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 single simple solution to so many complex problems. 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 and running speeds higher, 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 rather 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 running speed would be faster than many amateur runners' 5k 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 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 many elite distance runners tend to have about the same leg length. You would rarely see a 7ft tall athlete at the Olympic marathon.  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 be used as a tool for improvement. 
A Low Cadence is 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 165 steps or under), take it as a warning sign that you might have issues with your running form. You can also film your form at your current cadence. If you are landing with a leg extended in front of you and/or bouncing up too much, this is a sign that your current cadence might be too low for you. Use this as a call for action. It is time to get your coach, trainer, kinesiologist and/or physiotherapist to look at your technique: you might be bouncing up and down too much, or reaching with your foot too far 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. It is possible to have other technique issues that are not as closely tied to cadence as over-striding and bouncing, such as a hip drop, an inward collapse of the knee, ankles rolling inward, hunched forward posture, "seated" posture, etc.

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 170 bpm, and then progressively try to increase your cadence moving up to 180 bpm, or more if you want to work on speed.  By purposely pushing yourself to move your feet quicker, you are more likely to see natural improvements in running efficiency than by just working on speed alone (where you might try to lengthen your stride in front of you and worsening your over-striding issues). 

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 and time trials shorter than a mile, 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: