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For decades, we’ve been told that 180 steps per minute (SPM) is the ideal cadence for running—a number that legendary running coach Jack Daniels observed after counting the turnover rate of pro distance runners racing in the 1984 Olympics—but research has found that cadence rates vary greatly depending on runners’ speed (meaning you shouldn’t expect to have the same steps per minute when doing a speed workout versus an easy recovery run.)
Still, the question remains regarding what, if anything, cadence can really tell us. So researchers from University of Michigan decided to see what actually affected individuals’ turnover rates and whether monitoring our own cadence might make us better runners.
In the study, which was published in 2019 in the Journal of Applied Physiology, the researchers analyzed the top 25 male and female finishers at the 2016 100K world championships in Los Alcazares, Spain, to see whether any specific characteristics had an effect on their cadence. The runners’ smartwatches provided the cadence data. Then, the runners answered a survey via email that asked their age, height, weight, training and racing experience, and the speed at which they were racing.
Before the results came through, study author and ultramarathoner Geoffrey Burns, Ph.D., a sport science postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan, had a hunch that there would be a lot of variability in turnover rates among the ultra athletes. In past races, he’d noticed that even though his competitors finished around the same time, their strides—or “ultra shuffle,” as he referred to it to Runner’s World—were sometimes dramatically different. Maybe, he thought, there were factors other than speed that increased or decreased the number of steps we took per minute.
The study confirmed Burns’s prediction: The runners’ cadences were all over the board. When Burns—who finished fifth in the race and included himself in the study—mapped the participants’ average step frequency throughout the 100K race, the data ranged from a guy who took 155 SPM to someone who took 203.
“One of the most striking findings was that the highest and lowest averages finished within a couple minutes of each other,” Burns said.
Interestingly, when he took the average of all of the runners’ cadences, he found a familiar number: 182 steps per minute, just a hair faster than the so-called optimal 180 SPM.
But what intrigued him was not the group’s data, but the individual’s. Surprisingly, out of all the characteristics runners were queried about in the survey—height, weight, age, speed, and running experience—only speed and height seemed to have an effect on the individual runners’ cadences. The study found that when runners picked up the pace, their step frequency increased. Also, taller runners had lower step frequencies than the shorter runners.
“Intuitively, that makes sense,” Burns said. “Taller runners have longer legs, so they can take fewer steps per minute to cover the same distance.”
He also looked into whether fatigue affected cadence—after all, don’t our legs slow down when we get tired? But the study found that fatigue has no effect on our step frequencies. Here’s why: Even when the ultrarunners were in the latter half of their race, if they held the same pace from the start, they had the same cadence. And if they kicked at the finish, they had even faster step counts, even though they were running on tired legs.
Ultimately, according to the study, there are only two ways to increase your cadence: Shrink or go faster. And since the first option is out of the question, increasing your pace is a guaranteed way to up your step frequency.
Everyone’s cadence is different, and having a faster or more “optimal” number doesn’t necessarily make you a better runner.
Rather than aiming for a specific number, Burns uses cadence as a benchmark for his fitness. He finds that when he’s in better shape, his cadence tends to be lower at a given pace, since his steps have more power behind them. When his cadence is faster than normal at the same pace, he takes that as a sign that he should do more hill repeats or speed work to get stronger.
“Think of cadence as a barometer, not a governor,” he said. “It’s a useful thing to monitor, but you can’t be prescriptive with it, because everyone’s mechanics are different.”
How to Boost Your Cadence
Experts have long suggested that in order to minimize overstriding, lessen impact forces on the legs, and maintain forward momentum, runners should always aspire to up their cadence. But cadence hinges on pace—even Olympians take fewer steps per minute when they run at slower speeds.
If your cadence at a faster pace—like when you would be running a 5K—is below 180, it probably needs a boost. Here’s how to optimize cadence at every pace.
Take notes: Establish your baseline cadence for all your training speeds. On a treadmill, begin at warmup pace and increase the speed by one minute per mile until you’re at a faster 5K pace. As you reach each training pace (easy, marathon, tempo, etc.), give yourself a minute or so to adjust to the speed, then count your steps for 30 seconds. Multiply by two, record the number, then accelerate to your next pace. You should see that as your speed increases, your cadence increases. You can also do this on the track using intervals of 800 to 1200 meters. (You could also use an advanced running watch to monitor your steps per minute. The gallery below has options for you.)
Set a target: To each of your recorded numbers, add 5 percent. This is your goal cadence for each pace. According to biomechanics researchers, 5 percent is an attainable target that is still big enough to significantly reduce impact. So for example, if your easy run cadence was 160, aim for 168; if your tempo was 166, strive to hit 174.
Practice it: Perhaps the easiest way to quicken your step is to run with a metronome. (Don’t worry, there are apps for that). You can also use apps like Weav Run to find music with beats that match your desired turnover. Otherwise, monitor your progress with a 30-second cadence check every couple miles. To accelerate the transition, schedule a workout like downhill sprints . If you're struggling with the new target, lower it by two to three percent. Practice that revised cadence for three weeks, then bump it back up again.
Workouts for a Faster Cadence
The Workout: Downhill sprints
The Details: After an easy run, do five accelerating sprints down a gentle grade of 150 to 200 meters, reaching top speed at the bottom. Walk up for recovery.
The Workout: Fast feet
The Details: Using short, quick strides, take as many steps as you can in 10 meters. Keep ground contact as short as possible. Jog for 10 meters. Repeat five times.
The Workout: Race-pace tester
The Details: Run fartleks of 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, and 1 minute at 5-K pace. Jog one minute between reps. Do two sets. Count your steps or use a metronome during each rep of the second set.
—Additional reporting by Alex Hutchinson.