Among all things tech-lovers, data junkies, or sports science nerds like myself can track, running cadence is one that can be easily monitored on a GPS device. A 2016 study showed that using a commercially available watch like a Garmin is a reliable, valid way to track cadence, among other factors. 1,9
The Definition of Running Cadence
We’ve known for years that many running injuries are related to the forces going through the body as it impacts the ground with each step.
Cadence is the number of steps a person takes per minute. The reason we’ve started paying attention is that a few years ago, research showed it correlates with how much impact goes through the legs with each foot strike.
Higher cadence means more steps per minute, which means less loading or impact on a run. Kind of cool, eh?
Increasing your cadence can also help with over-striding. While opening up your stride is a great thing for sprinting, it’s not efficient for distance running. This is why Usain Bolt doesn’t run marathons. Most people who over-stride land with their knee locked, slamming their heel into the ground at the point of impact. It’s a braking motion, causing a choppy stride. This puts a lot of excess stress on the joints, and compounded over time can lead to injury. Think how many times your leg hits the ground on a 5, 10, or 15-mile run.
Changing Your Cadence
A recent study on healthy runners who ran with increased cadence by 7.5% for 8 weeks showed a decrease in their loading rate (force of impact) by 18-10%.8 These runners maintained their new form for a month after. If you don’t have an injury, there’s no need to increase your cadence. Unless you’re over-striding, that is.
If you do have an injury, changing your cadence may help. Studies have shown this helps with issues such as stress fractures and lower leg injuries like shin splints.5,8 Increased cadence has also shown an increase in glute muscle activation.5 Better use of these muscles during a run can help with biomechanics linked to other injuries like IT band syndrome.3,10
Increasing Your Cadence
The first thing to do is to find your cadence. Count how many times your right foot hits the ground in 30 seconds. Multiply that times four to get the total number of foot strikes per minute.
You may think, “But I read on social media, or a friend told me, or a famous running magazine wrote that I should run at a cadence of 160-180. And more is better, so I’ll shoot for 180!”
The media suggested a cadence of 160-180 because of studies that were published on cadence a few years ago. In them, participants averaged a cadence from 165-185. But I’ve been lucky enough to hear the author present their research. They’re always quick to note their results are based on increasing each runner’s individual cadence by 5-10%.4,8 The mean of their subjects was at 165-185, but there was a wide variability of all the participants in the study.
If you’re at 140, try 147 (5%). Once you get comfortable with that, try 7.5%. If you’re still over-striding or having pain, try 10%—and see a PT or other sports medicine specialist.
To all the overachievers out there, you don’t need to increase your cadence past 10%. More than that will put a large hurt on your running economy, which is basically how much oxygen or energy you need to hold a pace—so you’d be running less efficiently.
The trick is to find a sweet spot for your form, enough that you aren’t “braking” with each stride, but not so quick that you’re struggling to turn over your feet.
Use Your Phone to Track Your Running
Metronome apps can help you put your new, improved cadence into action. I’ve had good results with Run Tempo and Pro Metronome. There are other versions that can even sync up your music to your pace, which is great, because who wants to hear generic thumping for 5 miles?
If you’re changing your cadence, be patient. It will seem horribly awkward at first to run with a quicker turnover. Use intervals at first. If you do listen to music, start with one song “on” and two songs “off.” Then try two on and one-off, and increase the “on” time from there.
Reduce Your Risk of Injury
Recent research has looked at reducing vertical oscillation, or how much bounce a runner has.1 Decreasing this not only reduces ground reaction forces, but it also has an effect on lowering your cadence. So instead of all the counting, try thinking about keeping your body as low to the ground as possible. Focus on running “softer” and not bouncing. This is also trackable on some wearable devices. When we talk about keeping your body low to the ground, we aren’t talking about slumping or slouching. Keep your shoulders upright and your hips with a slight forward lean.
You can also try to increase your stride width versus your stride length. Research has found that stress and load through the shins are influenced by step width. Basically, when your stance is more narrow, the lower leg has more stress going through it.7
Don’t try all these methods at the same time. It’s hard to maintain all those changes over the miles, and you won’t know which factor is actually helping. If you have a question, schedule a gait analysis with a run expert to pinpoint exactly what will help your individual needs or training.
Lastly, remember to manage your training load or workout intensity. Your cadence or form won’t matter if you’re constantly overworking your joints and tendons. If you have race goals, ramp up your mileage appropriately. There’s a fine line between too much and too little.
The Bottom Line of Cadence
Cadence is linked to how much stress or impact goes through the body while running. If you have an injury or have had one in the past, increasing your cadence may be an option for your training.
Find your individual cadence. Not everyone should be running at 165-185 strides per minute. There are other options for reducing your impact or risk of injuries, such as increasing your stride width, changing your training load, and reducing your vertical oscillation or bounce.
1. Adams, Douglas, Federico Pozzi, Anthony Carroll, Andrew Rombach, and Joseph Zeni. “Validity and Reliability of a Commercial Fitness Watch for Measuring Running Dynamics.” Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy 46, no. 6 (2016): 471–76.
2. Adams, Douglas, Federico Pozzi, Richard W. Willy, Anthony Carrol, and Joseph Zeni. “Altering Cadence Or Vertical Oscillation During Running: Effects On Running Related Injury Factors.” International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy 13, no. 4 (2018): 633–42.
3. Fredericson, Michael, Curtis L. Cookingham, Ajit M. Chaudhari, Brian C. Dowdell, Nina Oestreicher, and Shirley A. Sahrmann. “Hip Abductor Weakness in Distance Runners with Iliotibial Band Syndrome.” Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine 10, no. 3 (2000): 169–75.
4. Heiderscheit, Bryan C., Elizabeth S. Chumanov, Max P. Michalski, Christa M. Wille, and Michael B. Ryan. “Effects of Step Rate Manipulation on Joint Mechanics during Running.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 43, no. 2 (2011): 296–302.
5. Lenhart, Rachel, Darryl Thelen, and Bryan Heiderscheit. “Hip Muscle Loads During Running at Various Step Rates.” Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy 44, no. 10 (2014).
6. Lenhart, Rachel L., Darryl G. Thelen, Christa M. Wille, Elizabeth S. Chumanov, and Bryan C. Heiderscheit. “Increasing Running Step Rate Reduces Patellofemoral Joint Forces.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 46, no. 3 (2014): 557–64.
7. Meardon, Stacey A., and Timothy R. Derrick. “Effect of Step Width Manipulation on Tibial Stress during Running.” Journal of Biomechanics 47, no. 11 (2014): 2738–44.
8. Willy, R. W., L. Buchenic, K. Rogacki, J. Ackerman, A. Schmidt, and J. D. Willson. “In-Field Gait Retraining and Mobile Monitoring to Address Running Biomechanics Associated with Tibial Stress Fracture.” Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 26, no. 2 (April 2015): 197–205.
9. Willy, Richard W. “Innovations and Pitfalls in the Use of Wearable Devices in the Prevention and Rehabilitation of Running Related Injuries.” Physical Therapy in Sport 29 (2018): 26–33.
10. Worp, Maarten P. Van Der, Nick Van Der Horst, Anton De Wijer, Frank J. G. Backx, and Maria W. G. Nijhuis-Van Der Sanden. “Iliotibial Band Syndrome in Runners.” Sports Medicine 42, no. 11 (2012): 969–92.