What is the Ideal Running Cadence for Performance?

Is there an ideal running cadence? Read the full article to learn what the research says plus how to improve your cadence.

More than likely, you have heard or read that the ideal running cadence is 180 steps per minute. This claim is broad and lacks nuance, including consideration of the pace you are running. If your normal cadence on runs is 165 or 175, you may wonder if you need to increase your cadence. This article will explore what the research actually says about the myth of a singular “best” running cadence, plus guidance on how to improve your cadence (and how to know if you need to).  

What is cadence in running?

Before we dive into the nuance, let’s first define what is cadence in running. Cadence is almost referred to as “step frequency.” It is the number of steps you take per minute of running, often noted as “steps per minute” or “spm.” Cadence measures total steps from both feet. For example, a cadence of 180 spm means taking 180 steps per minute – 90 per foot. 

Cadence is one factor of your running gait – but not the only one. In addition to cadence, you have your stride length (how far you cover in each step), ground contact time (how much time you spend on the ground in each stride), vertical displacement/oscillation (how much you bounce up and down in your stride), power output (how much force you apply in each stride), and other variables. Cadence is the easiest one to measure, but focusing solely on cadence is an overly simplistic view of one’s running gait. 

Why do runners care about optimal running cadence? Theory suggests that an ideal running cadence could reduce injury risk while promoting performance. 

Cadence may be one variable that impact injury risk – however, it certainly is neither the sole nor primary factor. A 2018 cross-sectional study in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy demonstrated that a higher running cadence corresponded with reduced braking impulse and vertical loading rates. Previous studies have established that high braking impulse and vertical loading rates are associated with lower limb injuries such as Achilles tendinopathy and bone stress injuries. 

Increasing running cadence could potentially reduce the risk factors for injury in athletes with a history of injury. However, the evidence is less robust for athletes without injury history, since gait retraining can come with a risk of injury if not necessary. 

What about performance? A 2024 meta-analysis in Sport Medicine found a weak, small association (r= -0.20) between running cadence and running economy (the oxygen cost of any given submaximal pace). The higher the cadence, the lower the oxygen cost (to a small degree). Compared to other biomechanical metrics (contact time, stride length, etc.), cadence did have more impact on running economy. 

Interestingly, supershoes do increase your cadence – and also improve your running economy. While running economy is multifactorial, for some runners, a higher running cadence could lower the oxygen cost of running – and therefore improve their performance. 

What is a “good” running cadence?

There are three important things to understand about running cadence. You will not have the same cadence on each run; factors beyond your control partially impact your cadence; and the optimal running cadence range is much wider than you may think. 

Firstly, your cadence will vary based on the pace and intensity of your run. Despite what you see promulgated on social media, you will not have the same cadence on your easy runs as your races or speed workouts. The faster you run (both relatively and absolutely), the higher your cadence will be. 

Secondly, individual physical attributes impact running cadence. A 2019 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology observed a range 155 to 203 spm for elite 100K runners. Male runners (who averaged taller) had a cadence of 177 +/- 12 spm. The female runners (who have a shorter average height) averaged 188 +/- 9 pm. 

While those numbers are not meant to be the ideal running cadence based on height for female or male runners, they do indicate a pattern. Taller runners tend to have a slightly lower cadence than shorter runners, possibly due to leg length. Weight and age do not significantly impact cadence.

While you have likely heard that 180 spm is the “ideal” running cadence, this number actually represents the average found in studies. Dr. Jack Daniel’s study of 3K runners, the above-cited 2019 study, and numerous other publications have found an average cadence of 180-185 spm amongst elite runners. However, that is the average – not the only statistics that matters. The actual range is often 160 to 200 spm. 

Related: Forefoot vs Heel Strike: The Proper Running Form for Feet

3 tips to determine your optimal running cadence

Most of these studies (including the 2019 study) conclude that with enough training, runners self-select their most efficient cadence. There is no such thing as the “best” running cadence. Your ideal running cadence is not something that a watch or a coach can determine for you. 

Firstly, you need to assess if your cadence actually needs to be improved. Some questions to ask include:

  • Do you have a history of lower limb injuries (especially tendon or bone)?
  • Is your cadence lower than 160-165 spm?
  • Do you overstride (land your feet in front of your body)?
  • Do you feel inefficient when running? 

If so, you may benefit from increasing your step frequency. How do you determine and increase your running cadence?

1. Aim for Modest Increases

When increasing your cadence, you want to aim for modest increases of ~5-8%. Attempting to increase your cadence by too much can increase your risk of overuse injury, due to sudden drastic changes in running form. 

 For example, if your cadence is 155 spm, you want to aim to work on increasing to 162 to 167 spm. After allowing several weeks to build into and adapt to an increase, assess how you feel at this new cadence. Research (including the above-cited studies) suggests that a total increase of 5-10% is all you need to reduce injury risk factors. 

2. Use Music On Runs

A 2023 randomized controlled trial published in the European Journal of Sport Science demonstrated a practical approach for increasing step frequency. Instead of using metronomes, the researchers had recreational runners (all with baseline cadences <170 spm) use music on two runs per week, over the course of twelve weeks. The music had beats per minute at a rate 7.5-10% faster than the runners’ baseline cadence. 

Over the course of the twelve weeks, the music helped the runners increased their cadence by 8.5% – and this increase remained (7.9%) after stopping the intervention. Notably, though, one runner did incur a calf injury from this intervention, which is a risk of gait retraining. 

This approach is not guaranteed to work. Another 2023 study in Gait Posture found no significant impact of music on increasing cadence. However, this study had the participants run on the treadmill, while the successful interventions occurred with outdoor running. 

That said, it’s a relatively safe approach to improving cadence. Many runners enjoy listening to music on runs, so it’s relatively noninvasive and enjoyable, especially compared to using a metronome. 

3. Include Strides in Your Training

Strides are 20-second bursts of top-end speed running, done on flat or uphill terrain. Typically, you do four to eight strides after one to three easy runs per week. When running at this very fast pace, you naturally have to increase your cadence. The theory behind strides is that they improve neuromuscular fitness, including muscle-fiber recruitment patterns. You train your brain and muscles to communicate in a manner that makes a higher cadence feel more natural. 

A single set of strides will not drastically change your step frequency. However, when done consistently, strides may help you increase your running cadence. (Even if you don’t need to improve your cadence, strides can improve your top-end speed and neuromuscular fitness.

Read this article for more on the science and practical application of running strides in your training. 

Running cadence, recapped

The research does not promote the idea of a singular best running cadence. Instead, we must understand running cadence as something dependent on several variables, including pace and height. Not every runner needs to increase their running cadence. If you do, you want to make gradual increases over several weeks. 

Listen to the Tread Lightly Podcast for more evidence-based and practical running tips!

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