Cadence? What’s that?
‘Cadence’ refers to the number of steps you take in a minute – and can make a massive difference to runners. Technique-wise, it’s one of the easiest and safest things to try changing, and one of the things that we’ve found most effective when dealing with runners and running injuries in the clinic.
With running, we’re very interested in efficiency: if you’re going to perform your running stride over and over again, say over a 5km run, a more efficient technique can make a huge difference – which is where cadence comes in. Interestingly, research shows that one of the differences between a novice and an experienced runner is cadence – with experienced runners having a significantly higher cadence, by up to 14 steps per minute, compared to novices1.
Ok then, but what’s actually different about my running when I increase my cadence?
The short answer: A lot.
Simply increasing cadence by 10% can have a huge number of follow-on effects on the biomechanics of running2-5; and in runners where we identify numerous technique issues on video, may be the only thing that we try to change to correct them.
Take a look at the picture below, which summarises how cadence increases can impact the running cycle2-11:
Like we said, increasing cadence does a lot.
The reduction of impact forces is a big one, with many running injuries – not just bony stress injuries – thought to be related to our bodies struggling to adequately cushion or ‘shock-absorb’ impact forces2, 5, 7-9.
Lenhart5 demonstrated that increasing cadence by 10% reduced peak ground reaction force by 2.6% – and while that doesn’t sound that impressive on its own, consider the cumulative effect of that over a long run…
Indeed, Wellenkotter10 calculated that even with a 5% increase in cadence, the impact force at the heel would be reduced by over 550 times body-weight over a mile
Yep, you read that right – reduced by over 550 times body-weight over a mile!
Because our bodies are big connected machines, changing one thing when running can have a big flow-on effect throughout the rest of the lower limb – as the song goes, ‘the foot bone’s connected to the leg bone’!
Case in point: Overstriding is a common technique issue in runners, but is really well addressed by increasing cadence, which shows significant reduction in stride length2-4. Through reducing the stride length, the knee is in a slightly more bent position at impact, which enables the lower limb to better attenuate impact and reduce load at the knee2-5.
Don’t believe us about the knee being better off in a bent position? Get up off your chair, and do a few jumps up & down on the spot.
What were your knees doing when you landed – were they straight, or a little bit bent?
I’m willing to bet that for most of you, your knees were bent – because it helps to cushion impact and is nicer on the knee. Try a few jumps with the knees kept straight to feel the difference!
Upping cadence and reducing overstride also helps to reduce braking forces – forces that the ground exerts back on you to slow you down – and reduces your vertical displacement when you run; both of which aid efficiency and economy2, 4, 6. When running, we want all of your energy spent in moving forwards, not wasting it going up & down!
There’s a heap of research and good evidence showing that increasing cadence leads to changes in running biomechanics, but does that then change the risk for running injury?
Unfortunately, that’s a question that’s far less answered in the research. From our experience, we see a lot of runners for whom cadence changes goes a long way to help treat and prevent injury, and there are really good biomechanical reasons why we think it will help injury – but the science needs to play a bit of catch-up, and further research needs to be done.
Given the wealth of info on how cadence changes biomechanics, it’s a real surprise to find only 1 study that reports on cadence being used to treat injury – a case study by Allen12, who used cadence changes to treat a runner with ITB problems. They reported a really positive result for the runner, who was able to get back to running pain-free, but they also used a strengthening and stretching program as well – which means we can’t really tell what effects cadence had in isolation12.
So how do you work out your cadence? Counting steps over a minute can be hard – not to mention something that will drive you crazy if you try to keep counting over the course of a whole run!
A lot of runners these days run with GPS watches, with some of the more modern ones being able to monitor cadence and give you the data on the watch while you’re running – which is an easy and effective way to keep tabs on it. To get an idea of your cadence if you don’t have one of these, try counting your steps over 15 seconds, then times that number by 4 – but do it a few times to make sure you’re consistent.
Try it for yourself – simply being aware of your cadence, and experimenting with smaller, quicker steps to see how your body feels with it, is a really good start. There’s a number of ways we can train cadence – from stepping in time to simple metronomes, to some cool cadence apps that can even play music that matches your target cadence! Cruise Control (http://www.cruisecontrolrun.com/#) and Tempo Run (http://www.temporunapp.com/) are two good ones, but there are many, many others.
While most of the biomechanical changes reported in the research have come from cadence changes of 10%, that may not be appropriate for everybody, and may be too much of a change on what your body’s used to initially. We’d often recommend perhaps starting with a 5% change initially, then another 5% later on as your body has gotten used to the faster turnover – remember: your body will adapt, provided you give it time to.
So runners – the conclusion is clear: when it comes to cadence, more is better!
de Ruiter, et al. (2014). Stride frequency in relation to oxygen consumption in experienced and novice runners. European Journal of Sport Science, 14(3), 251-258.
Schubert, et al. (2014). Influence of stride frequency and length on running mechanics: a systematic review. Sports Health, 6(3), 210-217.
Willson, et al. (2014). Effects of step length on patellofemoral joint stress in female runners with and without patellofemoral pain. Clinical Biomechanics, 29(3), 243-247.
Heiderscheit, et al. (2011). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43(2), 296-302.
Lenhart, et al. (2014). Increasing running step rate reduces patellofemoral joint forces. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 46(3), 557-564.
Morin, et al. (2007). Effects of altered stride frequency and contact time on leg-spring behaviour in human running. Journal of Biomechanics, 40(15), 3341-3348.
Hobara, et al. (2012). Step frequency and lower extremity loading during running. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 33(4), 310-313.
Hamill, et al. (1995). Shock attenuation and stride frequency during running. Human Movement Science, 14(1), 45-60.
Derrick, et al. (1998). Energy absorption of impacts during running at various stride lengths. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 30(1), 128-135.
Wellenkotter, et al. (2014). The effects of running cadence manipulation on plantar loading in healthy runners. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 35(9), 779-784.
Lenhart, et al. (2014). Hip muscle loads during running at various step rates. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 776-774.
Allen (2014). Treatment of distal iliotibial band syndrome in a long distance runner with gait re-training emphasizing step rate manipulation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 9(2), 222-231.