Cadence: Put a new spin on your running

Posted by Danny Dreyer on Sat May 31st, 2003, 2 comments

One of the biggest aspects of running technique that hinders most people is cadence. That's the rate at which your feet hit the ground and it's different for each person. It's a topic I've been fascinated by for years. I first discovered it on the track one day when I was doing some speed work. I had planned to do 10x400-meter intervals with a one-minute break between each. For whatever reason, after the first six intervals, I was ready to call it a day because my times were getting slower and slower and I was feeling increasingly tired with each successive lap. I didn't want to be guilt-ridden for the rest of the day, so I resigned myself to just finish the workout and not pressure myself to run faster. I decided to take it easy and allow my stride to shorten so that I was taking what felt like little tiny steps. It felt easier to relax my legs with the shorter stride and I felt a little bit like I was cheating because I wasn't working as hard just trying to get through those last four intervals.

I knew my lap times would be slower because of how much easier my short stride felt, so when I looked at my watch I was floored to see that I had just run my fastest interval of the day. Wait a minute ... that's not possible! It was too easy! I blew it off with the rationalization that I had just hit the button on my watch a little slow at the start. It happens.

I did my one-minute jog break and then started the next interval trying to do the same thing shorter stride, quicker steps, relaxing my legs. Low and behold, the same thing happened again, only the lap was faster still. That was when I realized that running faster didn't have to mean running harder. It just meant that I had to keep a shorter stride and a quicker cadence and not take myself so seriously.

Just for curiosity's sake, I ran the next interval with the same stride length and cadence that I had done the first six, and it was really hard. I was convinced and never questioned my discovery again. Since that fateful day 12 years ago, I have been a big proponent of shorter stride and quicker cadence. I have also found out a lot more of why it works so well.

When my cadence is quicker and my stride is shorter, it's easier to get my feet to land underneath me, which reduces heel strike and saves my knees.

I keep the same cadence no matter what speed I'm going. This way my body maintains a similar PRE (Perceived Rate of Exertion) no matter what speed I'm running. And, since my cadence is always the same, it's my stride that lengthens as I go faster and shortens at slower speeds.

I now train with a metronome and try to hold my cadence at 90 steps per minute (with each leg) whether I'm running uphill, downhill or trying to keep up with my daughter. Like I said, everybody's different. But, I have noticed that there is rarely anyone who looks like they are running efficiently at a cadence of 85 or less. For what it's worth, cyclists generally try to shoot for the same magical 90rpm when they're spinning.

I was watching a videotape of the Kenyans running in the Rock 'n Roll Marathon in San Diego, and the average cadence of the lead pack was 91-95. Combine that with a stride that's six feet long, and it's no wonder they're running marathons at a 4:55 average pace!

So, the next time you're out on a training run just try it. Shorten your stride and pick up your cadence. Don't force your legs to turn over faster do it by relaxing your legs and it'll come.

It's pretty cool.

2 CommentsLeave a comment below

Wow, this post is very interesting! I’m curious as to if you think this would improve my 400m time. I am 6’4” so my stride is longer, but I run it all midfoot to forefoot, however as I am typing this I am reminiscing and thinking that I do reach out with my toes quite a bit sometimes, and after running a 54.5, I am completely exhausted. and isn’t decreasing stride the same as decreasing cadence? Is that not inevitable?

Hi Bryce,

Actually, decreasing your stride length isn’t the same as decreasing your cadence. In ChiRunning, we teach that the optimal cadence is between 170-180 strides per minute (that’s counting both feet) no matter how fast you’re going. We also teach you how to run in different “gears” to adjust your speed. The way you gain speed, or increase your “gear”, is to add more lean. For instance, when you’re in 1st gear (the slowest), you’re only leaning forward very slightly from your ankles, about an inch or a little less. To advance to 2nd gear, you add a bit more lean. 2nd gear is ideal for your LSD runs. 3rd and 4th gears have even more lean and are faster; 4th gear is close to sprinting and is best for really short distances. Keep in mind that no matter what gear you’re in, your cadence should stay between 170-180. When you lean more, your stride opens up behind you instead of out in front of you, so you’re really being pulled by gravity instead of pulling yourself forward with your legs. This prevents the fatigue you’re currently experiencing. Our ChiRunning DVD has a great section on cadence and how to practice the different gears.

I hope this helps,
DD

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