180 strides per minute isn’t magic, and there are better variables to consider to improve your running economy.
What is cadence?
Cadence is simply the number of strides per minute (SPM) one takes while running. At some point, most of us have heard, or been told, that we should increase our cadence to avoid overstriding. Overstriding increases the load on the lower body, particularly the knees, and causes a braking effect—not ideal!
The primary driver of cadence? Speed.
Cadence and speed are directly proportional. While your cadence may differ from your training partner (or the elite 10k athletes from which the original 180 SPM directive originated), your cadence will increase as you speed up, and decrease as you slow down. While you’ve likely heard that factors like stride length, height, and weight play a role, (and they do), the biggest driver of cadence is your speed.
You’re almost certainly familiar with the popular edict, ‘slow down to go faster’, we’ve even written about it. So if you’re being told to increase your cadence and the best way to increase your cadence is to speed up, what should you do?
Consider ground contact time.
The gait cycle is split into two separate components, air time and ground contact time. Assuming a fixed speed, the only portion of your gait cycle that you have any control over is your ground contact time. (Despite your best-laid plans to defy gravity, it’s simply not going to happen.)
Ground contact time (GCT) however is variable. And you’ll see quite a lot of variation between recreational and elite athletes. Much like cadence, there is no ‘magic’ number to aim for here, but there is good news. GCT is highly trainable and you can measure your progress over time in the Tyme Wear app.
Measuring your GCT and tailoring your training to decrease your GCT over time is an actionable goal that will yield a greater return on your running economy, than monitoring cadence alone. GCT too is variable with your speed, so you’ll notice that your GCT is higher on your easy days and lower on your harder days. The goal is to see these metrics decrease over time relative to the type of workout that you’re completing.
Decreasing GCT is a measure of strength
So you’ve recorded a few easy workouts in the Tyme Wear app and have established your baseline GCT. What’s next?
The only way to decrease GCT while maintaining a fixed speed is to apply a higher ground force over a shorter period of time. And the best way to do this is through strength, explosive plyometrics, or sprints. By increasing your overall strength you can apply higher forces to the ground over a shorter period of time. This decreases your GCT and increases your cadence.
Additionally, reducing GCT has some energetic benefits since muscles use more energy on average when they are activated for longer periods of time. Given the repetitive nature of running, you can save some energy by way of shortening your muscle activation time.
When at a fixed speed, we decrease GCT because we’ve increased the force we are able to apply to the ground over a shorter period of time. This is due to a more explosive push-off, resulting in an increase in stride length. This enables your muscles to use less energy because they are activated for shorter periods of time per push-off. Over time these energy savings could translate to faster-running speed or maintaining the same speed for a longer period of time, depending on your training structure and goals.
- Daniels’ Running Formula, Jack Daniels, new edition 2021.
- Sweat Science: The problem with 180 strides per minute: some personal data.
- Sweat Science: More about stride length, rate, and “cruise control” for runners.
- Runners World: Kenyans, Cadence and Ground Contact Time.
- Sweat Science: Cadence in elite athletes increases as they accelerate.