The Science of Cadence: What You Need to Know to Run Faster and Smarter

Pack of elite male marathoners crossing a bridge

Running is a high impact endeavor that produces relatively high impact forces that must be absorbed and distributed through the joints and muscles of the feet, ankles, knees, back, and hips. For runners, finding ways to reduce stress on the body and preventing injuries is crucial. Half of the injuries sustained in long-distance running are at the knee and are attributed to the inability of the lower extremity joints to sufficiently handle the load applied during the initial stance (Tenforde, Borgstrom, Outerleys, & Davis, 2019). Cadence is one variable that can help runners reduce stress on the body and reduce their risk of injury while becoming more biomechanically efficient.

What is cadence, and how does it apply to running?

Cadence is defined as the number of repetitions per minute, and in running it translates into strides per minute (SPM)For many years, coaches and running experts have urged runners to increase their stride rate to 180 SPM to achieve optimal running economy. This theory was founded by legendary running coach Jack Daniels’ who made an analysis of the strides of elite distance runners at the 1984 Olympics (Armstrong, Hubbard, Jones, & Daniels, 1986). Coach Daniels found the most efficient and fastest runners had a cadence of at least 180 SPM (Armstrong et al., 1986). More recent studies indicate that one particular cadence does not apply to optimal running for every person. An individual’s optimal cadence relies on several dynamics, including height, weight, running ability, and type of ground the athlete is running on (Bencsik & Zelei, 2017). 

What is an optimal cadence?

A higher cadence tends to be optimal for most runners. When an athlete runs at a higher cadence over-striding is reduced because the foot strikes the ground closer to the body’s center of mass. Ideally, this reduces the potential for the “braking effect” where every time the foot hits the ground (usually by the heal and away from the body’s center of mass), resistance has to be overcome for the body to move forward and over the foot. The closer the foot lands towards the body’s center of mass, the braking effect is lessened (Bencsik & Zelei, 2017). A higher turnover rate also reduces the amount of time the foot spends on the ground which is known as ground contact time. When the foot spends less time on the ground, the braking effect is also reduced as well as the loading rate (Bencsik & Zelei, 2017). The amount of energy required to absorb and distribute the forces associated with impact and stance is diminished and this lessens vertical oscillation (force is going more into the ground rather than being used to propel the body forward). 

How do I find my cadence, and how can I increase it?

Every athlete is different. As a result, training and race paces differ and cadence will fluctuate. To find a runner’s cadence there numerous devices designed to give immediate feedback. If no equipment is available, athletes can count the number of times their foot (pick a side) hits the ground in 30 seconds and multiply it by four. This activity should be repeated more than once to ensure accuracy.

It is important to remember not to make changes to running cadence all at once but slowly start to increase cadence over time. If rushed and not done correctly, injury can occur. For those runners who want to increase their cadence, they can run to a beat, start running in place and lean forward bringing the footfall closer to the body’s center of mass or do workouts specifically designed to increase cadence. Increased cadence work should not occur for the entire training run but implemented gradually. A runner can increase cadence for 2 minutes while running a slower cadence for three minutes or do a half mile with a faster cadence and a half mile with a slower cadence. 

Runners of all abilities can benefit from knowing their cadence. Cadence is one variable that can help runners reduce stress on the body and reduce their risk of injury while becoming more biomechanically efficient. While each runner’s optimal cadence is slightly different aiming to decrease the braking effect and minimize ground contact time is ideal for all runners. 

  1. Armstrong, L. E., Hubbard, R. W., Jones, B. H., & Daniels, J. T. (1986). Preparing Alberto Salazar for the heat of the 1984 olympic marathon. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 14(3), 73-81.
  2. Bencsik, L., & Zelei, A. (2017). Effects of human running cadence and experimental validation of the bouncing ball model. Mechanical Systems and Signal Processing, 89, 78-87.
  3. Tenforde, A. S., Borgstrom, H. E., Outerleys, J., & Davis, I. S. (2019). Is cadence related to leg length and load rate? . Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 49(4), 280-283.

Kristen Hench

Kristen Hench, Ph.D., is a certified coach through USAT, USAT Para, ACE, USAC, ASCA, ASFA Yoga certified, and is a RRCA certified race director. She has trained beginner through elite athletes helping many to reach podium finishes as well as meet their personal goals in triathlon, running, track, and swimming. Kristen coaches adaptive sports with the USAF AFW2 program as a cycling coach and also works with a variety of able-body and parasport athletes through TRIMotion3. She enjoys helping children and youth get healthy, learn new life-long skills, and build confidence. She has coached internationally and was selected to coach in the 2018 and 2020 Invictus games. Kristen has also directed numerous family races and competed in several triathlons herself, including the Ironman distance events. She placed in the top three for her age group in the inaugural year of the Mountaineer Half Ironman and was one of the top swimmers in the 2004 Lake Placid Ironman. Besides triathlons, Kristen also enjoys marathons (with a PR of 3:15), triathlon, swimming, and a multitude of boot camp activities.