the comment.

      While there’s variation in cadence – especially when *jogging* vs training and racing paces – the consensus of research is 180 +/- IS ideal. Refer to my comment above: this is likely due to the physical properties of collagen fiber loading-unloading (which is static and non-preferential).

      Cadence does not depend on “speed”:

      – velocity is/should always be determined by stride length (as Sage discussed above).
      – acceleration (especially +acceleration) is determined by cadence

      Again, the idea behind cadence is what load-unload speed is most ideal for soft tissue to absorb, then rebound energy. And that rate, with few variations, happens to be about 300 milliseconds (or 3 steps per minute).

  5. Jeff

    Is it not possible that cadence should vary not only with pace/terrain but the athlete? For me, when running faster I am certainly around 170-180, but it drops if the terrain is steeper/more technical and during an ultra. Also, it is not a perfect analogy due to differences between cycling and running but the optimal cadence in cycling depends on power output, and a faster cadence has a higher aerobic cost, so that has to be factored in as well.

    1. Andy M

      That’s true in cycling if riding in a very low gear, but if riding at moderate effort is it not true that we are also maximally ergonomic at about 90 RPMs, i.e., the equivalent of 180 SPMs?

      1. Jeff

        Andy,

        Not really based on gear, but power. The gurus here talk about force peaks created, so ideal cadence increases with power. At 200-250 watts, the ideal cadence is less than 90/180, but in a pro sprint we are talking an ideal cadence of 130/260+!

        As with running, efficiency is also important and it takes a lot of work to adapt to higher cadences on the bike or running while maintaining proper form.

        1. SageCanaday

          I’m fairly a n00B on the bike, but I can climb steady for 20-25-min at about 290-300 watts. I’d say that a lot of cyclists I know in Boulder will hover around 90rpm as a fairly efficient cadence for long periods of time (some being maybe only at 200W on a flat cruise, but others crushing closer to 350W). Of course out of the saddle cadence on the bike can drop to 75-85 rpm if one is mashing big gears – likewise with faster spinning maybe 100+rpm (and for sure sprinting it’s going to be a lot higher).

          But the 90rpm/180spm is actually a fairly good comparison I think. It has to do with muscle fiber type/recruitment and contraction time as well.

    2. Joe Uhan

      Jeff-

      As I mentioned above:

      1. Cadence has individual variations, largely based on HEIGHT. If you’re taller (6′ or more), it’s likely your true physiological ideal may be in the 170s.

      2. Ideal cadence on downs depends on your grade and terrain. While it is often preferential to be *well above 180* (and upwards of 240), I cannot think of a situation where a cadence under 180 is preferred (biomechanically) on a downhill.

      Again, it comes down to energy dispersion — it is always preferential to “bouce back” that energy, rather than absorb through tissue. Running with a cadence well under 180 – especially down hill, which adds more energy to the system – is inherently stressful and is a leading cause of injury.

      1. Jeff

        Thank you Joe. I definitely increase cadence downhill and am often well above 200 (and am not over 6′). Uphill however I am often slower (160-170), average cadence for training runs is often 170-175. I would still think running downhill or even on flat ground would result in more force to be absorbed than running uphill, so running up a steep hill might be slightly less than 180, but I do aim for 180. Interesting read!

  6. Jadan

    In my experience I hover around the 160 mark from 10min miles down to about 6min miles, just my stride length increases. Faster than that my cadence rapidly increases to around 180 at 5.20min miles which is about my practical maximum effort at age 54. I suspect that 180+ is taken from examples of very good runners running quickly at a similar high point on the curve and trying to apply this to all at slower paces. As I think Sage suggested, unless you have the aerobic capacity and trained faster running coordination, it is difficult to go fast enough with a ‘natural’ stride to get to this optimum 180. And that’s without the consideration of the effects of rough ground and hills. Having said that I also know that if I run barefoot on grass my cadence is naturally much faster throughout. I used to think this supported the faster cadence argument but I now think this is actually due to lower foot and calf strength caused by so many years running in cushioned shoes with raised heels. A few practice barefoot sessions on the grass nearly always result in improvements in my stride length rather than cadence which I think is telling in itself.

  7. Susan

    As a newish, older, non-competitive runner in a trail mecca (Juneau, AK), I’ve been studying various perspectives on how to run further most efficiently and without injury. Joe’s articles and Danny Dreyer’s Chi Running lessons are two of my main sources, though some of their perspectives seem to be in opposition. Both agree on forward engagement, arm swing, and 180. The point Joe made multiple times about why 180 is perfect is great info and new to me. (Thanks for that and more, Joe!) In side-by-side videos Danny has beautifully illustrated running at 180 in the four different “gears” (speeds), with the change in pace coming from opening out his stride behind him (knees bend, feet move in an overall circular pattern returning below rather than in front).

    One area in which Joe’s and Danny’s views don’t seem to mesh is Joe’s emphasis on push-off and lower leg strength. Danny’s view is that speed comes from increasing lean to allow the passing earth to open the stride and rotate the hips; he eschews toe-off and forceful use of the lower leg. Yes, even on hills, though maybe not in a final, muscle-glycogen-decimating push to the finish line.

    Although he has run ultras and varied terrain, I do know that Danny is not an ultra legend; it’s the theory I’m interested in rather than a comparison of running prowess.

    Joe, it’s likely that you are familiar with the limp-lower-leg concept in natural running. Is that in contrast to what you are saying above about leg strength? Are you aware of any top U.S. trail runners who use a Chi or natural running style? I would love to see a comparison of the two styles addressed in an article someday.

    1. SageCanaday

      The first time I saw the 180 steps per minute rate was in Jack Daniel’s (not the whiskey guy, the coach). “Distance Running Formula” book over 20 years ago. He counted Olympians during track 5km, 10km and marathon races and nearly all over them were humming above this rate. Cadence varied less than stride length with differing speed. I know you asked for Joe’s opinion on this (but sorry I can’t help from commenting!).

      I’ve studied “Chi Running,” “Pose”, “Natural Running” etc. over the years. There is some overlap and some disconnect. A lot of the fastest distance runners in the world that i’ve met (or at least toed the stating line behind at races like Boston and NYC and Comrades) usually don’t give a second thought about any form or technique. Of course in East Africa they still do running form drills (high knees, skipping, bounding, short hill sprints) just like we do the the running team programs in the NCAA in the US (As well as many clubs)…They may have also grown up running barefoot on dirt surfaces and have become more “in tune” with their body while running due to that childhood. But the drills have always been to perfect form with limited ground contact time, an increased stride length, neuromuscular stimulation of fast-twitch muscle fibers, and increased hip mobility.

      In my opinion “Chi running” is a big business. It is a brand. While it helps a lot of people, I simply can’t agree with what was quoted in (regards Danny’s view being): “speed comes from increasing lean to allow the passing earth to open the stride and rotate the hips; he eschews toe-off and forceful use of the lower leg. ” While one could say there is forward momentum and gravity is doing “some work.” basic physics tells us that we are going to have to have some push-off force. Newton’s third law: for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.

      But the mental cue on that would be: “light and quick” on the feet…and the focus should be: “lift the lower leg up” as the knee bends on the backswing and the shin becomes atleast parallel to the ground.

      Any good running form “method” should mention a slight forward lean from the ankles (that is across all these “techniques.”) and “running tall”. They should also mention landing under one’s center of mass with a very slightly bent knee (not overstriding and “reaching out” in front of the body). Likewise one never want to force a “toe strike” (unless maybe doing a 100m sprint or running up a very steep hill….even then it’s the ball of the foot that should be the target of ground contact).

      Botton line with the 180 cadence: Yeah there is some variation, but it generally helps a lot of people to increase their stride rate (esp if under 170 on a flat surface at around road marathon pace or faster) mainly because it prevents from overstriding (read: heel striking), promotes landing under the center of mass, and reduces impact force (as well as necessary push-off force) as stride length is slightly decreased. Variations that cause cadence to drop (maybe even into the 160s) include techy trails, powerhiking, running uphill and fatigue (as well as super slow warm-up speed or bonking during ultra racing speeds etc.).

      1. Susan

        Thank you for your reply, Sage. As soon as I hit send I wished I’d included you, specifically, and anyone else with useful insight in the request.

        What you say about the physics of some need for toe-off jives which what’s been going in my head. Thank you very much for the great round-up of best running form characteristics, and for taking away some of my feelings of inadequacy over not being able to maintain 180, so long as low-impact form holds up.

  8. Bob

    Great article (as always) Joe. You have a way of boiling things down to the essential key points.
    And good discussion, especially all the great analysis from Sage.
    I’m neither a specialist like Joe, an experienced coach, or an elite runner, but I have been running a long time (trails nearly exclusively and Ultras up to 50 miles) and read a lot on running form and strategies for staying in the game. I try to follow the research literature (and for what it’s worth I am a PhD biologist with access to the primary lit) but mostly I have experimented a lot with techniques and training methods (n=1) and a lot of what Joe presents resonates with my own experiences.
    But one thing I have been thinking a lot about lately (and sort of forced on me) is the effect of aging and the extent to which those effects can be countered by training. Maybe Joe could take this on in a separate column :) ???
    Here is the thing – I am 57 y.o.. 10 years ago I was naturally running at 180 spm or in that neighborhood, without having to think about it too much. My cruising pace was under 8 min/mile for anything but long runs, my 10K race pace (on a nontech flat course) was about 6:30 min/mile and I could crank it up to under 6 min for shorter distances. Nothing spectacular but never thought too much about it. I knew published race pace really slows in the age categories over 50, and sure enough that was what happened to me too. Cadence also dropped off from >170 to now 160-170. Here is the question – is that age-related drop off in performance a function of reduced flexibility in connective tissue, neuromuscular (possibly strength/power related), some combination? Is it known? What training strategies, methods, slow the decay, or is there anything? It must continue and get worse, there are not really any old fast runners after all :) I just want to keep running as long as possible, and enjoying it (race performance was never my goal). This is uncharted territory for me and for anyone, seeing how we only get older once!

  9. Ellie G

    Hi Joe (and Sage!) Can you advise re. cadence on uphill running? I know ‘uphill’ can vary greatly in grade but I am thinking runnable but quite steep uphill. Would cadence tend to be much lower or should it still be relatively high and with small steps? Particularly interested as I do some net uphill runs. In addition, have there been any studies that suggest differing average cadenece between men and women? Just wonder given different hip/ knee angles etc – or is it simply that women on average are shorter is might actually have higher cadence? Thanks for another great article!

    1. SageCanaday

      Hi Ellie! Usually cadence drops on uphills…probably below 170 for most (say it’s a smooth 5-12% uphill grade). Of course this depends on trail technicality (more technical trails or steps or slippery trails could lead to a bigger cadence drop. Stride length is going to have to drop a ton as well because of the increased workout output demand and usually huge decrease in overall pace/speed. The line of thought though is generally to take :”little quick steps” on an uphill even if that means cadence is dropping under 170 (it doesn’t seem to feel like it though!).

      In terms of efficiency I’d say it depends on the length of the hill (as well as percent grade) and the length of the race/workout….for optimal cadence/energy conservation. For example, one might want/need to powerhike many uphills during a 100-mile ultra – whereas in a 10km mountain race one may be able to run very hard (faster cadence and stride length) up a short hill. It is considered very inefficient (in a long hill/ultra race) to try to take big strides on an uphill as the “bounding” from the vertical oscillation and leg drive is a huge energy demand.

      I’d also say the biomechanical differences between men and women generally (i.e. higher Q-angle in general, differences in hip mobility, femur to tibia length ratio etc.), could lead to some slight differences in “ideal cadence” but I haven’t seen any evidence that stride rate varies too much between them. I believe for shorter v. taller individuals (i.e. longer legged runners having a slightly slower cadence) there is likely a slight difference but not has much as one would think.

      1. SageCanaday

        [and in the context of talking about cadence and hills]

        The flip side of this is of course on smooth, runnable DOWNHILLS, the cadence should ideally increase to even above 180 at times…we see values of 190-200 a lot.

        For long ultra-mountain races this makes sense as it is a matter of “sparing the quads” and trying to reduce impact force as efficiency as possible (short, quick steps tend to do that).

        In a final sprint (or final downhill) to the finish, maybe one could “blow out the quads” with a long stride (think very high impact force), but the sheer impact force of a long stride (think slower than 180 cadence) on a downhill is simply not sustainable in a long ultra….at least not naturally IMO.

  10. John Hinds

    Hi all. Great article Joe! Readers: don’t get too caught up on 180. 180 is a great reference point and much has been written about 180spm as an ideal running cadence. But keep in mind that Joe clearly states that coaching is as much an art as it is a science. Over the course of 24 years I have found the same can be said for physical therapy and the art of rehabilitation and injury prevention. The science provides a foundation and a guideline but individuals and real world experience and results are considered. As such (and as Joe explains so well) there are many variables that go into defining efficiency. While 180 spm may be ideal for one runner, 192 or 170 may be best for others (or even the same person depending on the day and terrain).

    The main point is that running cadence is an important variable and if you are at the lower end of the range, increasing cadence will improve efficiency (all else being equal) and in simple terms, reduce the stress on the structures responsible for absorbing this stress. And to Andy’s point, the location of foot strike is exactly why cadence is so important; a higher cadence typically brings foot strike ‘closer to the knee’ or closer to our center of gravity (which is also independent of the ‘type’ of footstrike, whether heel, midfoot or forefoot, but that’s a whole different article!).

    Most recreational runners tend to over stride and are on the low end of the range and I have found that increasing their cadence alone has been a tremendous help in reducing nagging aches and pains as well as helping to cure various injuries and keep them running happily ever after. That said, as Joe mentions, increasing cadence is more than just ‘faster feet’ and for this reason increasing cadence for some can be difficult (but it’s a good start!). Gait analysis from an experienced coach or clinician is priceless and the benefits can be 10 fold.

    The bottom line is that forward progression with the least amount of stress is the ultimate goal and what ultimately leads to the improvement, efficiency, and sustainability that Joe (and everyone else) is looking for.

    Thanks Joe for the excellent article and discussion! But Jeremy, really? Sage Canaday’s accomplishments in and out of his running shoes speak for itself. No need to criticize.

    Have a great day all!

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