Running Cadence: Does 180 Steps Per Minute Matter?
The holy grail of running cadence has been thought of as 180 steps per minute. Hang around long enough in running circles and you’ll hear how someone should pick up their cadence or slow down. But running cadence research is still being developed. Let’s give a more in depth look at a commonly asked question: Does running cadence matter?
Just about everyone has a step counter on at all times when they are running these days because an accelerometer is a standard piece of watch hardware. Running coaches are frequently asked about running cadence and how it relates to running performance. The most common exchange starts like this:
I read somewhere that I should be shooting for 180 steps per minute because that is the ideal running cadence. How do I go about training my body to run at the right step rate?
Interestingly, that number, 180 steps per minute, likely comes from an anecdotal observation over 30 years ago. Jack Daniels, who has certainly done his fair share of controlled and repeatable experimentation, was watching the men’s 10,000-meter final at the 1984 Olympics and noted that the participants were all striking the ground IN EXCESS of 180 steps per minute.
These were the fastest distance runners in the world competing on the track, and the initial measurement was done by eye. Perhaps because of the source, a legendary running coach with a PhD, or perhaps because 180 is a nice, round number that is greater than the average for recreational runners (I’ll explain why in a bit), the number eventually got stuck in the collective wisdom of the running community as the “right” step rate for performance. But…is it? What does the research say?
Running Cadence Research: A Relatively New Frontier
Strapping a step counter to a runner is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. You can buy a device for under $100 today that will give you cadence data and a whole lot more, but we actually didn’t have an easy way to measure running cadence across different situations until the last few years or so. Given this fact, it’s not surprising that cadence studies have only started to be published pretty recently. Here is the gist of what we know, so far:
Cadence tends to increase with speed: A study looking at running economy in elite runners showed a linear relationship between stride rate and speed. However, the stride rate was not the same at a given velocity for men and women, suggesting that other factors (height, muscle types, etc) account for differences in observed cadence rates.
Individuals tend to have a relatively static cadence throughout a race, but vary widely from each other: A data sample taken during an elite 100k race showed that while the average across participants was 182 steps per minute, variations from person to person were great. And, of course, the same phenomenon where women had higher step rates than men was present. There was no relationship between the step rate within gender and pace or placing in the race.
Training runners to increase stride rate can improve running economy: A soon-to-be-published study appears to indicate female runners can improve their running economy by being trained to increase their stride rate to 180 strides per minute. It is important to note that this would indicate that their stride rate was lower than 180 per minute before training (and thus below observed averages for well-trained female distance runners) and that running economy was the key observed measure, not force output, pace performance, etc.
Got it? Faster cadence tends to go with faster speed, people tend to have their individual set-point, individuals vary widely from one another, and increasing cadence has been shown to improve running economy.
So, What Does This Mean for Most Runners?
As of now, while there is a trove of big data available on platforms such as Strava and Garmin Connect, no published studies have looked at a large sample of the recreational running population. That is something that is important to consider. As I mentioned above, the original observation that became common coaching (“Increase your cadence to at least 180 steps per minute) was made during an elite track race.
Since we know that pace and cadence have a linear relationship, it would make sense that training for 180 steps per minute isn’t actually valuable in the context of easy running on an everyday basis. In fact, it would probably be observed that those same runners in the Olympic 10,000m final have a stride rate well under 180 for most of their training. Given that, here are my personal recommendations to runners when it comes to stride rate.
Should I Train for a Specific Stride Rate?
Short answer: No, not a specific number. I would also go further: If a coach or program tells you to shoot for a specific stride rate for easy/medium/hard running, they are not basing that on evidence. Your personal stride rate is going to be different from mine.
Take, for example, a race that both Coach Johnny and I ran. I had an average cadence of 206 strides per minute. Johnny finished about a minute in front of me and averaged 185 steps per minute. I am shorter, older, and have run more marathons than Johnny, and my body has taught itself to run faster through cadence. Johnny is also a stronger and generally faster runner than me, so he gets more distance per stride. The key is this: We’re all different, and there is no “magic” number that should be forced.
OK, Then. Just Don’t Worry About It?
Actually, as we saw through the published research, there is a benefit to working on stride rate. Increased cadence is linked to improved running economy within individuals, and increased cadence is a necessary ingredient of running faster (along with stride length, which we’ll have to cover in another post). There is also some evidence that links increased cadence with lower impact forces, so cadence work can be a tool for pain reduction. Just like other aspects of running, cadence is a tool in the kit that should be utilized.
So, How Do I Use This in My Training?
One major implicit piece of information across all of this research is this: Well-trained runners tend to have higher cadence. This may result from the training of muscle fibers, improvements in body composition, improved form, improved neuromuscular coordination, and other things. The important takeaway is this: Just training consistently will improve cadence over time. Along the same lines, other aspects of sound training will also tend to optimize cadence for your particular body.
By that, I mean all the little things that coaches tell our runners to do every week: strides, form drills, athletic drills (like a speed ladder, for instance), strength training, and speed work in all its forms. Cadence will find the right set point for your body geometry and other personal factors as you complete these things on a regular basis.
It always comes back to the consistency of training and a focus on the little things, doesn’t it?