how to optimize your running cadence

Why is 180 steps per minute the “magic number” for cadence? Evidently, legendary coach Jack Daniels counted strides of distance runners at the 1984 Olympics.  He found that nearly all took at least 180 steps per minute during their races.  180 is the agreed upon number to minimize over striding, maintain forward momentum and reduce the impact forces on your legs.

The challenge that I and many other runners have is that cadence can be dictated by pace.  If I’m running at a slower speed, it seems that it would be appropriate that I take fewer steps per minute.  I think that your cadence for a 5k race should be slightly more than your easy run cadence.  However, it’s still appropriate to target 180 steps per minute for your races.

Although most of the advice on this site pertains to marathon training.  Optimization of cadence is important for runners at all levels. With nearly 34 years of running experience, I don’t consider myself a beginner, but this advice is for beginner, intermediate and advance runners who may be struggling with recurring injuries or simply looking for a way to improve their race times (5k to marathon).

Following is an exercise that can be used to optimize your cadence at various paces.

  1. Increase your speed by 1 minute per mile until you’re at 5k pace.  During this process, you will be going through each training pace (easy, marathon, ½ marathon, 10k, tempo, etc).  As you “hit” each pace, give yourself a minute to adjust to the speed and then count your steps for 30 seconds.  Multiply by 2 for your strides per minute, then accelerate to the next pace level. As you reach each level, you’ll notice that your cadence likely increases.
  2. Take the cadence numbers for each training pace level and then add five percent to establish your goal cadence.  For example if a tempo run is at 155, your goal cadence is now 163.

Years ago, I recall that Galloway wrote about this in Runner’s World. He provided details of variation of the above exercise that he called the “turnover drill.”  This is easiest if completed on a track.  Most high schools and many middle schools now have 400 meter tracks that are open for use by the public after school hours.

1.    Easy warm up for a half mile or 5 minutes.

2.    Start your run at normal training pace.  Once you get your momentum going, start your watch. For exactly 30 seconds, count the number of times your right foot pushes off. Then multiply that number by two. This is your current turnover rate.

3.    Jog slowly back to the start.

4.    Repeat step 2, but this time, increase the number of right-foot push-offs per minute by two to five. Follow up with another recovery jog back to the start.

5.    Complete at least two to four additional repeats.  Each time continue to increase your push-offs until you’re not running comfortably anymore.  Back off the increased cadence at that point, and do the same for remaining repeats.  However, maintain the number of push-offs that allows you to stay relaxed while still using a faster turnover.

It will take a while for you to feel comfortable with the increased cadence through these turnover drills.  Following are some tips to help maximize your benefit from the turnover drills.

Complete twice per week, more if you can.  Most people find that only one weekly session provides minimal improvement.  Anything more infrequently (once or twice a month) is essentially a waste of time.

Try to stay light on your feet.  This one really helps me, but it takes concentration.  As you count your steps, try to imagine that you’re running on thin ice or hot coals. Another analogy is to run “as if you’re on eggshells, When you touch very lightly, you will reduce the time between touchdown and push-off.

The more time you spend in the air, the longer it takes your feet to make a cycle. This is why long strides are not good.  So you don’t want to simply land on your toes and bounce too much.  If you are, you’re expending too much unnecessary energy pushing your body upward.  If you’re having trouble reducing bounce, try shuffling by aiming for a foot clearance of an inch or less from the surface. When you become used to less vertical motion, ease back to your natural foot lift.

Shorten your stride if necessary. If you’re trying, but still unsuccessful to speed up your cadence, try shortening your stride length during the first 10 to 15 seconds of each repeat. Ideally, this should relax the leg muscles and encourage a faster turnover. Once your cadence has increased, you can gradually lengthen your stride to normal.

The adaptation process for this change to faster cadence will likely feel very different. Many people report that they have made the change, but they describe the change as feeling like their shoes were tied together.  This is because their steps had become so much shorter and faster compared to how they were used to running.  Such a change feels wrong. It may take a few weeks to adjust, but when you do and the adjustment becomes habit, your running will improve dramatically.  I know of people that have increased their cadence and knocked off 20+ minutes of their marathon PR.