Where does the 180 cadence rule of thumb originate?
Already for several years a running cadence of 180 steps per minute (spm) has become a rule of thumb advocated by a lot of professionals. Where does this story begin? Running coach Jack Daniels observed it already back in the 1984 Olympics (Daniels’ running formula). Daniels observed that the average running cadence in the long(er) distances was around 180 spm - substantially higher than his college students who ran at much lower cadences (~150 to 170 spm). Since then, running cadence has been a hot topic among many thought leaders in the running community, linking to performance optimization (Quinn et al. 2021) as well as injury prevention (Tom Goom).
However, do elite runners run more at a higher cadence, and is it linked to their superior running economy? And, should recreational runners strive towards the magic number of 180 spm to avoid an overload injury? In this article we’ll discuss the answers of these questions and important factors to consider before increasing a runner’s cadence to 180 spm.
What is (running) cadence?
Cadence is sometimes called step frequency or step rate and is the number of steps taken in a minute (steps/min). Cadence is inversely related to step length at a given speed. When you increase your cadence, your step length decreases and vice versa.
3 Important considerations before playing with your running cadence:
1. Speed dependency
The first, and most determining factor for cadence is running speed. When you run faster your cadence will increase. As seen in the figure below, step length will increase the most at lower to moderate speeds. The work is mostly absorbed and generated by the calf muscles and Achilles tendon. When the runner comes closer to their maximal speed, the calf muscles operate at a less optimal fiber length and lose their capability to generate force. Here, step length can’t increase anymore, therefore the runner has to switch to a high increase in running cadence with higher muscle activation in the hip musculature (Dorn et al. 2012; Weyand et al. 2000).
How much increase in cadence can you expect at different speeds? Based on previous research, you can expect at lower to moderate speeds an increase of 0.5-1.5% per km/h (Weyand et al. 2000, Dorn et al. 2012; Van Oeveren et al. 2019). When the speed increases further and overpasses the capability to generate power from the calf muscles, it will increase to a higher percentage. Elite runners tend to increase their stride length for a longer period, and therefore delay the turning point where cadence increases the most (Garcia-Pinillos et al. 2019). This means you don’t have to compare your data to Eliud Kipchoge's 180-185 cadence during his marathon at 21 km/h.
2. The runner's morphology
Being taller and having a lower fat mass are factors contributing to a lower cadence, but it turns out that they play a minor role compared to running speed (Van Oeveren et al. 2017). Nevertheless, you have to consider these factors before deciding what is high or low for the runner.
3. The runner's level or experience
High-level runners tend to have a lower cadence compared to novice runners at a certain speed (Da Rosa et al. 2019; Garcia-Pinillos et al. 2019). Additionally, it seems that most of the runners self-optimize their running cadence in terms of energy consumption with exception of novice runners (Ruiter et al. 2013; Van Oeveren et al. 2017). For every runner, there is an optimal cadence zone where the energy cost of running is at its lowest, as visualized in the figure below. It's always important to know the runner's level you're dealing with.
When striving for a higher cadence?
Striving for a higher cadence has several benefits. It can improve an over-striding pattern, described as placing the foot too much in front of your center of Mass (CoM) (Heiderscheit et al. 2011). This has a direct impact on the vertical impact peak, vertical loading rate, peak braking force and breaking impulse, all kinetic variables related to running injuries (Heiderscheit et al. 2011; Hobara et al. 2012; Lieberman et al. 2015; Adams et al. 2018); Wang et al. 2020). It has been shown that interventions with increased cadence running reduce total knee loading and improves pain scores in people with patellofemoral pain (Heiderscheit et al. 2011; Dos Santos et al. 2019). However, you have to make the trade-off between the benefits of potentially reducing the impact and the energy cost of running. Increasing a runner's cadence reduces the ground contact cost but increases the energy cost of the hip muscles (Dorn et al. 2012; Swinnen et al. 2021).
Experimental test with Runeasi technology
We experimented with 2 runners who performed an incremental treadmill test. Runner A is an inexperienced runner (185cm, 80kg), Runner B is a high-level middle-distance runner (174 cm, 60kg). We can see that runner A is running at a lower cadence and has an early turning point in cadence at 13km/h compared to runner B, which only starts at 19km/h. As mentioned, this turning point could be seen as the moment where the calf muscles can’t generate enough power anymore and the runner has to rely on the hip musculature.
However, can we tell from the cadence curves which runner benefits the most from their cadence data? No. First of all, you need to know at which pace zone you want to work, which is individual. Between 13km/h and 19km/h, runners A & B are in a different zone of their respective cadence curves. Direct information of impact (and/or vertical loading rate) are helpful to use the curve optimally. Here, we used our Runeasi technology to measure their impact.
In the impact curve, you can see how runner A shows at slower paces a relatively high impact compared to runner B (+-45% difference). Even though Runner A runs at a lower cadence, the cumulative impact per minute remains a lot higher (+-40%). We know from research that cumulative impact is a valid way to measure total external load in running (Vanwanseele et al. 2020). This means that Runner B runs +- 40% longer at the same pace before reaching the same total external load. Therefore it should be useful to test how Runner A’s impact and cumulative impact will respond to an increase in cadence at slower running speeds.
Increasing cadence does not always have the desired response
In another example, a person is running at a moderate speed of 11 km/h with a preferred cadence 164 steps/min. This value could be seen as a low value if you take 180 steps/min as the golden reference. We then did a typical manipulative increase in cadence with a metronome of 8%, which comes close to 180 steps/min. Looking at our Runeasi metrics, we get an undesired response in three important core metrics. As seen in the figure below, 1) impact increased in both legs, 2) peak rate of impact increased, and 3) mediolateral accelerations of CoM (i.e., dynamic instability) increased. Manipulating the cadence of this runner at the current speed could therefore not be recommended.
Conclusion: Test before prescribing a higher running cadence
Clearly, a magical cadence number of 180 steps/min does not exist. Factors like speed, morphology, and level of running each have their influence. Even though, striving for a higher cadence can be a solution for reducing over-striding patterns linked to several overuse injuries. Therefore, before giving cadence as a potentially useful cue, you should first test how your runner responds to it.