Distance Running Efficiency Basics Part 1: Cadence
Feb201412

Running technique has received a great deal of attention over the past few years and I think this is one of the most positive things to come out of the ‘minimalist movement’. Both anecdotal evidence and scientific studies have stimulated a great deal of debate about what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ running form but progress towards clear conclusions is often hindered by personal agendas and dogma. This discussion can definitely have benefits for the rest of us ‘normal’ runners but it can be quite difficult to sift the good advice from the bad.

runningThis is a subject I’m really interested in and have read a lot about so I thought I’d put a couple of posts together to summarise a few points that most ‘experts’ seem to agree upon. I’ve been continually trying to improve my own running efficiency for the last couple of years but I still have a lot of things that I want to iron out. It can be quite a long process and you really have to work at it.

There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all approach but the points raised in these posts are generally applicable to most recreational or competitive amateur distance runners. However, sprinting or exceptionally fast distance running requires further layers of technique which I won’t go into here for simplicity.

I’m going to focus on Cadence in this first post as I believe it is the single most useful factor that many runners should explore in their quest for efficiency and injury-prevention as it can lead to self-correction of other problems.

Running Efficiency and Elastic Energy

Efficient running is all about propelling yourself forward whilst expending as little energy as possible. Our muscles and tendons help us do this by storing elastic energy as our feet hit the ground and then releasing it again as we propel ourselves forward, a bit like stretching and releasing a rubber band. Efficient technique allows us to minimise the amount of additional energy that we need to add to the elastic energy to keep us moving at a given pace.

What Is Running Cadence?

Running cadence is a measure of the number of times your feet strike the ground in a minute and correct cadence helps you increase the amount of elastic energy that your body is able to utilise whilst running. This idea can be compared to the concept of natural frequency in physics

skipping

A simple way to understand this is by jumping on the spot with both feet like you are skipping. First of all, jump ten times at a frequency of about once per second. Then try again, but jump at a rate of about three jumps per second………. notice how much easier it is? That’s because elastic energy is lost when you jump slowly but recycled when you jump faster. If you spend a bit of time altering the rate, you will find that you hit an ideal level where energy expenditure is minimised. 

The target that most people quote for optimal running cadence is 180bpm where each of your feet will strike the ground 90 times in a minute. However we are all different and the ‘ideal’ number will vary a bit from person-to-person by about +/- 10bpm (or between 170 and 190 bpm).

metronome

How To Improve Cadence

First things first, you need to get yourself a metronome. These are available as free smart phone apps but if you don’t have one, you can buy compact electronic metronomes for less than £10 from places like Amazon.

Metronomes are simple devices used by musicians to keep time. They work by letting off a beeping sounds at a fixed rate. All you need to do is set off running with your metronome set at your desired rate and time your foot strikes to coincide with the beeps….this can be more difficult than it sounds to start off with.

To begin with, I would recommend that you should set the metronome at 180bpm and run with it regularly for several weeks to see how it feels and monitor how your body adapts. People often tend to find that 180 feels quite fast to start off with but persevere and you will get used to it.

After spending a few weeks running at 180bpm, you can play around with the number and find out what feels right for you within the +/- 10bpm range. You will probably also notice that your cadence naturally goes up if you increase your pace. It’ isn’t necessary to run with a metronome all the time in the long-term but it’s a really good idea to go back to it periodically to keep yourself in check.

Other Benefits Of Correct Cadence

Running at optimal cadence can help reduce over-striding and impact forces. I will discuss these concepts more thoroughly in my next post.

Some Sources & Where To Find Out More

Anatomy for Runners by Jay Dicharry is an exceptional book on running technique and efficiency. It includes a number of self testing methods and exercises to help you improve. It is available here from Amazon (affiliate)

There is a wealth of high-quality information at the Natural Running Centre Website, including this fantastic video which has received almost half a million views on YouTube.

Get Involved!

Got a question or a comment on running cadence? Leave your thoughts below!

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