At the 1984 Olympics, the legendary coach and running researcher Jack Daniels, who is known for his scientific yet simple approach to training, analyzed the stride rates of several elite athletes from the 800-meters up to the marathon. He determined that most of them regardless of their age, gender or the speed at which they were running, took about 180 total steps per minute. Since then, the word ‘cadence’ has been permanently attached to that number in running circles, as a magical tip for success on the track.

What is cadence?
A popular running term these days, cadence refers essentially to the number of times your foot strikes the ground in a given time period, usually in a minute. As a runner, your body is propelled forward every time your feet strike the ground; the faster you get them off the ground and in motion again, the better for your running economy.

However, it’s not necessary that the golden rule of 180 applies across the board. A runner’s height, weight, leg and stride length and running ability will all determine his or her optimal cadence. Everyday runners generally fall between 160-170 steps per minute, while elite runners strike with 180 steps per minute or higher—with some getting above 200 at their fastest speeds. Haile Gebrselassie has been identified as running as high as 240 steps at the end of a 10K.

Figure out your cadence
During your next training session, count the number of times your feet strike the ground. An easier way to do this without disturbing your run is to pick either the left or right foot strikes and then double the number. There will always be a difference between your training and racing (or speed workouts) cadence, with the latter being higher. Once you’ve figured out an average cadence for both kinds of runs, you can now work towards improving that and aspiring for the magical number.

Improve your cadence
Based on Daniel’s findings, experts have suggested that in order to prevent overstriding and lessen the impact on one’s legs, runners should aim for a number in the 170-180 regions. However, your cadence also depends on the pace you take. Even elite runners take fewer steps per minute when they’re running at lesser speeds. So your cadence at 5K runs will vary from your high-speed interval workouts and your marathon finishes by up to 20 steps a minute.

It’s also important that you avoid injury when trying to better your stride rates. Do not increase your cadence by more than 2-5 steps a minute, and definitely don’t aim for that 180 on your first session, if your baseline numbers are somewhere around 150. Like all training thumb rules, increases in your running distance and time should also be careful.

  • To start with, you could begin running at a faster cadence for a minute before returning to your baseline stride rate for the next 3-5 minutes. This is very similar to interval training, where you’re trying to build up speed through workouts like Fartlek. A higher cadence essentially translates to better speed, so the principle here remains the same. You can play around with different time variations as your feet get used to faster strides.
  • An alternate way is to increase your cadence by distance. So you could run every third kilometer at a higher cadence and then follow a normal pace for the next two. The trick is to continue training in intervals like this for a period until you can run the whole session or race at a higher cadence. It may take you 6-8 weeks, and runners who’ve just started out may take even longer, but once your feet and mind adapt to the higher stride rates, you’ll be running at a higher speed without even aiming for it.
  • Constantly training yourself to practice quicker, shorter strides will lead to the formation of this particular muscle memory that your body eventually adapts to in good time. The next time you’re at the start of your race, your feet will have adapted to the improved stride rates by aiming for your optimal cadence rate every time.

    Main Image: Altra

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