Running is one of those sports that can constantly be optimized — whether it’s your speed, running form, or overall functionality, there’s plenty you can work on to enhance your technique.
That being said, because it’s such a nuanced activity, it’s easy to fall victim to inefficient running as a result of biomechanical deficiencies. And, more often than not, these deficiencies boil down to a handful of common running form errors, meaning it just might be time for you to revisit your form to optimize your training.
In your hunt for the best performance techniques, you’ve likely stumbled across multiple sites or experts suggesting to increase your cadence. It’s a common recommendation — but, as with everything connected to running form, it can be tough to determine if it’s really the right method for you.
But don’t worry — we’re here to guide you. We’ve got the down-low of what cadence is, the science behind how it can boost your performance, and how you can follow through.
What is Running Cadence?
Alright, let’s start with the basics.
Your running cadence is how many steps you take per minute while running. As you continue working on your cadence, you’ll typically see it quantified as “X” steps per minute, or SPM.
Pretty simple, right?
However, this then begs the question: why is specifically called cadence if it’s just about how many steps you take?
Well, as you may have guessed, that’s not the only aspect to cadence. Yes, your primary goal is to increase your step count — but in doing so, you’ll end up with a handful of additional benefits. (Which is a pretty sweet deal, since upping your cadence is one of the easier ways to improve your running.)
A higher cadence means your body has to adjust to different biomechanical movements — and, as minor as these changes may seem, they allow for improved running form and, consequently, more efficient performance.
Here’s a more in-depth breakdown of how taking those extra strides will ultimately lead to better running performance in the long run.
Cadence and Running Form
First, let’s look at how your form changes and why it makes an impact.
The more steps you take, the more you will gradually change the position of where your foot lands with every footstrike. Typically, increasing your cadence will lead to shorter strides, allowing your feet to land under your center of mass — and that alone already comes with multiple benefits.
If your feet land under your center of mass, it essentially means that you’re decreasing your chances of overstriding. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s exactly what it sounds like: your stride is too long, especially for efficient running. In fact, overstriding refers specifically to your footstrike being too far in front of your center of mass, which can often lead to increased impact forces and higher risk of injury (but we’ll cover more of that in a bit). Most specialists will use cadence manipulation training as the primary method to correct overstride.
Additionally, having shorter strides means that your body is less prone to vertical oscillation (simply put, it’s less likely to move up and down as you run). The less your body moves up and down, the less energy it spends on vertical movement, meaning your body can better utilize its energy for more powerful steps that will carry you forward more efficiently.
It’s already sounding like a good deal — but that’s not even the best of it.
Cadence and Injury Risk
As your form begins to take better shape, your body will ultimately experience less impact with every step. It may not sound like it makes much of a difference when talking about individual strides, but think about it this way: running 1 mile consists of approximately 2,000 steps. And each one of those steps adds to the amount of force and stress your body has to go through with every workout.
Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?
Here’s a little more food for thought: running with overstride can lead to a significant amount of impact forces. When your steps land outside of your center of mass, you’re increasing your overall landing shock with every step. Studies have shown that undergoing repetitive, increased shock puts runners at higher risk of tibial stress fractures. So, learning how to correct overstride via increasing your cadence can reduce your risk of stress fractures by 3-6% in the long run.
As for vertical oscillation, there’s a similar effect. The lower your cadence, the more time you spend up in the air between every step — and while this motion may seem minimal, it adds up quickly. Ultimately, the longer and higher up you are in the air, the more landing shock your body has to absorb with every step. Over time, this increased shock can put you at higher risk for injury.
All of this is to say that increasing your cadence will decrease your vertical loading rate in more than one way, ultimately minimizing the stress on your skeletal system (namely your knees, hips, and lower back). Research indicates that retraining your cadence can reduce braking forces by 15%, which is especially relevant for your knee joints, as it’s the most common site of injury or pain for runners. It’s also theorized to potentially increase the activation of your gluteus medius — meaning you gain even more power in every step while further reducing the braking forces of your training. (And you have to admit; that’s pretty hard to pass up.)
So let’s take a look at how to find your current cadence and how you measure up to the ideal step count.
How to Calculate Your Running Cadence
Thankfully, because cadence is measured solely by the number of steps you take, calculating it only requires some counting and basic multiplication.
Take about a minute or so to warm up, then count every time one of your feet hits the ground in 30 seconds (and no, it doesn’t matter which foot you choose). Once you have that number, multiply it by 2 to get the total number of steps you take in 60 seconds. Then, take that number and double it again to make sure you account for both of your feet.Conversely, you could also just count your footstrikes for the full minute; whichever works best for you.
And voila — now you know your current cadence.
If math isn’t your cup of tea (or you just lose count easily), you can also use a piece of running tech to help determine your cadence. Most smartwatches have the capability of measuring several running metrics like cadence, so they can be a decent alternative if you’d rather spend that 30-60 seconds focusing on something else.
But knowing your steps per minute doesn’t do a whole lot on its own. When working on your cadence, it’s important to know where your number stands relative to optimal cadence, so let’s dive a bit deeper into what your number should actually look like.
What’s the Ideal Running Cadence?
Okay, that’s a bit misleading — there’s no real specific rate that your cadence should be at.
More than anything, there’s a suggested range that’s considered optimal for running, but it’s not quite as cut and dry as it seems.
The most standard recommendation for ideal running cadence is somewhere between 170-180 SPM, determined by renowned cadence-researcher Bryan Heiderscheit. His studies have proven that increasing your cadence by 5-10 steps per minute can lead to a significant reduction in vertical loading forces, especially for your joints.
This happens because cadence leads to shorter strides, so you aren’t spending a lot of time during the swing phase of your running gait. This means that your swinging leg doesn’t get the chance to extend far enough for overstride, nor does it have as much time to dorsiflex and create greater landing forces into your next step.
Based on these findings, most people assume that it’s best to have a higher cadence. And they wouldn’t be wrong; but like most good things, it functions at its best with some moderation.
Heiderscheit’s research indicates that these reductions in loading forces and injury risk do occur with increased cadence — but only to a point. Most runners will only reap the benefits up until they hit 180 SPM, and then it sort of plateaus from there. Having a higher cadence won’t necessarily inhibit you, but it won’t add much in the way of better performance, either.
Which is why most runners refer to 180 SPM as the “magic number” for cadence.
However, it’s vital to remember: every runner is different.
And we’re not just saying that as a cop-out — there are legitimate factors that can influence your cadence, and it’s well worth keeping them in mind, otherwise you run the risk of blindly trying to achieve a 180 SPM when that may not be the average that works best for you.
The key to approaching this “magic 180” is to remember that it’s an average, meaning that a group of the fastest runners can have cadences above and below this rate.
Cadence can vary on a number of different factors. For example, your speed and height can impact how often you stride. Your speed essentially boils down to how long your strides are and how often you take them, and your height (i.e., how long your legs are) can affect how many strides you need to take to cover a certain amount of distance. It can also potentially be affected by your muscle fiber type, tendon density, or something as simple as the terrain you’re running on or your level of experience.
All of this isn’t to say that experts are wrong for proclaiming that 180 SPM is ideal — it still certainly serves as a healthy average for many runners. But, there are also plenty of fast runners that have broken records with lower and higher cadences, because those are the rates that functioned best for their running.
Which is why it’s best to aim for the range of 170-180 SPM. It’ll help you sidestep the common error of obsessively training until you hit the exact magic number, and you’ll also remain in the healthy range of steps that are scientifically proven to reduce your risk of injury.
Tips for Improving Your Cadence
Alright, now that you know all the what’s and why’s of running cadence, it’s time to address the best part — how to do it all.
That’s right; you’re finally at the part where you learn how to take the (literal) right steps towards achieving that optimal cadence goal.
But before you start shortening those strides, keep in mind: although these techniques are accessible and seem easy to execute, they won’t necessarily yield the results you want right away. Just like with most techniques to improve your performance, it takes time to adjust your training, otherwise your body is more vulnerable to injury or being overworked (and that’s the exact opposite of what you want).
So, with that caveat in mind, here some tried-and-true methods to up your cadence — see which fits your training best.
Gradually Increasing Your Cadence
Probably the most obvious solution. What better way to increase your cadence than just by increasing it, right?
But if you’re looking to jump straight into upping your cadence… you can’t really. You want to be sure that you’re still easing into it. It’s recommended that you focus on adding about 2-4 SPM every week or two, that way you’re ensuring a steady pace for increasing your cadence.
Some experts recommend increasing your SPM anywhere between 5-10%, but realistically, working off of percentages is probably too big of a leap (especially when you’re first starting out). Increasing your cadence by a few SPM is a good start — it’s more easily attainable and will still reduce your impact forces significantly enough.
The handy part about this technique is that you can apply this same, simple math to any of your training workouts (easy runs, marathons, tempos, etc.). To ensure that you aren’t increasing your steps too much too quickly, be sure to take careful note of your current cadences and stick to the gradual increments.
Using Metronomes or Specific Beats
This is often a fan favorite, mostly because the audible aspect is great for staying on track. If you use a metronome or listen to music with a consistent tempo (that matches your cadence goal), all you have to do is match each of your steps to the beat.
Many runners tend to use this technique simply to maintain a steady cadence, but it can certainly be used to bump up your step count, too. If that’s the case, though, be sure that you still stick to those 2-4 SPM increments — you can easily set the metronome beat or find some songs with just the right tempo to keep in line with your progress.
Most metronome apps are easy enough to adjust the BPM. As for finding enough songs to run to, you can try certain apps like Weav Run that create playlists built up of songs that match your weekly cadence goals.
If you use these audio tools to help with improving your cadence, it can be helpful to practice them in shorter bursts. You can incorporate them into your runs by adding short distances where you focus on keeping up your new target cadence. This will ensure that your body is thoroughly warmed up and will help it get accustomed to moving at this cadence mid-run.
Practicing on a Treadmill
Although increasing your cadence doesn’t seem all that difficult in theory, it still definitely takes a lot of willpower to adjust to the new form and movement. And realistically, there’s lots that can distract you on your runs, so it’s easy to lose focus on your cadence, especially when you’re first starting out.
So if counting steps or running to a beat just doesn’t cut it, switch your practices over to a treadmill. Now, we know that treadmill running isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly has its benefits. Training on a treadmill doesn’t negatively affect your running form, plus it’s super handy for running at a specific cadence, since it’ll maintain a steady speed for the entire workout.
Not only will an increased cadence naturally reduce the likelihood of improper form and risk of injury, but it’s also a super accessible way of retraining your body. And even if there isn’t one golden cadence number that magically improves every runner’s technique, at least it’s got enough benefits to make it worth your time and energy.
Why not start with the training you KNOW will make an impact right away?