If you’re a runner, odds are high that your hobby has caused physical pain.
Research varies, but it appears that roughly half of all recreational runners sustain at least one injury per year.
Of those, injuries at the knee are most prevalent. This is believed to be caused by excess load going through the leg as it contacts the ground.
As a way to prevent running injuries, experts have looked at ways to decrease this load or impact. Recent studies have found increasing your running cadence can be a powerful tool for this goal.
What is Running Cadence?
Cadence is the number of steps a person takes per minute, or their “step rate.”
A higher cadence means more steps per minute; a lower cadence means fewer.
Shorter, quicker leg strides mean less loading or impact while running. Although a long stride is great for sprinting, it’s not efficient for distance running, which uses different mechanics.
Striding out too far causes a distance runner to hit the ground with the knee locked and heel slammed into the ground. This is a braking motion, causing a choppy stride and excess stress on the joints. When you think about how many times your foot hits the ground during a long run, it’s no wonder this poor form could lead to a repetitive stress injury.
A 2011 study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise examined how manipulating runners’ cadences impacted their joint mechanics.
When cadence was increased by 5%, runners were shown to have a 20% decrease in energy absorbed at the knee. When cadence was increased by 10%, runners absorbed 34% less energy at the knee and also saw a decrease in energy absorption about there hip. Biomechanics around the hip were also changed in a way that could reduce risk of injuries like IT band syndrome.
In a 2016 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, runners who increased their cadence by 7.5% for 8 weeks showed a decrease in impact force by 18-20%.
Similar studies have also shown an increased cadence lead to improvement with injuries such as stress fractures and shin splints.
How to Calculate Your Cadence
To find your cadence, work into your normal running pace and count how many times your right foot hits the ground over the course of one minute. Multiply that number times two.
Popular fitness watches can also be a reliable and valid way to monitor your average cadence.
Increasing Your Cadence
The easiest way to increase your running cadence is by downloading a free metronome app. Run Tempo is a good one specifically designed for running, but a standard metronome app like Metronome Beats works, too.
After you’ve found your cadence, trying setting the metronome to a speed that’s 5 percent faster for a couple of runs. The idea is to find a running cadence that allows you to match your steps to the beat of the metronome.
Once you get comfortable with that, try 7.5 percent faster. Once you get comfortable with that, maybe work up to 10 percent.
The key to changing your cadence is patience.
At first, it will seem awkward to run with a quicker turnover. Trying to stick with your new stride for an entire run is an easy way to take the fun out of your workout, so it’s ok to alternate between your standard cadence and your desired cadence during a run as you re-train your body and mind.
Should All Runners Change Their Cadence?
If you consistently find yourself battling running-related pain or injuries, or if you believe you’re over-striding, then experimenting with a higher cadence can be a good idea.
But if not, don’t assume a higher cadence will automatically make you a faster runner.
Conventional wisdom has dictated runners shoot for an “optimal cadence” of 165-185 steps per minute. This is inaccurate, however, due to something called running economy.
Running economy is the amount of oxygen a runner needs at a given running speed. This is basically a measure of the energy demand for distance running.
Runners with “good economy” use less oxygen than runners with poor economy at the same speed. Have you ever gone for a run with a fast teammate or friend and had trouble keeping up? You’re breathing hard and having trouble holding a conversation. In this case, your teammate has a better running economy at that speed, causing you to need more oxygen to keep up.
Running economy is influenced by a lot of things, including metabolism, cardiorespiratory fitness, and training, but it also has a close relationship to biomechanics and stride length.
Many coaches have long believed that experienced runners intuitively develop a running technique that is most efficient or “economical” for them. Some research supports this too, showing that greater oxygen consumption is required when step rate is increased by more than 10% of preferred. Therefore, everyone’s baseline running cadence is different, and high cadences may not be right for everyone. If you are not injured and are not over-striding, don’t feel the need to force a higher cadence.
The trick is to find a sweet spot for your form: a cadence that’s high enough that you aren’t “braking” with each stride and putting excess stress on your knees and hips, but not so fast that you’re struggling to turnover your feet.
Cadence is not the only tool to help you reduce the risk of running-related pain and injury.
Running researchers have also found that reducing “vertical oscillation,” or how much bounce a runner has with each stride, can reduce the amount of force they must absorb. To do it, focus on keeping your body as low to the ground as possible. Think about running “softer.”
I mentioned stride length earlier, but running with a wider stride width can also decrease the amount of stress through your lower leg and IT band.
Many different methods are available to change running form. However, it’s important not to make more than one change at a time. This could have a harmful effect on your running economy. If you have a question, schedule a gait analysis with a sports performance professional to pinpoint exactly what will help your running.
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