By Keith Bateman and Heidi Jones
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. It is based on the fact that a good runner would be running at speeds greater than 8 min/mile (5 min/km), even in their warm up. If you are not running at those sorts of speeds then the cadence may not be applicable to you.
The Truth is that there is no ideal or fixed cadence. 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 an elite runner, nor will you have the same leg strength, fitness, acceleration, or skill, and therefore 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 without you having to consciously set them.
In our experience we’ve found that under normal running conditions, cadence will optimal lower 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 appropriate flight phase resulting from good form.
At higher speeds, technique and fitness considerations will have an even more profound effect on cadence. For example, 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 could 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 this situation increased cadence is compensating for a sub-optimal flight phase.
Learn to land balanced and all aspects of your running form will adjust naturally around this, including your cadence. A balanced landing (*) will enable a springy take-off, giving you more airtime, a longer stride, shorter ground-contact time resulting in increased speed 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.