Improving Running Speed – The Secret of Cadence

Within all of the swirling talk of minimalist shoes, barefoot running, and Chi, there has been a constant that seems to have flown under the radar. One common thread in all of the latest running theories is the importance of a high running cadence. It just might be that no matter what shoes you wear or how you train or what you eat, simply increasing your cadence could provide the greatest immediate benefits in both increased performance and decreased injury rate.

I was first introduced to the magic of high cadence while studying the Pose running method. Pose suggests that a cadence of 180 steps per minute is ideal because it allows you to benefit from the natural elasticity in your tendons. Think of your feet as being basketballs. When a basketball hits the ground, it stays for a specific amount of time before rebounding back up. When you run with a low cadence, you are basically holding your foot on the ground when it naturally wants to “bounce” off and rise again. In order to get your foot off the ground, you then need to push off the ground. This cadence is also recommended by Chi Running and a number of other running running cadence form

Running coach Jack Daniels first talked about the importance of cadence after studying the elite runners at the 1984 Olympics. He found that all of the elite runners had a cadence of at least 180. Gebrselassie has been identified as running as high as 240 steps at the end of a 10k! In addition to the benefits of elasticity, a quick cadence provides some other benefits.

In order to reach that turnover speed, you need to shorten your stride, thus reducing the over-striding and heel striking that exemplifies poor form. These quick, soft steps also decreases the forces on the body, reducing injury rates. Finally, quick turnover increases forward momentum. Just think about the logic of trying to run fast by putting your foot out in front of you and absorbing the energy into your legs. It simply doesn’t make sense. An article at iRunFar called Improving Running Economy goes into more detail on the physics and benefits.

So if we assume that a fast cadence is ideal, how do we get there? I have found a few good resources to help you increase cadence. The first is a short and simple article by the shoe company Altra that describes a loose protocol to increase cadence. Runner’s World also recently posted an article on improving cadence that goes into a bit more detail. But the best resource I have found, and the one that I have used with good success myself, is a series of videos and exercises at CrossfitEndurance. The videos below give a weekly progression to help you learn the 180 cadence. There is tons more information and running drills on the CFE running page.

Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4
Week 5
Week 6

A useful tool for any of these exercises is a metronome or candence app for your phone or an inexpensive digital metronome.

Certainly it can be difficult to increase your turnover, especially if you have a slow, over-striding style. However, the benefits of this one simple change can be incredible. The higher cadence will actually take less effort, improve your forward momentum, decrease injuries, and increase speed. And if you are a trail runner, you already understand the importance of taking shorter steps on technical terrain. The exercises required to make this improvement require only minimal time during each workout, are low effort, and can even be done while you watch TV. Clearly benefits like this, at low cost, are worth exploring for yourself.

Questions? Thoughts? Comments? Start the discussion below!