Sunday, November 19, 2023

Is There An Ideal Running Cadence Rate?

Picture from Tracksmith
180 steps per minute seems to be the accepted magic number for cadence (or the number of steps) in long distance running. If you read the old Runners World magazine, you will know that legendary running coach Jack Daniels got that magic number by counting the number of steps the elite runners took at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

This is also part of the 'ideal running form' criteria. It is also a relatively simple quantity to measure and change since it's much easier to tell a runner to increase their cadence than altering than heel strike.When you take smaller, quicker steps, it optimizes your efficiency and minimizes your injury risk by reducing impact on your knees and hips with each step. 

What if you can turn over your legs even faster? Watch the elite female Japanese marathoners when they race, they get close to 200 steps per minute. Does more mean better? What does current research say?

Burns and colleagues (2019) found that running cadence varies greatly. It actually depends on your running speed. Your cadence will differ when doing a track interval session versus an easy recovery run.

They studied 20 males and females who placed in the top 25 male and female finishers at the 2016 Ultra Running100 km world championships. The race was held in Spain and consisted of 10 laps of 10 km each lap along an almost completely flat course. This is ideal to determine if there were any specific characteristics that had an effect on cadence. Data was collected from the smart watches of the runners.

A survey was done after the race via email asking about their age, weight, height, training, racing experience and their racing speed.

Only speed and height of the runners have an effect on each individual runners' cadences. The study showed that when the runners run faster, their step frequency increased. Taller runners also had lower step counts compared to shorter runners. This study found that every extra inch in height was associated with a decrease of just over 3 steps per minute in cadence. A 6 foot tall runner in the race took about 18 steps per minute less than another runner who is 5 foot 6 inches.

Makes sense that longer legs will take fewer steps each minute to cover the same distance. 

The lead author, Burns, finished 5th in the race and included himself in the study. The runners' cadences differed greatly, ranging from 155 to 203 steps per minute. The highest and lowest averages actually finished within a couple of minutes of each other. 

Guess what number came up when Burns took an average of all the runners' cadences? 182 steps a minute. Now, that is really close to the optimal 180.

The study also showed that fatigue had no effect on cadence, possibly due to the very flat course. Even when the ultra runners were in the later stages of the race, they held the same pace from the start. In fact they had even faster step counts near the finish when they ran faster despite being tired.

According to the article, there are only 2 ways to increase your cadence, become shorter (like the elite female Japanese marathoners) or go faster. Bear in mind that everyone has a different optimal cadence. Having a higher cadence (than 180) does not necessarily make you a better runner. 

Burns finds that when he is fitter, his cadence is lower at a certain pace since his steps are longer. When his cadence is faster than normal at the same pace, he uses that as a sign that he needs hill work or speed work to get stronger. 

That is a much better way to use cadence to improve your running rather than aiming for a specific number. Especially when everyone's mechanics are different. It is also a good and simple aspirational goal for runners since many runners overstride and land on their heels, putting excessive forces on their knees. 


Burns, GT, Zendler JM and Zernicke RF (019). Step Frequency Patterns Of Elite Ultramarathon Runners During A 100-km Road Race. J Appl Physiol. 126(2): 462-468. DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00374.2018

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