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Barefoot Running: Keeping in step – the importance of cadence and stride length

This weekend I had an revelation. Cadence and stride length shouldn't be constant but should alter due to your terrain. Why did it take me so long to figure this out?

This weekend I tried an experiment.

For the last few weeks, a post by Jason Robillard from the Barefoot Running University has been circling in my head.  The point of the article was to highlight that stride length was more important than cadence for running efficiency.  We all know the consequences of low cadence, but he was also citing that ‘high cadence’ was detrimental to running efficiency.

I have always preferred trail running and as a result I have a naturally higher cadence than runners who primarily run roads. You have to have a higher cadence so that you can navigate the terrain and hazards.  Most minimalist trail runners I know will probably have a cadence above 200 steps per minute – a lot higher than the usual standard of a 180 steps.  I am firmly in the 200 steps-per-minute bracket.

Over the last few weeks I have been forgoing the technical trail for road and easy trail, and I was noticing that the higher cadence was more of a hindrance than an advantage.  My heart-rate seemed to be higher without any benefit for speed.  I began questioning if higher cadence was really an advantage when you were already past 180 steps-per-minute.

As I ran this weekend I decided to play with my cadence, stride length and form.  Admittedly, this is probably something you can only do when you are aware the signals your body is telling you: Am I over-striding? Is my heart-rate excessive? Are there any hot-spots indicating failure in form?  You need to be aware of your responses to all these factors before you start ‘tinkering’ with the way you run.

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I went on an easy run and decided to play.  I didn’t go with any expectations, but I just wanted to see if slowing my cadence down and utilizing more of my elastic energy via a longer stride would change my running pace.

It did. Dramatically.

I never claim to be a fast runner.  In fact I pride myself on my mid-pack placing.  I do not go out with an inbuilt knowledge that I can place in my age group or win awards – I took up running too late in life to fully achieve that.  However, I was suitably impressed with my running performance.

A 5K run on easy trail whilst wearing my Vibram Five Finger Seeyas was all it took to immediately see the advantages.  With a longer stride length – although, as mentioned, still conforming to the basics of good form, a lower cadence and concentrating more on the ‘elastic energy’ from my lower leg tendons and muscles as recommended by Curb Ivanic, I had a shock as I glanced at my Garmin.

No longer was I running along at an average pace of 9:30-10:00 minute miles; my usual pace in pretty much every road distance you can think of, from 5K to 21K –I am a ‘one pace pony’- but I was doing an average pace in the 9:00-9:10 minute mile range.  I was on trail – admittedly not the usual rugged trail of the Pacific Northwest, more of a meandering, voluptuous, vaguely rocky affair –but still my trail pace is usually slower than my road pace.

When I did hit the pavement, my pace was even faster – reaching 6:30-7:00 minute per mile.  I could feel the extra energy through my lower legs as I reduced the cadence and increased my stride length.  Instead of lightly tripping over the ground, as I was used to doing, I could feel my lower legs naturally propelling me forward.

I ran into a personal revelation – sorry for the pun.

Stride length and cadence shouldn’t be a constant. I am sorry if the only person who is blinded by this discovery is me; it’s a good point to raise for new runners as well as reiterate for experienced ones.  On trail, a shorter stride length and higher cadence is needed to maintain a good speed on the trails – it is necessary to manage the varying terrain and the inherent obstacles that you will naturally experience on single-rack trails. However, you should consciously reduce the cadence and increase the stride length on road to gain the benefit of elastic energy you can gain on a stable and even terrain.  Only by amending the cadence and stride can runners fully benefit from their hard work due to their training on the trail.

There is a bell-curve relationship between stride length/cadence and running efficiency.  The relationship is not, however, a standard constant, but something that alters dependent on the terrain.  You should amend your running form and be physically aware of the changes to gain the most out of your running efficiency.

I think I have made a mental step in the right running direction.