Running with a Metronome

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Your body loves rhythms … it thrives on them. Your heartbeat, your breath rate, your need for rest are all based on rhythms that occur naturally in your body or that you’ve established in your life. The more rhythms you establish, the better your body likes it. When your body has a rhythm to follow, it doesn’t have to work as hard. It knows what to do and when to do it. If you go to bed at the same time every night and you get up at the same time every morning, your body knows, “Now I get to rest, now it’s time to get up.” When you begin each day with a rhythmic consistency, it allows the rest of your day to unfold more easily than when you dive into the day with no rhyme or reason. A good example of this in my life is getting my daughter up and off to school. If we stick to a routine, she knows what to expect and she gets out the door without a hitch. If we don’t follow her usual rhythm, she ends up feeling rushed, confused and frantic, and everyone involved suffers the consequences.

The same holds true for your running routine. When you maintain a consistent weekly running schedule, your body gets used to that rhythm, too. It will even get used running certain runs on specific days.

One rhythm I’m aware of every time I run is my running cadence, or the number of strides per minute I’m taking. I have made a study of it, and have found that most people do best when they run with a steady, rhythmic cadence. It varies slightly from person to person based on height, body structure and personality type, but the optimal cadence seems to fall between 85-90 strides per minute.

I found running at a consistent cadence so beneficial, I incorporated the idea into all ChiRunning classes by teaching runners to run with a metronome. The response from most people when they use the metronome is pretty consistent. They feel an ease in their running almost immediately.

Using the metronome affects many aspects of your technique, because when your cadence is correct, a lot of things fall into line. For instance, when your cadence becomes a naturally sustained rhythm, it requires that you vary your stride length when you’re running at different speeds. If you think of changing your stride length to accommodate different levels of effort, your body learns to run with a set of gears and work in much the same way as your bicycle or your car.

Several clients have said that the metronome gives them a sense of stability in their running because their cadence becomes the single constant that underlies everything else that’s going on when they’re running. This allows them a greater ability to focus on other ChiRunning Form Focuses. I love running with my metronome and I use it almost every time I run … and always in races. It helps me most in creating a sense of effortlessness in my legs and it is, without question, the best training tool for running I’ve ever used.

How to use the metronome

Step One: Determine Your Current Cadence

When you first begin to work on your cadence, you should start by measuring your current cadence. To determine the cadence you’re currently running, take your metronome and go out for an easy run at whatever pace you would run for your longest distance. For this test be sure to run on a flat course. After about 5 minutes of running, turn on the metronome and match the beep of the metronome with the cadence of your right foot. It may take a minute or two for you to perfectly align both, but just listen first to the metronome and then to your footfall, and adjust the metronome to beep faster or slower until it’s a perfect match with your stride rate. When you’ve done this look at the beats/minute reading on your metronome and you’ll know your current cadence. Having a cadence that is below 85 strides per minute usually means that your stride is too long for the speed you’re running. In my experience, most sub-elite runners are running with a cadence that is too slow. If your cadence is too slow you’ll spend too much time in the support phase of your stride and your legs will have to work harder than they need to. Occasionally I find a person whose cadence is too fast, but it’s rare.

Step Two: Run at this Cadence for One Week

Practice running at your measured cadence for one week. Let’s say for example that it’s 75 strides/minute. Set your metronome to beep at that rate and start it when you begin your run. For every run in this first week, practice matching your cadence to the beat of the metronome with every step you take if you can. This will train you to maintain a steady cadence no matter what your speed. That’s right! Your cadence should stay the same whether you’re running fast or slow, up or downhill, or trying to catch a bus. Keep it the same, no matter what!

When running down hill, it will seem like the metronome has slowed down or that you have a faulty metronome. You don’t. But what could and should happen is that your stride lengthens behind you when you run faster or downhill. When you go up a hill you’ll notice that you need to shorten your stride to keep the same cadence. As your stride length changes with any increase or decrease in your speed you’ll begin to feel more ease and flow in your running. This is illustrated in the ChiRunning DVD and it is many people’s greatest “aha” moment, as we split the screen into four sections and I run four different speeds, all with the same tempo from the metronome.

Step Three: Increase your cadence to fall between 85-90 strides/minute

Your cadence should ideally range between 85-90 strides per minute. If you’re a tall or long-legged runner, you should run with a cadence closer to 85 spm. If you’re a short legged runner (like me) you should aim for a cadence closer to 90 spm. So, as in our example, if you were to set your metronome at 75 beats/minute, your right foot would hit the ground with every beep. Run for a week with your metronome set at 75 bpm (or whatever cadence you’re starting at) and then after a week increase the cadence setting on your metronome by one beat per minute (76 bpm) and run every run for a week at your new cadence. By upping your cadence only one beat per week, your body will not even notice the cadence increase. Increase your cadence just one beat per minute every week until you get to a tempo of 85. When you finally get up to a tempo of 85 strides per minute (in this case, ten weeks), stay at that level for a couple of weeks. After that, if you feel the need to increase your cadence to match your body make-up, resume increasing your cadence by one stride per minute each week until you reach your optimal cadence or 90 spm, whichever comes first.

Step Four: Running to a waltz beat instead of a two-step

Actually, this can happen during Step Three. To keep your body balanced, it is better to run with a waltz rhythm which goes like this: If you always keep cadence by focusing on only one leg, you may end up inadvertently developing an asymmetrical stride where you emphasize the use of one leg over the other. To avoid this you can set your metronome to beep on every third foot strike. So your footsteps with the beat would go: right 2, 3…left 2, 3…right 2, 3…left 2, 3…beep 2, 3…beep 2, 3…just like a waltz. I suggest using the waltz rhythm as soon as you have gotten through your first week of using a metronome. You can use it right after you’ve determined your beginning cadence. A nice added feature of this is that you don’t have to listen to as many beats every minute. Here’s a conversion chart for switching from one beat for every stride of your right leg, to a waltz rhythm. It’s a simple calculation. Take your current cadence, divide by 3 and multiply by 2. Strides per minute 2-Step (counting only one leg) Waltz (counting every third step).

Step Five: Use Your New Cadence to Improve Your Running Technique

There is no better training tool than a metronome for learning to vary your stride length to accommodate different speeds. Once you’re comfortable running with your metronome do this workout. Start your metronome and do this workout with the beep going the entire time. Warm up for 5 minutes and then, without missing a beat, run one minute intervals changing gears every minute. You can change up or down in only your first three gears, but one thing you can’t do is change your cadence. Here are the four gears: First gear – warm-up speed (very easy pace) Second gear – training speed (the pace you would run your longest run) Third gear – race speed (the pace you would run a race) Fourth gear – sprint speed (anerobic – your top speed).

The Racers Edge

When I’m running competitively, I trick my body into going a little faster by raising my normal tempo of 90, to 91 or at the most 92. I may do this in the last week of training before the race. Then race day I run at this slightly faster tempo. My body hardly notices the difference, and it gives me a little bit of an edge that can make a difference in a race. Two more strides per minute will add on about twelve additional feet per minute, which means that I get to go home early. Otherwise, my tempo is always 90 (60 with the waltz rhythm).

Posted in Gear, Technique

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