Why the Pitter Patter of That 1-2, 1-2, is More Than a Little Feat
Efficient steps are fast steps that can go for as long as you need them to – but learning how to make the most of that magical number of steps per minute is the difference between good efficiency and a race cut short. In running, your cadence makes a difference in your speed and distance.
Very generally speaking, the quicker your feet hit the ground, the more efficient you are as a runner. This kind of efficiency allows increased speed and makes it less likely you’ll get injured because your mechanics are right on track.
The ideal cadence is 170-180 steps per minute. If you go slower than that, you’re likely overstriding, or taking too long of a step. If you go much faster than that, you’re not getting all the bang for your buck. Each problem causes a chain reaction that, at best, can make for slower, more labored running, and at worst, leave you with an injury.
“With over-striding, or having a cadence that is too low, the feet get too far in front of the body and it’s like hitting the brakes with every step. Higher-impact forces fatigue the stabilizing muscles quickly and can lead to knee, hip, and low back injuries,” says Dr. Doug Bradberry from Greenapple Sports and Wellness. “A higher cadence helps to keep the feet underneath your body to help you run more efficiently. Having the proper cadence can help you run faster while using less energy.”
You can check your cadence by counting how many times your foot hits the ground for 30 seconds, then multiply that by 2 (for one minute) and 2 again (for each foot). Then play around with stepping at different rates. Notice the way you feel when you run at those different cadences.
Adam Jones, coach at Forward Motion and former collegiate runner, explains it this way: “If we think about running, the more steps you take, means the more your foot is hitting the ground with less time spent in the air. When you spend more time in the air it means that you land with a much higher impact than if you take shorter, quicker steps.”
“Think of a kangaroo,” he continues. “Since kangaroos bound, every time they hit the ground, it’s with an extreme amount of force. If they spent less time in the air and took shorter, choppier jumps, they would reduce the impact on their bodies. When you have a higher cadence, it’s not only easier to run faster but it also reduces the amount of pounding your body takes every step.”
Cool. But we’re not kangaroos, so how do we do that?
“Imagine running on eggshells and not wanting them to crack,” says Jones. “Try to practice placing your foot down and picking it up quickly. Just like anything else, it will take time, but the higher your cadence, the more efficient you can be as a runner.”
Another trick is to use a metronome app or a music playlist that is set to 180 beats per minute. We know music can elevate our mood for running, but now try to have your feet hit with each click of the metronome or beat of the song.
Ruben Cosme, an avid runner prepping for his first marathon, is a believer in the power of cadence. “One of the first things my coach had me work on when I started working with her was picking up my cadence. I was usually around a 164-168 spm runner, and my average pace across my runs for a month was between 10:18/mi – 10:25/mi,” he says.
“When we first started working on cadence, she had me configure my watch screen for three metrics: average pace, cadence, and heart rate,” Cosme continues. “The very first time out, she wanted me to keep a 180 cadence and just feel it out. While I was quicker, it was more tiring for me at first – but this was just the beginning.
“Over the course of the next few months of focusing on cadence my spm average across my runs for a month bumped up to 174-176 spm and my average pace across those runs steadily dropped as I became more accustomed to running at a higher cadence and gaining fitness. I also became a more efficient runner and felt less tired after runs. And a big bonus, I recovered a lot quicker from day to day.”
Cosme says he is now a big believer in cadence, and it is a metric he tracks. “If I feel labored during a run, I can usually tell my cadence is low,” he says. “When I pick it up, I feel better, and the feet just turn over quicker and the miles go by faster.”
You can see Cosme’s metrics below. “The numbers do not lie!” he exclaims. “Working with a coach on many things, not just cadence, will make you a better, more efficient runner!”