Fitness Coach

Runners at the start of Cursa de la Merce in Barcelona, Spain.     Photo: Maxisport/Shutterstock

Q:

What Is the Optimal Running Cadence?

How many steps per minute should I be taking when I run?

A:To this day, running coaches and athletes alike often preach 180—a number derived decades ago from watching elite runners compete—as the ideal cadence. “The reality is that it’s completely unknown right now,” says Dr. Bryan Heiderscheit, co-director of the Neuromuscular Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Runners’ Clinic through the University of Wisconsin Sports Medicine Center. “There’s really no evidence—physiological, anecdotal, biomechanical, performance—that would suggest 180 is the best.”

So what is right for you? “If you show good running mechanics,” Heiderscheit says, “you’re landing with your foot more underneath your hips, you have a relatively ‘soft knee’ at landing in which it’s bent at about 20 degrees—if you have those elements, and you come in with a step rate, say, of 172, that’s fine.”

More generally, you should look at step rate as a way to influence your running mechanics. “If you’re in pain, it makes sense to modify your gait,” Heiderscheit says. His studies have shown that increasing cadence by five to 10 percent can greatly reduce loading forces on the body, possibly eliminating or minimizing common running-associated pain, including pain in the knees, Achilles, plantar fascia, lateral hips, and lower back.

Another benefit of quickening your cadence: reduced metabolic cost. “The more your center of mass moves up and down,” Heiderscheit says, the more energy it’ll take you to run. “An easy way to reduce that metabolic cost may be through step rate changes.”

And don’t use your height as an excuse for your cadence, whatever it may be. Your height is not very predictive of your step rate or stride length. “You could take someone who is 6’4” and 170 pounds, and someone who’s 5’4” and 130 pounds, and they might run at the exact same step rate, and it will be metabolically efficient for them,” Heiderscheit says.

Currently, researchers are looking into neuromuscular makeup as the primary factor in determining an individual’s cadence. Hamstring strength, Heiderscheit says, may also be a limiting factor in higher turnover—the stronger your hamstrings are, the easier it may be to quicken your cadence.

THE BOTTOM LINE: There is no ideal cadence. Genetics and hamstring strength may play a role in how quick your turnover is. However, if you’re frequently injured or feel inefficient, gradually increasing your step rate by five to 10 percent may help you run more economically while lowering your risk of injury.    

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