Counting 180 steps

By Keith Bateman

Don’t be a metronome!

One often-repeated myth is that everyone should aim to adopt an ‘ideal’ running cadence of at least 180 steps per minute. This theory was initially developed by researchers who studied elite runners and has been passed on by coaches and running groups. Most likely it came from the observation that a cadence of 180 is the bottom end of the range at which a good runner would normally run. Of course a good runner would be running at speeds greater than 8 min/mile (5 min/km), even in their warm up. Is that you?

Running cadence for everyone, from beginners to elite runners, changes according to running speed, acceleration, and leg strength. If you are not an elite runner then you will not run as the same speed as them, nor will you have the same leg strength, fitness, acceleration, or skill, and so you should not adopt the same cadence as them.

We suggest that you think of cadence like gears on a bicycle – but gears that change automatically to spread your workload.

In our experience we’ve found that under normal running conditions, cadence should be less than 180 at speeds below about 5 minutes per kilometre (8 minutes per mile). As speed increases to around 4 minutes 30 seconds, cadence will naturally rise to somewhere in the mid-180s, but this is for someone running with moderately good technique and with the flight phase that results.

At even higher speeds, technique and fitness considerations will have an even more profound effect on cadence. If I am fit and strong, my cadence can remain at 186 up to speeds of 2:45 per kilometre. However, if I am unfit or tired, then my cadence will rise to nearly 200 at 3:30 per kilometre because I no longer have the strength to get a good rebound off the ground and my cadence needs to increase to maintain speed.

In summary, 180 steps per minute is an arbitrary figure. Cadence should come naturally and not be forced. Even if setting your cadence to a specific count was a worthwhile goal, it would be nearly impossible to know how to calibrate it for each given speed or your current level of fitness and technique. Getting fixated on cadence doesn’t make you a better runner, it just helps you count 180+ bad steps. Elite runners get their stride length from speed and flight time but if you artificially increase your cadence you will be destined to be a ground hog!

Learn to land balanced and all aspects of your running form will adjust naturally around this, including your cadence. The key to reducing an over-stride and increasing speed is a balanced landing. This will enable a springy take-off, giving you more airtime, a longer stride and also a shorter ground-contact time and higher cadence.
* A balanced landing means that once you have fully landed you are close to being vertically aligned (not leaning back and braking but using the elasticity in your legs and feet to get a free lift off the ground to carry you to a long stride length).