It’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:
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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?