Is running cadence a starting point or a result of training?

Mar 9, 2020

Draw your own conclusions about the influences of running cadence

Running cadence has become the ‘Barefoot Running’ fade of our modern running discussions. It is at forefront of runners minds constantly due to the time it has been given by the experts, understandably every recreational runner is keen to try the latest concept that will give them the extra 5% they have been looking for in their running speed. It is a plight of modern society that we are all striving for the quickest way to improve, in this case our running speed. Please read through the four key points below and make your own conclusions about the ideal training plan for you cadence and whether it should be the starting point in your training plan. So I am going to take you through the four key areas that I believe are relevant to your cadence, and I think that is so important to remember it is your cadence.

History of Cadence

Cadence, which is simply the number of times per minute your feet hit the ground, was first observed back in the 1984 Olympic Games by legendary running coach Jack Daniels. It has created great debate ever since however his observation was simple enough, as he watched and counted the strides of Olympic runners as they passed him in the stands. The observation was also made for runners from the distances of 800 metres right through to marathon runners at the games. The main area we need to consider here is that you, the recreational runner, or possible the high level club runner, are not at the same level as an international athlete. Unfortunately this observation has created a storm of discussion around the idea that changing your cadence can result in a faster runner, simple.

If life was ever that simple, in the real world we need to deal with the reality factors outside our control can affect your cadence, like your leg length and your height. There has been a plethora of research since this observation. A biomechanics Ph.D student, Geoff Burns completed a study on elite runners for ultra marathon distance, unfortunately looking at runners in the top 25 in the world. The interesting element to his study was the variation of cadence amongst these runners, yes the average for 182, however two runners that finished the gruelling 100km run on a flat course finished within minutes of each other. One of the runners never got above 160 for his cadence while the other only dropped below 200 for 2 of the ten lap course. Make your own conclusions of the importance of getting your cadence to 180 on that basis!

Running Form / Technique

One of the key differences between the different runners at elite level and the rest of us mere mortals is the time to train, covering all aspects to create a better athlete. As part of their training week every international runner will complete the technical work, it is not sexy, it does not grab headlines so it is not great press and tends to be the forgotten element of how an elite athlete will train. Your running form is constantly changing and adapting to your training plans, and more importantly your weekly postural habits at home and at work. As I am sure you are aware unless you know what your specific issues with your form are it is very hard to change them, and the blanket idea of addressing them all is impossible so we tend to follow the expert advice, ten years ago this was based around barefoot running and right now it seems that cadence is at the forefront of every running discussion.

Why is your form important? Well one of the main areas of discussion would be around athletes we see in who have changed their cadence recently as part of a new training regime or article they have read. There are more each week and when we complete the initial running video analysis what we tend to see is shuffle runners. A shuffle runner, although the name gives it away, tends to have the following patterns for running – low heel lift (generally below the knee crease), straight knee on landing, short stride length and a high cadence. Result you may think, the ideal cadence has been achieved by changing your form to achieve the results you were informed will make you run quicker. I have added a video of a 1500m race, no specifics to watch however just look at the field as they take the bends. Do you see any of the traits above on any of these runners? Do you think a shuffle runner will become the next rising elite athlete in the 1500m?

Form is something you work on to improve neural pathways to improve efficiency of your running. It requires regular input, takes time out of a busy schedule however technique work is part of the foundation of your running journey. It is only one part however it can be coached, it can be changed and developed. Understanding what your specific areas that need development and then working with a running coach who actually understands the importance of form in developing a runner can be an exciting journey.

Strength Training

This word puts fear through most runners instantly. Again time spent in a gym is time lost out on the road for the recreational runner, that makes sense in a tight schedule however for the best results you need to address all areas for your body to be efficient. Strength training, as I have said previously is more than just lifting heavy weights. You may complete a mix of the following, depending on your race schedule, time of the season and specific goals however all these fit into the concept of strength training. Essentially first up you have to have loaded resistance exercises, these are fantastic for building tissue tolerance. They can be light weights for high repetitions which can be completed on a non running day or after a run. Dynamic strength work for improving your time on the ground is under estimated by many runners and can include skipping, plyometric work and a number of other areas that help your muscles counter the ground reaction forces. Interval sessions are a form of strength training for runners, unfortunately too may recreational runners head out for a run completing the same course, at the same speed day in day out. The interval sessions are again designed to get you on and off the ground quickly and improve your dynamic strength.

Strength training is essential for one key element as a runner, no matter the standard you are working at, and that is time on the ground. A dynamically stronger leg and core can react quickly and efficiently to each foot contact helping you get on and off the ground quicker and more effectively while still maintaining the power through your leg to keep your running speed up. What we know about the best runners is that with good strength, and form, they have little variation in pelvis height while they are running, essentially movement up and down which makes them less efficient as they spend more time going up and down. Generally through running form a shuffle runner will spend more time on the ground with a higher cadence, and they tend to need to improve their movement patterns and strength as part of the process to improve their running form.


There will be a certain amount of guilt as you start reading this section. Runners are not the best at the mobility or flexibility work they should be completing to help them maintain good form. Interestingly the Australian Ballet has now stopped stretching as part of the regime dancers go through, which is great as they will be working on a higher level of mobility. For you as a runner stiffness creates resistance and that means your body will be working hard to propel you forwards. Whether you are stretching or working on mobility through muscle activation and training, it needs to be addressed more so if you are spending the majority of your working day sitting at a desk before you head out for a run in the evening.

Mobility affects cadence by changing leg cycle and hence will naturally increase your cadence as a result. Simple really, the elite athlete will not have these restrictions in place, they will be addressed daily to maintain good form as part of warm up and cool down sessions. Restrictions in the body steal time from an athlete so they will just not allow them to creep in and through careful management by their physiotherapist or coach they will make sure they are regularly assessed and changes are corrected. So essentially being ‘tight’ can increase your cadence naturally. Is that an effect that you feel would be of benefit to you as a runner? If you naturally have a higher cadence does that mean you are in the right place for long term running success?

Stamina / Training

Essentially in its simplest form how fit are you? It is not hard to work out that the elite or olympic athlete will have a fitness level for running that will be at the peak of their capabilities, their VO2 max will be at olympic standards with small margins being the difference for many between 1st and last place. Cadence has a huge effect here as sitting at a higher level of cadence, say the magical 180, is significantly easier if your fitness levels are good. Naturally you will have the ability to run at a good pace efficiently knowing you have the ability to ‘kick’ during a race when required to take you through to the finish line. The kick for an elite athlete is the ability to access a higher cadence, using their form and dynamic strength to make it look almost effortless.

Naturally, and with technology now it is easy to assess, when you are fitter, running well and feeling stronger your cadence will naturally be higher. A direct result of the effort and work on improving your stamina. The idea is that your cadence will increase and decrease related to a number of factors, four discussed here along with your height, running experience and other factors, but you must thing and be aware of the magical 180 and if that is the right target for you as an individual.

I am really keen for you to make your own conclusions from the information above, and maybe further reading on the subject. I hope you take the challenge and open your mind to the information you are reading and the conclusions that are being drawn. For you as an individual runner you need to work out where your weaknesses are and then address them, if it is strength or stamina your cadence is likely to rise as a result naturally as you improve these areas, if it is mobility or form you will probably find you drop off slightly in cadence before you can pick it up again, which will happen naturally as you progress.

Obviously from my point of view, cadence is the result of training, primarily focused on the factors listed here with a few other variables that are probably out of anyones control.

Happy running