Improve Your Running Form by Focusing on Cadence

How fast is your running cadence?

How fast is your running cadence?

Is My Running Form Bad?

About 2 years ago I attended a coaching symposium put on by Newton Running Company in Southwest Oklahoma.

Throughout the classroom portion of the course I had been glued to the instructors, hanging on their every word. Not because my form was bad, no obviously I wasn’t a “heel-striker”, but I was incredibly anxious to start helping others run better!

When it came time for my videotaped gait analysis I was excited to see how good I looked…assuming they’d pause the video and use me as the textbook example.

Okay, there I am . . . and . . . wait . . . no, that can’t be right.

Devastation.

I was the textbook example of a heel striker. I looked just like everyone else! Landing in front of my body and putting the brakes on with every step. Unbelievable. Two weeks away from running the New York City Marathon and an expert tells me that my running form is bad and my mechanics need a lot of work.

How do I fix it?

Being so close to a race, what should I do? I approached one of the instructors and asked this very question. I fully expected him to say that I should proceed as I always have and start a slow transition to Natural Running when my race was over.

Wrong again. He explained that nothing good can come from bad form and that I should start working on improving my gait immediately.

Then he said to focus on increasing my cadence.

Finding the Right Running Cadence

Our bodies are happiest somewhere between 175 and 185 beats per minute (bpm), so that is what we should aim for. But every person and every gait is different, so your “happy place” might be slightly different than mine. But not by a whole lot.

How Do I Know What My Cadence is Right Now? Easy.

  • Go run and for 1 minute count the number of times your left foot (or right) hits the ground. It should be near 90. If it isn’t then you are increasing your risk of injury and you aren’t as efficient as you could be.
  • Our cadence determines where our foot lands in relation to the rest of our body. If your cadence is slow and sticky then your foot is probably landing in front of your body. This is counterproductive.
  • If your cadence is quicker (the way your tendons want it) then you will land closer to underneath your body’s center of mass and that is much more efficient.
  • Remember, cadence and speed are not the same thing. I had a tough time wrapping my head around this at first, but the explanation that made it clear was this one: If I am running in place at 180 beats per minute I am going 0 miles per hour. Ah ha!

How Do I Increase My Cadence?

  • Download a Metronome App. You know those things that people use to keep the beat when playing an instrument? You can download a free one and set it to 176 bpm or you can pay about .99 cents to have one that can be set to 180 bpm. Either way is fine as it is not really finding the perfect number that is important, but rather having some assistance increasing your turnover and shortening the steps.
  • Try to mimic this quick cadence while you run. This is a remarkable way to improve your efficiency and reduce your risk of injury. The increased cadence will help get your landing under you, instead of out in front.

All by itself, increasing my cadence helped me run the NYC marathon, 100% pain free. Don’t misunderstand me – I still had A LOT of work to do, but my form was improved enough to reduce the stress on my body considerably.

Okay, so you may be wondering . . .

How Do I Increase My Cadence Without Increasing My Speed?
Try the treadmill. I hate the treadmill, but try it anyway. Run on the treadmill while you listen to the beat of the metronome. By using the treadmill you can control the speed. This allows you to concentrate on quickening your steps to match the beats on the metronome without overdoing the pace.

I always like to remind people to not be drawn into the display on the treadmill though. Dropping your gaze down to take in all that wonderful data is terrible for your posture. You should be nice and tall with your gaze forward, not down.

Take Action: Focus on Increasing Your Cadence

  1. Download any metronome app, or just borrow one from the nearest musician (but those can be kinda bulky).
  2. Set it anywhere from 170-185 bpm and start experimenting with finding your sweet spot.
  3. Try listening to the beats while controlling the speed on the treadmill or with a watch that gives you pace info.
  4. Still injured? Think about getting your mechanics evaluated by a professional.


14 Responses to Improve Your Running Form by Focusing on Cadence

  1. Trevor November 11, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    Thank you Lynn Mattix for the excellent guest post. After reading this I have a sneaking suspicion that I tend to be a “heel striker”. Time to get a metronome.

  2. Mike November 11, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

    Great read!

  3. Dustin November 11, 2013 at 9:35 pm #

    Excellent advice that I need to put into practice! I do have one question that may seem silly though – if you maintain the same cadence, how DO you vary your pace? I get how that works on a treadmill where the “ground” speed is different, but when running outdoors it seems like the only way to vary your speed would be to increase or decrease your stride length. Yet, I understand we want to maintain a consistent short stride….

    Does that make sense? How can I run the same 180 steps per minute but run either a 9:00 or 8:00 minute per mile pace?

    • Lynn November 12, 2013 at 10:57 am #

      Hi Dustin,

      Great question, not silly at all! You want to maintain a quick cadence no matter what the speed, but the stride DOES change. The stride angle increases behind you in the form of hip extension and you also will have increased shoulder extension. The foot does not reach out in front. Although the initial ground contact may happen slightly in front of your body’s center of mass, the foot should be loading underneath you.

      So as you speed up your pace, hip extension increases, the stride angle opens, but the cadence or turnover remains the same.

      For some extra explanation and a visual reference, watch this video from Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, he’s one of the people that taught me and this video is a great resource.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSIDRHUWlVo

      Thanks for your question!
      Lynn

  4. Eric November 12, 2013 at 1:48 am #

    Thanks Lynn for this great post. And also thanks Angie and Trevor! I’ve been a long time listener to MTA and a member of the academy for over a year and I have made tremendous advances since I started a walk run program in Jan 2012. I have a question regarding cadence. I use an app to monitor my cadence and it has been very useful in improving my foot strike. I am a shorter runner at 5’5″ and I have my cadence set at 192 bpm. I find this rate comfortable and I have run several (6) half marathons and a full marathon at this rate. However, I always hear that the standard rate is 180 bpm. Should I attempt to change my form to accommodate this rate? Thanks guys keep up the good work!!! (Maybe an episode covering cadence in the future?). Thank you Eric S.

    • Lynn November 12, 2013 at 11:06 am #

      Congrats on all your success, Eric!

      If you are injury free, then I’d recommend you stay right where you are! There is no “perfect” cadence. The reason why 180 bpm is recommended has to do with elastic recoil. Our muscles and tendons store energy that can be returned to us (free energy!) if our cadence is quick and the “springs” can be reloaded the way they’re meant to.

      If 192 works well for you then I’d stick with it…I’d always recommend getting your mechanics looked at just to identify any form flaws that could be keeping you from your most efficient gait. Running naturally is a whole body movement so things like arm swing and head placement are important too.

      Thanks & take care,
      Lynn

    • Trevor November 20, 2013 at 11:01 am #

      Thanks for being a long time listener and member Eric! You rock!

  5. Elspeth November 12, 2013 at 3:43 am #

    I confess I’m a knowing heel striker and was taught to run that way. Interesting to know its not good for me. I will try this out – great post, clear and concise, thank you.

  6. Lynn November 12, 2013 at 11:12 am #

    Thanks, Elspeth! Glad you liked it~

    You should visit my website and get your running mechanics evaluated…there are also some tips & videos that will help you transition to better form.

    http://www.naturalruncoach.com

    Take care,
    Lynn

  7. Kellie November 12, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

    Great article Lynn!

  8. Montana Steve November 19, 2013 at 8:28 am #

    I tried a 180 cadence yesterday, which results in essentially putting one foot in front of the other! I’m 6’5″ and 230, so I don’t think I’m going to get there… What’s the recommendation for someone my size vs. 5’5″? Thanks!

  9. Lynn November 19, 2013 at 8:32 pm #

    Hi Steve!

    Excellent question…my husband is actually 6’3″ and we have talked about his cadence many times. Although his cadence is not exactly 180bpm, he has good mechanics and lands underneath his center of mass versus in front of it…he is probably somewhere in the ballpark of 174bpm. Remember 180 isn’t the sweet spot for every person, but your height shouldn’t make a difference.

    If I were you, I would play with the metronome a bit … maybe set it to 170-174…or ditch it completely and just try to keep your steps quick. Cadence is an extremely useful tool, but it isn’t the only one I use to help people improve their form.

    You should visit my website and check out what I do…there is a lot of value to having someone take a look at your running form. You can sometimes have your form evaluated at a running shoe store, but this type of evaluation lacks the views that I find most valuable…side, front & with bare feet.

    Hope this helps!!
    Take care,
    Lynn

  10. Running Noob December 8, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

    Great post Lynn!
    If I can add my 2 cents: Dum’n'bass.

    Drum’n'bass mixes are usually around 180bpm, and it’s bad a$$.

    The problem now is that I can’t run without music :)

  11. Darla January 27, 2014 at 8:06 pm #

    Thank you for the great read. I have been running for three years and have hit a wall.
    I can’t get more than four miles without being exhausted! I can’t wait to try this on the trails this spring!

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