On Cadence: Why we’re challenging runners to stop striving for 180 (By: Lindsay Scott-Physiotherapist)

The running world has been obsessed with cadence since famed Coach Jack Daniels first counted steps in runners flying by him as he spectated the 1984 Olympics. With promises of reducing injury rates by decreasing loads through our joints, it’s no wonder that this “magic 180” spread like wildfire as runners around the world aspired to be just like the pros.

While our Garmins and apps make it easier than ever before to track our cadence, experience and research are telling us that maybe the “magic 180” isn’t so magic after all.

We’re certainly not arguing that increased cadence doesn’t have potential benefits for a runner, as there is evidence that it may well offer some protective effect. What we are suggesting, is that the one-size-fits-all nature of the 180 “rule” leaves something to be desired. Furthermore, we believe that other strategies to improve performance and reduce injury risk may offer benefits above and beyond what one may see by addressing cadence alone. Read on to find out why:

1. Are we reading the evidence correctly?

In a recent study of 20 runners competing in the 2016 Ultra Running 100k World Championships, the average cadence amongst both male and female athletes was 182.0 steps per minute. With that average in mind, it seems reasonable to assume that the best ultra runners in the world have a cadence hovering around that mark. When you look at the data from each individual runner though, you’ll see a very different story. Rather than having all runners fall in or around the 180 mark, researchers notice a huge amount of variation amongst top runners.

One runner had an average cadence of 155, and never reached a value greater than 160. On the opposite side of the spectrum, another runner had an average of 203. Look at the finishing times of those two athletes and you’ll find that after seven hours of racing with seemingly very different run techniques, they finished within minutes of one another.

Knowing that all athletes in this study finished the race in position to be ranked amongst the top 25 ultra runners in the world, it’s clear that any argument that all runners should aspire to a cadence of 180 is flawed. Yes, the average cadence of these athletes was 182, but considering only the average cadence would grossly misrepresent the data presented in the study.

2. Individual differences matter!

We always like to look at athletes as individuals who bring unique experiences, movement patterns and goals to their running. That guideline is as relevant as ever when we’re talking cadence. How so?

· Experience – Studies show that experienced runners will naturally gravitate to the cadence that is the most efficient for them. In a study of running economy, or the amount of oxygen required to run at a given pace, novice runners had a 3-5% improvement by increasing their cadence. Meanwhile, experienced runners had a <1% improvement. Trust that the work you have put in to get to where you are today has led to efficiency regardless of where you gravitate with respect to cadence.

· Height – It seems logical that, at a given pace, a taller runner should have longer strides and therefore a lower cadence than a shorter runner. One study even suggested that for every inch of additional height, a runner’s cadence decreases by 3 steps per minute. So a runner who is 6’1” would run with a cadence that is 18 steps per minute lower than someone who is 5’7”. While this is a greater difference than we might expect based on previous studies, it serves to confirm the general principle that we can expect a taller runner to have a lower cadence.

· Speed – It’s widely accepted that if a runner’s speed increases, so does their cadence. If the same runner slows down, their cadence will decrease. It serves to reason then, that asking a runner to consistently target a cadence of 180 regardless of speed is flawed advice.

· Where are you at right now? There is well documented evidence that, while some increase in cadence may lead to improved running economy (RE), too much of a good thing definitely comes into play. One frequently cited study of various ways to improve RE, or the amount of energy required to run at a given pace, found that a 3% increase in cadence is likely beneficial, while an increase of 6% or greater is likely detrimental. So if you are a runner who currently falls into a cadence around 165, a leap to a cadence of 180 is likely to hinder, rather than help, your case.

So where does this all leave us? It’s definitely true that increased cadence may be beneficial for some runners, but that doesn’t mean that we should all be aspiring to a cadence of 180.

We always recommend that a runner consider the big picture. For example, one of the most common findings in gait assessments of runners from total novice right through to the elites is over striding. That means that runners are landing with their foot well in front of their center of mass as they run, effectively slamming on the breaks with each step. Increasing cadence alone typically does lead to improvement overall, but if we start by tackling run technique with cues that reduce that over striding pattern, we see that cadence typically increases significantly without ever having to think about it. We’ve moved that runner into a much more efficient movement strategy, both for performance and injury prevention, arguably creating a stronger, more resilient runner than had we just cued their cadence.

Of course, there are some runners, particularly those building back after injury, who better with a concentrated effort on increased cadence. If that focus allows you to run with greater comfort and confidence, that’s great. We simply recommend that rather than worrying about getting to 180, you aspire to an increase of 3-5%.

If nothing else, our ask of runners is to acknowledge that there is a big difference between saying “some runners may benefit from increased cadence” and “all runners should strive for a cadence of 180”. Focus on improving your overall run technique, avoiding getting too hung up on specific data, and, as always, know that we’re here to support you as you strive for big things!

Happy Running!