Cadence Training - Why 180 is Not the Magic Number

When I just started running, cadence training was all the rage in running magazines and on the Internet.  Everywhere you could find videos of cadence drills, music playlists set at 180 bpm and even ads for workshops focused on cadence in your local running store. Running at a cadence of 180 steps per minute was promoted as the miracle solution to pretty much every challenges a runner can face: it will reduce your risk of injuries, stop heel striking, eliminate back pain, make you run faster, etc.

However, we all know that nothing in sports comes easy and that there can be no simple unique solution to so many complex problems.  Yes, working on cadence can help, but it needs to be combined with other changes to your running.  So what can working on running cadence really do and how can we work for it to help us?

1. The Origins of the 180 Steps per Minute Running Craze


 Pretty much in every article you will see about running cadence the "magic number" 180 will appear.  But where does this number come from? 

It all started with coach and doctor in exercise physiology Jack Tupper Daniels published his observation of the stride rates and stride lengths of elite male and female runners at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics for all race distances between 800m and the marathon. He found that while the competitors' stride length was getting longer when the distances raced were getting shorter, the stride rates did not vary much between racing events and was always over 180 steps per minute. 

2.  180 is Not a Magical Number

Following the publication of these observations, many articles started claiming that it meant that, to run efficiently, all runners should aim to run at 180 strides per minute.  Two things they seem to have forgotten though, was that Dr. Daniels did not say that the elite runners he observed were running at 180 steps per minute, but over that cadence. In fact, their strike rates fell between 185 and 200 steps per minute.  The other thing they seem to have forgotten is that these runners were all elite runners and that, therefore, even their marathon speed would be faster than many amateur runners' 10k speed. 

We need to remember that speed = stride frequency x stride length.  Meaning that, to get faster, you can move your feet at a faster cadence while keeping your stride length the same, increase your stride length without slowing down your strike rate, or increase both.  With his study, Dr. Daniels demonstrated that elite athletes seem to decrease their speed for longer distance races by shortening their strides while keeping a high cadence. But do these elite athletes still run at over 180 steps per minute when warming up or cooling down? Doing a recovery jog at a much slower pace?  What about during their final 200m sprint at the end of a race? His observations do not say, but I will take a wild guess and say that it is unlikely.

I would also like to point out that, when you have very long legs, it is tough to shorten your stride length enough to be able to run at, let's say, a 1-hour 10k pace while keeping your cadence at 180 steps per minute (3 steps per second!). 

3. Three Ways The Number 180 Can Still Help You

180 steps per minute is not some ideal cadence that everybody should aim for. Every body is different. However, it can definitely be used as a tool for improvement. 
A Warning Sign
If, for example, when trying to run as fast as you can for a mile test or 5k race, you still end up running a lot less than 180 steps per minute (say, something under 165 steps), take it as a warning sign that you might have issues with your running form. Use this as a call for action. It is time to get your coach, trainer, kinesiologist or physiotherapist to look at your technique: you might be bouncing up and down too much, or reaching with your foot ahead of your centre of gravity with each step (=overstriding). 

On the other hand, do not assume that because your cadence is over 180 steps per minute that it means your technique does not need improvement.  It is a good sign, but not a proof in itself. I personally used to be able to sprint at over 240 steps per minute while still overstriding because I was pointing my feet down and leaning forward at the waist... I also remember doing cadence work with athletes who shortened their stride by pushing her hips back and keeping their knees bent allowing them to run at the set cadence, but not to move forward efficiently. So do not rely on a low cadence as your only warning sign for bad technique.

A Tool for Drills
When you have mastered some running technique drills at a slow and controlled pace, start doing them to music or a metronome set at 180 bpm or more to teach your muscles to do the movements at a cadence closer to your goal racing cadence. I find it especially useful for drills focused on proper running arm action and knee drive.

Running Metronome

A Tool for Technique and Speed Workouts
When doing strides and running workouts focused on technique and speed, bring some music or a metronome that first start around 175 bpm, and then progressively try to increase your cadence moving up to 200 bpm, or more if you want to work on speed.   When doing the workouts, focus on your posture: stand tall, keep your core engaged and your hips tucked under your shoulders: do not let your butt stick out behind you and do not lean back. 

Music at a beat of over 180-200 bpm can also help you stick to your goal cadence and speed towards the end of your tempo runs, or even track workouts, when you are more likely to slow down because of fatigue.  For all-out sprints, though, I find music or metronomes more confusing than anything.

Here is an example of how I have used a metronome at the end of a workout of drills and running technique to help a Ready 2 Run Crew Member work on her form:

Want to add some cadence work to your running workouts?  Check out this Spotify Playlist I have created for this purpose: