One of the most frequently asked questions in run coaching is about cadence. The persistent notion is that there is an ideal running cadence – 180 steps per minute. But is there such a thing as an ideal running cadence? Should you work to improve your running cadence?
Is There an Ideal Running Cadence?
The notion of an ideal cadence emerged from a study done by Jack Daniels in 1984. He counted the number of steps elite athletes took in a track race and found that the runners averaged at least 180 steps per minute.
Any statistics must be examined within context. There are a few important variables to note in this study. The race observed was a 3K race, which is very close to maximum effort. The study used elite runners, who are outliers in talent and genetics compared to recreational runners. Even within the elite runners, the study had few outliers whose cadence significantly deviated from 180 spm.
The faster you run, the quicker your cadence. So a 3K race, which is 1.83 miles, is a very high-intensity race. Those runners were running far faster than they do during an easy run, marathon, or even tempo run. Therefore, their cadences were higher than would be for an easy run or even tempo run. Running speed is the result of two factors: stride frequency (cadence) and stride length. The faster you run, the higher your cadence – and the inverse.
Finally, it is essential to note that not every runner had a cadence of 180, even at this elite level. A natural variance occurred within the data set. Yes, they all had high cadences – but some were above 180 and some slightly below 180.
Yet somehow, this data evolved from observation to ideal. Recreational runners have clung to the notion that their cadence must be 180, regardless of the intensity of the run and individual factors such as height. Running novices and experts alike touted the ideal cadence as a guaranteed way to reduce injury risk. However, running cadence is a little more nuanced than “run 180 steps per minute.”
Do All Runners Have the Same Running Cadence?
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology examined the stride frequency of elite runners during the 2016 100-km World Championship. While the average cadence at the “ideal” rate of 182, the actual cadences of individual runners varied from 155 to 203. Yes, this means some runners had a far lower cadence than the “ideal,” even when competing at an elite level!
The stride frequency of these runners also changed as they increased their speed in the race. Not surprisingly, the faster they race, the quicker their cadence. The level of intensity directly affects stride rate and runners cannot expect to have the same cadence at different speeds. It is worth noting that these athletes were competing in a road race, which is more controlled for cadence compared to trail racing.
Can Increasing Cadence Improve Performance?
What happens if you take a runner and work on improving their cadence? A 2019 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research asked that exact question – with interesting results.
The researchers had 22 female runners (>5 years of experience) spend 15 minutes per day working on their cadence. The athletes spend 10 days on gait retraining. The athletes started with cadences <176 steps per minute and worked on reaching 180 steps per minute. Metrics such as heart rate and oxygen consumption rate were tested pre- and post-intervention at different velocities.
The researchers found that running economy improved after cadence training. The intervention group increased their step frequency by 8.2% at 7.6 mph and 5.7% at 8.5 mph. Their heart rates and oxygen consumption rates lowered with the cadence increase, which indicates that the runners were more economical. The differences were statistically significant. Oxygen consumption rate was 14.1% and 8.7% lower and heart rate was 4.8% and 5.4% lower at 7.6 and 8.5 mph, respectively, compared to pre-tests and the control group.
Running economy is multifactorial. (Read this article for an in-depth explanation.) However, considering that runners use expensive supershoes for marginal improvements in running economy. In comparison, increasing running cadence offers a generally safe and very affordable increase in running economy.
You do not even have to increase to an idea of 180 steps per minute. Small increases (for example, from 165 to 172 spm) can still yield benefits. Focus on a high cadence that feels best for your body.
Does Changing Your Running Cadence Reduce Injury Risk?
Biomechanics vary significantly amongst runners. Some runners can have abnormal form and never experience an overuse injury. For others, their self-selected running form can be a contributing factor to a running injury. (Read more here about what makes good running form.)
The evidence is mixed regarding the impact of running cadence on injury risk. A 2021 retrospective case-control analysis in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise studied 550 injured runners (approximately 49% female). The researchers concluded that cadence did not correlate with injury occurrence. Likewise, a 2018 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found no association between one’s natural cadence and injury risk (assessed via vertical load rates) in both injured and uninjured runners.
However, a 2018 study in the International Journal of Sports and Physical Therapy examined the effects of changes in vertical oscillation rates and cadence in twenty uninjured runners. The researchers observed that an increase in running cadence decreased both loading rates and braking impulse (two potential injury risks). Similarly, a 2014 systematic review in Sports Medicine analyzed 10 studies and found that increased cadence reduced the magnitude biomechanical irregularities that could increase injury risk. Finally, a 2021 review in Current Osteoporosis Reports suggests that increasing running cadence “appears to have considerable clinical promise” in reducing risk of bone-stress injuries.
It’s important to remember that running related injuries are multifactorial. Factors such as nutritional status, running form, training load, training progression, sleep quality, and even some chronic illness (that may affect nutrient absorption) can all influence an individual’s injury risk. For some runners, increasing cadence may reduce that risk. However, increasing cadence is not a complete safeguard against injury.
How Can You Increase Your Running Cadence?
In the above-cited 2019 study, the researchers had runners use metronome phone apps while running on the treadmill. The intervention was short – just 15 minutes (not an entire run!). This approach is similar to what many physical therapists also recommend. You want to aim for a small increases of approximately 5%; if your current cadence is 160 spm, a 5% increase is 168 spm.
Gait training takes time – and cadence is no exception. You are training your brain and muscles to communicate so that you take more steps per minute. With that, you spend less time on the ground and need a running form conducive to high cadence (no overstriding, more forward lean).
You want to start with small interventions, rather than trying to do a whole 60-minute run at a higher cadence. You can start with 10-15 minutes, then 20 minutes, etc. – until you feel comfortable doing an entire run at a higher cadence.
Methods for improving cadence include:
- Using a metronome for 10-15 minutes each run
- Regularly performing strides with a focus on quick steps
- Cueing “light, quick steps”
- Using a playlist with beats per minute that approximately match your goal cadence
180 steps per minute is not the ideal cadence. Running cadence is one aspect of running form. For some runners, increasing cadence may be beneficial. For others, it’s not worth the additional effort so long as you have sound training. Importantly, remember that your cadence will slightly vary based on your pace – easy runs will have a slower cadence than a tempo run or intervals!