Step rate, or cadence, has received a lot of attention lately. Conventional wisdom maintains that most runners need to speed up their turnover. The magic number thrown around is 180 steps per minute, a rhythm that will reduce impact and promote efficiency.
But should everyone try to run at 180 or more steps per minute? “That’s something that I argue against vehemently,” says Bryan Heiderscheit, Director of the Runner’s Clinic through the University of Wisconsin Sports Medicine Center and a leading researcher on running cadence. “The idea that there is single optimum for all flies in the face of the science.” One hundred eighty steps per minute as the optimum rate stems from observations of elite runners competing in the Olympics. Heiderscheit says their mechanics are much different than recreational runners.
The truth is, step rate is different for every body and pace. “Obviously step rate changes with speed; it is highly, highly associated with speed,” says Heiderscheit. “Leg length, mass distribution, overall body height—all can influence step rate.” Our bodies naturally select a cadence that is most economical for our unique mechanics. Stride rate can vary naturally by 2% to 3% even for the same person on the same run.
Given this variability, should we think about cadence at all? For the most part, no. “If I’m perfectly healthy, I’m fine, but if somebody told me about step rate and to think about it—absolutely not,” says Heiderscheit.
When Should You Change Your Running Cadence?
Note that “if” in the last sentence. Heiderscheit says there are two reasons to think about increasing your step rate.
- If you’re having pain, particularly knee pain. A quicker cadence has been shown to reduce impact forces. “Most ground reaction forces are lower, and it reduces loads at knee and hip joints,” says Heiderscheit.
- If your cadence is very low. “If you’re down around 130s, 140s, even at a 10-minute-per-mile pace, that’s probably pretty low.” You may be overstriding—reaching out too far in front of you with each stride—or you may simply be a new runner whose body is unfamiliar with all the running mechanics. Heiderscheit finds that slightly increasing stride rate can often make running easier and more comfortable for these athletes.
How Should You Change Your Running Cadence?
If you want to play with your stride rate, first, do it gradually. “You want to keep that change no more than 5% to 10% at a time,” says Heiderscheit. Too big a change will alter your mechanics so much it can strain or aggravate muscles, particularly your hip flexors and hamstrings.
You’ll also find running to be much more difficult if you increase your rate too quickly. “You’ll notice a dramatic increase in your oxygen cost,” Heiderscheit says. “Even if only for a short term, it’s going to make running pretty miserable for you.” A gradual increase will give your body time to adapt both muscles and the neurological pathways to make new patterns efficient.
To get the benefits from a faster stride, you should also focus on how you’re taking those quicker steps. “There are people who can increase their step rate and get this really wonky form,” says Heiderscheit. “If you’re going to increase your step rate, also try to land with your foot closer under your hips. You don’t want to keep reaching in front of yourself.”
You don’t have to stress over the numbers. Just focus on stepping more quickly while watching your Fitbit to make sure you’re maintaining the same pace, not speeding up. Recognize that it is going to feel weird at first, but try it a few times while paying attention to see if the new stride pattern is smoother and more comfortable.
“If you do it reasonably and don’t make a big change, you’re not going to hurt yourself trying it one or two times and see how it feels,” says Heiderscheit. “If it feels better, you’re probably on the right track. If it doesn’t feel better, it’s probably not the solution for you.”