Running Cadence – the Ordinary Runner’s guide

Running Cadence - The Ordinary Runner - Running Blogger

You’ve heard of running cadence, right?

It’s one of those things you become aware of once you’ve done a bit of running. One of the many terms that runners use to pour scorn on the myth than running’s a simple past-time.

It could be you’ve come across it in social media groups. Maybe you heard people talk about it before parkrun. There’s a chance someone’s boringly told you about upping their cadence at the back end of a race, speeding them to a PB.

I’ve touched on it before, in this piece about running playlists. I didn’t give much of an explanation, though. So, I thought I’d do a proper job now.

What is running cadence, then?

Simply, it’s how many steps you take each minute. To say it determines your pace is true, but that doesn’t tell the full story.

Pace is a combination of form, cadence and stride length. None of these things is more important than the others. Although, you can only control two of them. To my knowledge, there’s no way of altering your leg length. Yet.

If, like me, you have little stumpy legs, your stride length will be shorter. To cover the same distance at the same speed as a taller person, you’ll ideally need those stumpy legs to move faster.

Legs moving faster = more steps per minute = higher cadence.

What should your running cadence be?

There are conflicting views on this. A quick Google search will tell you that 180 steps per minute (SPM) is the holy grail. But, that’s over-simplifying things a little.

In reality, we’re all different. What works for me won’t work for someone else – see my point about stumpy legs, above.

I mean, you could attempt to match Eliud Kipchoge’s average of around 180 SPM. But, unless you can also match his stride length and flawless, natural form, you’re not going to match his pace.

Besides, let’s be honest, even if you could match all those things, you’re not Eliud Kipchoge and you won’t keep step for long.

Then, why does running cadence matter?

Let’s take a couple of steps back – leg length should relate to stride length. But what if it doesn’t?

Imagine, if you will, two people running side by side. On the left is me – all five feet five inches of me. On the right is a more normal sized man – say, six foot.

If I’m to keep pace, my legs either need to stretch further or move faster. Both are possible, of course.

Stretching further

By stretching further, I’m increasing stride length. This means when my foot lands, it’ll be further in front of me and I risk over-striding.

There are two major issues with over-striding, one affecting efficiency, the other affecting my tired old body.

By landing with my foot too far ahead, energy is returned through my leg. This is like putting the brakes on, which will, obviously, make me less efficient.

Worst still, the forces travelling back up my leg place a lot of strain on my bones, joints and muscles. And that’s going to cause injuries.

The below video (taken from this article) is a good explanation of over-striding.

Move your legs faster

The alternative is to take quicker, shorter steps. I’ll demonstrate, with a simple chart.

Based on running five minutes per KM / eight minutes per mile (stride length data taken from here):

HeightAve. Stride Length
Me165cm / 5′ 5″112cm / 44″
Taller Person181 cm / 6′125cm / 49″

For me, 1km would take almost 900 steps, whereas the taller person would need only 800.

At that rate, my cadence should be around 180 SPM, while the taller runner can take a more leisurely 160.

Of course, that’s assuming we both have good form.

Sorry, what’s this form thing you keep mentioning?

Yes, there’s a rather large elephant in the room, and I’m trying hard to ignore it.

Form is a significant ingredient in this cake. It’s probably the flour, while cadence and stride length are the eggs and butter (or, I don’t know, a better analogy).

It’s a blog post all of its own. One that I’ll tackle another time. Consider this a placeholder.

For now, I’ll leave you with this video about Eliud Kipchoge. Because, if you’ve going to study anyone’s form, it should be his.

How do you work out your own running cadence?

There are two ways that most of us can calculate our cadence.

1. Count your steps

First up, simply count how many steps you take in a minute of consistent running.

I say “simply”, but I’m aware of the challenges.

– Sure, you can count your steps while you run. No problem.

– Yes, it’s possible to monitor a minute – if you have any sort of smart / running watch, you could probably even set a timer.

– And, of course, a consistent minute of running is quite straightforward. For most.

But, combining all three, particularly with a focus on consistency, could be tricky.

You could ask a friend to help. Or, if you don’t have a friend, there always option two.

2. Use technology

If you use one, your GPS watch will save a lot of guess work when calculating cadence.

Average cadence – 161 SPM. Average stride length – 1.2 metres. Average pace – 5:11 / KM.
Average cadence – 165 SPM. Average stride length – 1.5 metres. Average pace – 4:02 / KM.

The quality of your watch will dictate accuracy. For us Ordinary Runners, even the most basic watch is okay. So long as it measures cadence.

I have a Garmin 235 – I assume it’s fairly accurate. Based on that assumption, it’s obvious that I’m over striding, especially when I up my pace.

Using the same data from above, my parkrun PB should have been achieved with a stride length of around 135 cm. At this rate, I’d be taking about 740 steps per KM, which is around 185 SPM.

The reality is laid bare for all to see above. It’s little wonder I’m such a heavy runner. I have much work to do.

While I don’t expect overnight results, I see how shortening my stride and upping my SPM could improve my pace.

Everything clear?

Remember, while cadence relates to pace, it’s only one consideration. Stride length counts, as does your overall form.

The taller you are, the less cadence affects pace, as you’ll naturally cover more distance with each stride.

Also, if you have the technology, you don’t have to worry about counting steps while you run. And that’s probably a good thing.

Stumpy legs

I’m off to learn how my stumpy legs can move more quickly – ideally by understanding how to improve my form.

I thought, after 10 years of pounding the streets, I’d nailed this running lark. The more I write my blog, the more I realise how wrong I was.

The good news is, new PBs could be more achievable than I believed. Unless, of course, the damage is already done.

Enjoy your running and, as ever, feel free to comment below.

Photo by Dorothea OLDANI on Unsplash