Bad Case of the Runs?
Updated: Jun 5, 2020
No, not those runs. I mean the discouraging injury plagued “I just hate running” type of runs. Perhaps you feel the running form is a bit wonky? Insert thoughts of running like Phoebe here 😳.
For your sake, I hope not! In all seriousness, have you ever thought about using metrics as a way to improve your enjoyment of running? Or have you never really paid attention to those kinds of things? Well, people have been paying attention and studying data about running for years. One notable event dating back to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was a perfect example of exactly how much people were studying the mechanics of running. Running coach, and exercise physiologist Dr. Jack Daniels began taking note of elite athletes' step counts used in long distance events. He concluded that the fastest athletes used an average of 180 steps or more per minute. Since then…there has been ongoing research and debate on the topic.
Let’s start off with some basics. What exactly is running cadence? Simply put, cadence is the total number of steps per minute (SPM) a runner uses when running. This number can range anywhere from 140-200 SPM while on average it is 150-160 SPM for most novice runners. Cadence has many other identities, and can often be referred to as “stride frequency” or “step rate”. It is helpful to think about it more broadly in the equation below:
Speed = Stride Length x Stride Frequency
With this relationship in mind, one could agree that running speed can be changed by fluctuating either: stride length, stride frequency, or both. The majority of runners would likely benefit more by focusing on the frequency component. Let’s explain why…
Running is a repetitive movement. Constant pounding of pavements and trails can really take a toll on the body. Surprisingly, the body has the ability to absorb forces up to nearly three to four times its own bodyweight when running. Holy smokes! Think about that for a second. In addition to this, it’s believed that nearly 80% of recreational runners undergo an injury at some point in their careers that require changes in their training routine. We all know these dreaded injuries. You may have even been diagnosed by your doctor with one of them (ie patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee), IT band syndrome, stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, achilles tendinitis, etc.). Knee pain is considered the most common running related injury recreational runners experience. As a practitioner, I often see first hand how debilitating these injuries can be to folks. Why might you ask? Well, there are many risk factors that can lead to pain and tissue injury while running. Reasons can be poor mechanics, hip and ankle instability, obesity, prior injury, training experience, training volume, ethnicity, age, bone density, and more.
That being said, you can only control what YOU can control. One way to help with injuries? Boost that cadence. Remember, a low cadence is typically thought to be anything between 140-160 SPM. With that being said, if your SPM is between 140-160 SPM, that means you’re taking quite the leisurelyyy stroll out there. Maybe too much fun over the weekend? 🤷🏼♂️ Too low of a SPM can lead to what literature refers to as repetitive “sub-maximal loading”. In layman’s terms this means that we often put too much force into our bodies due to poor, and or slow running styles. By increasing ones cadence, it significantly reduces the load placed on the hips and knees. It does so by inducing a shorter stride, which is creates a greater bend in the knee, and downward pointed ankle at initial contact.
Running with a higher cadence can also improve mechanics. Taking shorter, quicker steps helps reduce the vertical movement of the body, and brings the feet closer to the body’s center of mass, leading to more ergonomic friendly running. Why does that matter? By not keeping the feet under the center of your body has been associated with elevated ground reaction forces. An example can be seen below: The lead runner is landing with the front of his foot first, while the trailing runner is excessively over-striding with the heel. A lot of people are doing it! A study of marathoners in the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon in 2011 found that nearly 90% of participants used heel striking as their first point of contact.
With more steps, the calf and foot muscles will be asked to distribute more of the forces instead of your shin and hip bones (not to mention those kind of important passive tissues like meniscus and cartilage), creating more long term stability.
Everyone’s cadence is going to vary, and for many reasons. They can be due to: height (leg length), pelvic stability, foot strength, running posture, foot strike, shoe wear and several others. A study by Tenforde concluded that leg length be taken into consideration by an athlete as it was correlated to their SPM. This means that for a person with longer legs, it is normal for them to have a lower cadence in comparison to their shorter legged counterpart of similar age, ethnicity, sex, and fitness level.
Ok, so you may be thinking to yourself, “great, that is interesting and all but how should I implement this?”. If you are like any one of the millennials or an experienced runner, then you most likely own a GPS tracking watch such as an AppleWatch, or Garmin. These devices do all of the work for you between measuring heart rate, heart rate variability, total steps per day, pace, cadence, etc. Within the software is an accelerometer, which measures one’s arm swing. Considering the opposite arm and leg move together when running and walking, we can assume that the number of arm swings will be equal to the number of steps of the opposite foot, giving us cadence.
Let’s assume you have an Apple Watch for this example. You can use Apple’s own “Workout” app, or you can use a third party app like Under Armour’s Map My Run downloaded to the watch. Following the steps below, cadence can be added to your Apple Workout summary post-run.
In action, you will see below after recording an outdoor run on the workout app, the average cadence in SPM will appear telling how you did. I personally am a whopping 6’2” and a fully loaded 195 lbs (you can laugh) float around a 160-162 SPM on average. This is roughly a 7:10-7:25 mile for me depending on the day. Personally, I prefer to utilize the Map My Run app, due to the fact that it will provide a voice over notification (while listening to music) as opposed to Apple which only provides a vibration. This is definitely safer and more useful in my opinion!
Back to cadence now…practically speaking, a general rule of thumb is to attempt a 5% increase in your cadence and do so gradually over a 3 month period. For example: let’s say you run 3 times per week for 1-2 miles and your cadence is 154. A suggested amount would be running 1-2 days per week with a cadence at 162 (5% of 154 is 7.7 steps) and see how it feels. For an experienced runner, this could be useful during both shorter tempo runs and longer mileage days.
Just by knowing your cadence during each run is a great start. Once this data is gathered, a baseline is established. Now we can progress with either one of two simple options:
Option 1: Download a metronome app (ie Run Cadence app). A basic but simple way to match your steps to sound.
Option 2: Search on Spotify for a cadence playlist (ie type in 164 SPM), and a list of songs appear that will be the appropriate beat to match your goal.
To help make the transition easier, it is important to focus on a slight forward lean of your body to help keep running momentum in your favor. A simple way to practice: try leaning forward slightly at the ankle and avoid bending at the waist (example below). By doing so, this should create the sensation that you’ll quickly take a step forward. Working on posture and an increase in cadence together likely combines the benefits.
Most would state striving for 180 SPM and higher is a good, long term goal. As mentioned earlier, many factors dictate your cadence so each person will likely have a number that works best for them individually. My goal is to consistently run 1-3 mile outings near a 168-170 SPM by the end of 2020. Don’t fret if the number is off some days while training, nutrition, sleep and stress all play roles.
If you are not experiencing pain, nor are you training for a race, you may not necessarily need to change cadence. However, if you would like to increase your fitness and performance or just, looking for a new challenge, or are tired of dealing with running pain, you should seek guidance. I am not recommending that you go out and drastically change your cadence in this article. Running is a complex movement that requires great coordination, strength and endurance in order to be efficient. It takes time! An abrupt or drastic change to your cadence can create a short term injury. It is advised to see a sports medicine specialist for further evaluation if you have further concerns.
I work as a Chiropractor with a focus on rehab and movement quality. I thoroughly enjoy helping runners and working with them to return to running, pain-free! Comments or questions are welcome. Please find me us social media!
In the mean time, get steppin’!
Dr. Jordan Meyer, DC, CSCS
YouTube: Columbus Chiropractic & Rehab Center
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