Take a look at the runners lining up on the starting line of a race or in the throes of a marathon, and chances are, you won’t be surprised to see most of them wearing a watch. And not just any watch of course, but a speed-tracking, pace-alerting, distance-beeping GPS watch. As much as we may depend on them though, the accuracy and reliability of some of their metrics is questioned by researchers.

But not all the stats provided by these wearables are out the window. Researchers can agree that cadence and vertical oscillation (VO) are both valid measurements of running performance, and more than that, can be useful when it comes to becoming a better runner and preventing injury.

Understanding Cadence & VO

Before delving into the usefulness of these metrics and how they can be applied to running performance, it is important to understand what they are. Cadence is the number of times your foot hits the ground in a given period of time. Typically, this is measured in 60-second intervals and denoted as steps per minute.

While cadence is often tossed around by runners and you may be familiar with the term, vertical oscillation is less common. This is the term used to define the amount of “bounce” you have when you are running. It is the up and down movement of your torso during each part of your stride, and is measured in centimeters, with baseline being your torso position from standing.

Defined as a spatiotemporal running parameter, when paired with a heart rate monitor or alternative running devices, your watch actually measures this metric and can give you information accordingly. And it is that information that researchers were interested in looking at.

Putting it Together

The relationship between cadence and running, vertical oscillation and running, and the interrelationship of these three variables together is what is of most prominent interest to researchers and runners. These metrics have been shown to be a reliable way to better understand running load. Understanding what these metrics say about a runners’ load, can in turn be indicative of injury risk and from there, help practitioners learn how to alter an individual’s running to reduce risk and increase performance.

A recent study implicated the role of increased cadence as well as lower VO as having an impact in reducing running-related injury factors. In particular, the study showed how cueing to reduce vertical oscillation and increase cadence is successful in reducing load.

In the two statistically significant conditions during the study, while participants were running, they were told to “increase the number of times your foot hits the ground,” or “keep your body as low to the ground as possible to reduce bouncing when running.” When participants were cued with these, their respective resulting changes meant a decrease in both average and instantaneous loading rates.

And decreased load means decreased injuries. High levels of load, measured as ground reaction force, have been associated with everything from increased Achilles tendinopathy to knee pain to stress fractures. Decreasing this load, therefore, theoretically is a way to help reduce these, and several other common injuries that runners experience.

Applications

What does this exactly mean for me and my performance, and how can I use it to stop getting injured?

While this data involved runners getting cues from someone else, the application can be extrapolated to running solo, whereby runners can help themselves out and be their own cue master. Runners who are prone to injury or simply want to be proactive in reducing their injury risk, can remind themselves during running to reduce their bounce, or increase their cadence. Or if nothing else simply become more aware of these parameters: form (affecting bounce), and leg turnover (affecting cadence), are two things that regularly decline as a runner experiences increased fatigue.

Furthermore, this information is also beneficial when it comes to finding treatment methods for these common injuries. Gait retraining for example, where runners are assisted in altering their cadence, has been shown to be a valuable means of reducing injury, and as this study further supports, can be done so through simple verbal cues.

While runners will never be injury free or be able to remove all risk of injury, if something as simple as talking to yourself during a run could play a role in decreasing your chances of being side-lined, I think most of us would happily add this to our steady stream of running self-talk.