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Workout Wednesday: Understand your cadence

Find the rhythm that works for you

By Marylene Vestergom

Let’s separate fact from fiction:

At the 1984 Olympics, U.S. Coach Jack Daniels counted the strides of elite runners. Of the 46 athletes evaluated, only one took fewer than 180 steps per minute (SPM), and that was 176 SPM.

180 SPM should be the goal for all runners.

180 SPM is for elite middle and long-distance runners, and that’s just the point of entry.

Why should you care? As it relates to performance, meaning the cost of energy like VO2 max, Iain Hunter, Ph.D at Brigham Young University, tells runners not to worry about it. “What’s optimal for one person is not going to suit someone else. There are too many factors specific to your body, like how fast you’re going, the length of your legs
and foot strike. Instead, the cadence that uses less energy is the one people prefer. Run at your preferred cadence and play around with it.”

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In a recent study, Hunter tested to see if inexperienced runners were as capable as experienced runners in self-optimizing stride length to minimize oxygen uptake. What he found was both groups were able to optimize the number of steps to their preferred stride length to an economical stride. So there is no magic number. It’s unique to each runner.

Richard Willy, Ph.D, a physical therapist at East Carolina University, agrees. “We found the range in cadence across runners was up to 30 spm, which is really big, and so for me to say that everyone should run a certain cadence; it could be off by 20 per cent from what they normally would do.”

This isn’t to say you can’t test your preferred versus optimal cadence. Biomechanist Dr. Max Paquette at the University of Memphis suggests you run at your preferred cadence and try to increase or decrease by two to five per cent using a metronome app while tracking your heart rate. “Generally speaking, you have an optimal cadence, and above and below that, energy costs will likely increase, which is detrimental to performance. In some runners, energy costs may improve even with a small increase (as low as two per cent) in cadence, suggesting their “preferred” was not their optimal cadence.”

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Perhaps the advice from Canada’s top female marathoner, Lanni Marchant, sums it up best: “You’re going to find your own rhythm. Recognize that you can’t force a stride or a cadence on to your body, it just doesn’t work – you’ll just end up hurting yourself.”

Understanding cadence

  • A STEP is half a full cycle, so right foot to left foot.
  • A STRIDE is the full cycle, so right foot to right foot.
  • CADENCE, or step rate, is the number of steps you take for a unit of time, usually, per minute (SPM).
  • STEP LENGTH is what dictates your cadence: at a set speed, if you take shorter steps, cadence goes up and if you take longer steps, cadence goes down.

Cadence 101

1. Set your treadmill to your preferred race speed, with the incline at one to mimic outdoor conditions.
2. Count the number of times your left or right foot hits the ground in one minute.
3. Double that number and you get your cadence.
4. With your baseline, start increasing your cadence by three to five per cent without changing the speed of the treadmill and monitor your heart rate. If it goes up a lot, maybe that’s not ideal. If it goes down, it’s probably good. Give yourself some time to adapt. Repeat to determine what cadence is best for you.