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What Should My Cadence Be? And Why is It So Confusing?

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

What if I told you cadence is easier than you think it is?

Would you even believe me?

Or would you roll your eyes saying, "puuh-lease! You've got to be kidding me. I have proof it's impossible. My garmin watch says…"

Aaaannnddd at that point I would politely interrupt.

Because as much as GPS watches are a blessing, cadence seems to be the one thing they can't consistently get right.

So is your data even correct?

Or is your garmin lying to you?

(sneaky bastard…)

So put your GPS watch on its charging station (or where ever it goes for a recharging snooze) and let's have a runner-to-runner chat.

Your watch might get a little offended by this blog post, but between you and me, it'll be just fine.

Let's explore together the basics of cadence, why you care, and how it's way easier than you think it is.

You ready? Let's go.



What is cadence?

Cadence is essentially how many steps you take, so you can think of it as "step frequency" which especially makes sense since it's measured in "steps per minute". From all the data and research out there, we know that the typical range is 150-180 SPM for recreational runners and around 120 spm for elite runners.

And while those numbers are nice and all, they don't necessarily give us a picture of what cadence looks like "in the wild" on our daily run.

So maybe think of cadence this way…

If you run 100m on a track but pretend you're a leaping gazelle, where you are truly leaping from one foot to another, you're going to take fewer steps compared to…

Running that same 100m but pretending you're a sneaky mouse and taking small, frequent steps.

Hang in there with me, running fit fam…

These two (silly) visuals get across the two extremes: The leaping gazelle has a low cadence, taking fewer, but bigger strides compared to the sneaking mouse who has a higher cadence, taking small but many, many more strides to cover the same 100m.

Did the lightbulb turn on?

I'm not saying run like a sneaking mouse or a leaping gazelle, unless that's your thing. (I'm not judging.) But now you've at least got a visual of what a high or low cadence looks like over the exact same distance. Moving on to…

Why is cadence important?

Let me share these quotes from this week's research article:


Musgjerd, T., Anason, J., Rutherford, D., & Kernozek, T.

Effect of Increasing Running Cadence on Peak Impact Force in an Outdoor Environment.

"An estimated 56% of recreational runners sustain a running-related injury related to the high impact forces in running. Increasing..cadence…while maintaining a consistent speed has been shown to be an effective way to lower impact forces which may reduce injury risk.

It was hypothesized that as cadence increases, peak force would decrease (Musgeird)."

What they're proposing:

Lower the high impact that running has on the human body by taking smaller, more frequent steps.

By doing this, you decreased risk of injury.


Let's continue on:

A "variety of proposed mechanisms for running related injuries, high impact loading is often considered to be a factor. (One study) examined 240 runners over a two-year period and reported that impact loads were greater in those runners who experienced a running related injury compared to non-injured runners. They subsequently recommended that interventions aimed at decreasing the impact loads may be an effective strategy for reducing injury (Musgeird)".

"One method to alter such impact forces is to increase cadence. Increasing cadence while maintaining a consistent pace has been reported to be an effective way to immediately lower impact, thus reducing injury risk" (Musgeird).

And to fast forward just a tad…

"[R]unning speed (aka pace) is a product of cadence and stride length, an appreciable change in cadence at a constant running speed should result in a proportional reduction in stride length as a typical change.22 Specifically, decreasing a runner’s stride length by 10% has been reported to have beneficial effects on knee kinetics, including decreased contact forces at the patellofemoral joint by an average of 14.9%, decreased loading rate by 13%..."

And finally:


"Participants were immediately able to make a 7% average increase in cadence within one session using a metronome…"

So to summarize this study:

it's actually VERY easy to manipulate your cadence even when running outdoors, improve it within 1 session, and immediately reduce your risk of a running related injury!

Then WHY does it feel so dang hard and cause so much confusion??

What makes cadence so darn confusing?

My personal, yet professionally informed opinion:

There are a lot of difference ways to say the same thing.

I ran into this just reading research articles for this blog post. This specific paper we're looking at uses the word "cadence". Another article uses the word "stride interval" or "stride frequency".

Another reason it gets so dang complicated:

Cadence can get over-explained and over-cued.

When we're trying to manipulate or change cadence, it doesn't always feel natural or easy. And when things don't feel natural, every human overthinks it and tries to force it. Then nothing works.

Here's the reason:

Falling back on the physical therapy world: we give patients all sorts of different cues when they're performing an exercise.


As a brand-new baby PT, it's very easy to over-explain an exercise.

With more years of practice, instead of using a million words to describe a squat:

"I want you stand feet hip width apart and bend from your knees and hips at the same time and drop your butt to the box but don't actually sit down on the box. Then I want you to straighten through your hips and knees at the same time so you stand up"

A more experienced PT tells the patient:

"Hold this weight to your chest. Tap your butt on the box."

Same desired outcome: way less confusion.

The exact same goes for cadence.

When it comes to improving your cadence, you might need different cues than your running buddy.

And that's ok.

Our brains are all similar, but very different and what works for you might not work for them.

Ok, Dr. Whitt, that's nice and all, but what if mine isn't exactly 180spm! Am I going to get injured?

Let's look at what the latest research says about YOUR cadence:

  • The purpose of your cadence is to find YOUR optimal point in running where you are taking more and smaller steps to decrease the amount of force you have to absorb with each step.

  • By adjusting your cadence, you decrease your risk of running related injuries in addition to decreasing the amount of effort you have to expend, making you a more efficient runner.

  • You can run longer, further, with decreased risk of injury!

Ready for the kicker?

You might recognize this author and this quote from last week's blog about "The Perfect Stride Length". This author has more to say. And it's about cadence.

Mo, S., & Chow, D.

Stride-to-stride variability and complexity between novice and experienced runners during a prolonged run at anaerobic threshold speed.

To ease us into this, take a look at what else Chow and his team explored with their research:

"[T]his study compared both variability and complexity of the stride interval dynamics (aka stride and cadence) during a prolonged run at anaerobic threshold speeds between runners with different training experience. It aimed to understand how the locomotor control system regulates gait pattern during progression of fatigue and ascertain if long-term training could induce performance differences, especially at anaerobic threshold intensity level. "

BOOM.


Cadence.

Stride length.

Both are key, complex, and ever changing pieces of the running stride.


Already, there is an expectation within this study that cadence and stride length are connected, but also unique and different based on:

  • a runner's experience

  • training level alone

  • and not to mention all our own specific variables.

Already, we know from that quote where Chow says "locomotor control system" that motor control (that mind-body connection that allows for you to control and sync your movements) is already at the heart of these elusive, nebulous keys to running well.

Which means…as alien as this "motor control" may sound, it's actually the most natural, easiest tool for ANY runner to take advantage of.

You use motor control every day.

Picking up the super heavy laundry basket.

Putting dishes away on the tippy top shelf.

Throwing the ball for your dog to chase.

You didn't just wake up and learn how to do those things without thinking.

You practiced them, whether you know it or not.

And they're so incredibly easy now, that you don't think about it anymore.

Because you've put in the reps.

And that's the same conclusion of these two research articles.

Chow says it more explicitly while Musgjerd, who is a Doctor or Physical Therapy, is definitely implying it implicitly throughout his paper.

And this is GOOD NEWS for you!


Because it means, fixing your cadence isn't a lost cause after all and if it doesn't fall around the magical number of 180 spm, you're going to be ok.

What matters more, is finding a cadence that:

  • is comfortable for YOU

  • is sustainable for YOU

  • works for YOUR body

  • reflect and works with YOUR running experience


It's OK to stand out.

It's OK if that 180spm doesn't work for you!

Because, for you, it might be around the 160's spm.


And as long as your form looks good, your body is happy, your stride lengths are relatively equal, and you're able to run well and efficiently, you're doing just fine.

Because remember, the cadence that is such a challenge today, is going to get easier because you're practicing it with the right cues for you (like a metronome, a specific postural cue, or a sensation that you feel for) backed up by motor control. And as you run more and train better, your cadence will grow and change with you.

And that's just how it should be.

So don't be afraid to train differently!

Learn your stuff, ask questions.

Track your own running data if that helps you see the big picture and helps you establish a range where you're healthiest.


But never forget to FEEL your run and FEEL your body.

Dare to train differently.

Until next time,

Dr. Marie Whitt //@dr.whitt.fit

P.S. Soooo how are you feeling after that? Are you thinking, "huh, interesting. But what's next?" This work shop is that answer! Dive deeper into cadence and how to change it, resulting in your best running form yet. Click HERE!


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References:

Mo, S., & Chow, D. (2018). Stride-to-stride variability and complexity between novice and experienced runners during a prolonged run at anaerobic threshold speed. Gait & Posture, 64, 7-11. doi: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2018.05.021

Musgjerd, T., Anason, J., Rutherford, D., & Kernozek, T. (2021). Effect of Increasing Running Cadence on Peak Impact Force in an Outdoor Environment. International Journal Of Sports Physical Therapy. doi: 10.26603/001c.25166

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