For decades, running coaches and exercise physiologists observed that elite runners tended to run at a cadence around 180, with some as high as 200. This observation led coaches to begin taking a look at the cadence of nonelite runners. What they found was that non-elites tended to have lower cadence, typically between 150 and 165. This led to the belief that all runners could improve performance with 180 cadence. And although this may be true for most, I’ve never been sold on a one size fits all approach for all runners.
Trying to fit every runner into the 180 box has its drawbacks. The reason is simple because each runner has a unique physiology that predisposes them to certain bio-mechanics. And it’s my belief that most runners can improve performance in the range somewhere between 170 and 190.
There are compelling reasons why you may want to consider improving your cadence. Improved running efficiency, positive correlation to speed, and reduced incidence of injury are only a few. Whatever your reason for reading this article, the payoffs from working on your cadence are numerous.
What is cadence?
Very simply put, cadence is your stride rate or the number of steps taken per minute (spm) over any distance. Runners adopted this term from cyclists where cadence represents one full revolution of the crankshaft.
In cycling, cadence is displayed as a single unit. Whereas, in running, cadence is displayed in one of two forms; either in steps per minute (180) or in half that figure (90). The halved figure is what cyclists term cadence. For each individual runner though, the way cadence is viewed is largely dependent on the type and brand of running watch used.
Knowing your cadence has several distinct benefits. Most notably, you’ll know where you stand in relation to what is considered optimal. From there you’ll be able to set a clear path for getting to where you want to go. For example, going from a 150 to a 180 cadence may require more effort, than going from a 165 to a 180 cadence.
As a result, you’ll be better able to find that sweet spot, or zone to run in where you’ll feel like you’re gliding as opposed to trudging. Ultimately there are several ways to get there. Either, you can choose to do it on your own, or you can seek the help of a running coach who can help you shorten the learning curve.
How 180 helps
To understand why 180 cadence helps improve performance we first have to take a look at what running actually is. Running is essentially bounding, or hopping up and down in a forward trajectory. The action of running results in a combination of movements in three different planes of motion: horizontal, vertical, and lateral.
Affecting the amount of movement in one of the planes tends to affect movement in one of the others. Therefore, an increase in cadence tends to decrease the amount of vertical oscillation in your stride. Ultimately, this results in less time spent bouncing up and down, and more time smoothly rolling forward over the ground.
There are other benefits as well. With practice, the simple act of increasing your cadence can have the effect of repositioning your footstrike. Increased cadence helps move foot strike from out in front of your center of gravity to beneath it. Ultimately, this has the effect of reducing the amount of stress placed on your entire kinetic chain. Accordingly, a reduction in many of the overuse injuries runners experience can occur. Some of the most common injuries include plantar fasciitis, medial shin splints, runners’ knee, and ITBS.
What to expect
Learning to run at 180 cadence is possible for runners of all speed and skill levels, yet there are challenges in learning any new movement. Most notably, you have to unlearn a lifetime of neuromuscular control that began as a child. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to take it in stages and with the help of a skilled running coach. If you do choose to do this on your own there are several things to keep in mind.
First, it takes practice for you to make the neuromuscular adaptations that enable you to do this without consciously thinking about it. Also, you’ll want to have patience and practice perseverance as you progress toward 180 cadence. Depending on how much you run, it can take weeks and sometimes even months for these adaptations to become permanent.
“Only the disciplined ones are free in life. If you aren’t disciplined, you are a slave to your moods. You are a slave to your passions. That’s a fact.
“There is a sign in one of the nicer schools in Canada. It [says] the best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago. That was the best time to plant a tree. The second-best time is today. Plant the tree of self-discipline.” — Eliud Kipchoge
There are a number of ways to accomplish the transition to 180 cadence, from strides and hills, to track workouts and treadmills, and each has its benefits or drawbacks. Many online training plans will provide workouts that help to make the transition easier. Below I discuss one of my favorite ways to help runners transition to a 180 cadence.
What workouts for 180 cadence
The workout described below is best done on a treadmill or track, or any other smooth flat surface. But first, you’ll want to download a metronome app to your smartphone or wrist device. A metronome provides a beat that you can easily match your cadence to as you learn to increase the speed. You can easily find many music apps set to metronome rhythms that match nearly any cadence you might want.
Start by determining your current average cadence by examining the data from your wrist device or workout app. After that, you’ll want to set your metronome for a beat slightly higher than what you currently run at, maybe 5 beats higher.
Begin by warming up, followed by 2 minutes of running at the new cadence. Then follow this with 2 minutes of walking. Repeat this 4 to 6 times to see how it feels. Once you’re able to run at the new cadence, increase the beat in your metronome incrementally until you’re able to run at 180.
Then, once you’re able to run for 2 minutes at 180, slowly begin to lengthen the duration of each interval. Ultimately, you’ll do this until you’re able to run for 8 minutes comfortably. Continue until you’re able to execute four to six 8 minute intervals, with 2-minute walks in between, then you’re probably ready to try a complete low-intensity run.
Keep in mind that you’re learning a new movement, so expect this to feel unnatural; it’s supposed to. It’s also going to require more focus and energy than before. But like everything else worth doing to improve performance, this takes practice.
If you want to see a great demonstration on how to improve to 180 cadence while maintaining good running form, watch this short video below:
180 cadence is it for everybody?
Most runners can learn how to run faster and more efficiently by increasing their cadence to 180. However, it might not be right for everybody. Every runner has a unique physiology and is wired to run efficiently at 180 cadence. Some runners have genetics that predisposes them to run very efficiently and at lower leg turnover rates.
Lastly, most runners with less than optimal cadence can improve performance by addressing this aspect of their mechanics. But there is no one size fits all solution. Above all else, those willing to put forth the consistent effort, usually have the biggest breakthroughs. Because they are better able to develop as runners, improve performance, and ultimately go farther.