If you’ve been around the running scene for a while, you’ve probably heard of this little thing called “cadence”. That’s running talk for the number of steps you take per minute. We often cite 180 steps per minute as the magic number, but what is this actually based on? It’s based on an observation by running coach Jack Daniels, at the 1984 Olympics, who noted that all the pro athletes seemed to run at a cadence exceeding 180.

And so this idea that 180 steps per minute was the ideal became runner’s law.

Well, that may actually be slowing you down.

Although we still tell some people to increase their cadence, for a lot of people, their efforts to reach this magic number of 180 is actually making them run SLOWER.

See, there is actually a much wider discrepancy in steps per minute amongst professional runners, according to a recent study by Jeff Burns. He found that for every additional inch taller a person was, they took, on average, 3 less steps per minute. That meant that someone who was 6 foot, took, on average, 18 less steps per minute than someone who was 5 foot 6. This relationship between height and cadence is much stronger amongst professional athletes than recreational athletes.

So what does that mean? It means that there is likely an ideal cadence for everyone, which is unique and individual, and certainly does not always look like 180. Aiming for this optimum of 180 steps per minute may be making you work harder, and slowing you down, as increasing cadence excessively is going to decrease your stride length, so you won’t travel as far with each step. If it FEELS too fast and inefficient for you, it probably IS too fast and inefficient for you.

When people are running at a cadence that is too high for them, they tend to spend less time in early stance phase (the time between foot strike and mid-stance) relative to the time spent in late stance phase (the time between mid-stance and push off). If you are proportionally spending more time with you legs beneath and BEHIND you than they are in FRONT of you, you are making your calf and Achilles do ALL the work, as the lack of knee drive means you never get to use your more powerful hip muscles to propel you forward. Your hip flexors, which are under constant stretch due to your hip being behind your centre of mass all the time, also fatigue quickly. Not to mention that the overall energy it takes to actually try and maintain an unnatural cadence is going to burn you out a lot faster than just settling into your natural pace.

Don’t get us wrong, we still tell people to increase their cadence all the time. It is particularly excellent for people who suffer from knee pain or who over stride. Taking quicker steps is a much easier cue to hold in your mind than being told to increase your knee bend angle, land softer and with more of a mid-foot strike and make sure you hip hinge slightly at mid-stance, all at the same time. Increasing your cadence will just magically do all these things for you at once, which is great.

But it’s certainly NOT a panacea.

So how do we get faster then?

This is what myself and my runners from around the world will be working on this week as part of my Unleash Your Inner Runner program. You’re far better off finding the optimal cadence for YOU, rather than chasing any fanciful illusions of what “ideal” looks like. And yes, this varies depending on speed; the faster you go, the higher your cadence will be. Even pros run with a slower cadence when they are running slower.

And so for this you need a process. That’s what the Unleash Your Inner Runner program is really about: giving YOU the processes to be in control of your running and really FEEL what you need to feel in order to optimise your movement. Because it’s one thing to know something in your head, but it’s an entirely different thing to know it in your body.

Be in the driver’s seat of your running.

See you out there,

Mike

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