This question about optimal running cadence is probably the one question we hear the most frequently here at PainFreeRunning.com and its a valid question that has had a lot of debate.
However, it’s really not the correct question we should be asking. I think a better question is what running cadence results in the most efficient and (hopefully) faster running speed?
Running Cadence For Beginners
For beginner runners, that’s an easy question to answer, because the vast majority of new runners have a lower running cadence around 80 steps per minute which leads to a longer ground contact time (GCT) and usually overstriding with a heel strike as the foot makes initial contact with the ground. The longer ground contact time in combination with the heel strike in front of the body acts to increase the overall impact on the runner’s body as well as decelerating or briefly slowing the runner down.
Running Cadence for Intermediate and Advanced Runners
However, for intermediate and more advanced runners, the question of optimal cadence becomes a little more difficult to answer if we also look at running economy or efficiency. It doesn’t make sense to increase a runner’s cadence if it costs them from an efficiency or running economy standpoint. As runners continue to train and develop, they tend to seek a “comfortable” running cadence for their specific biomechanics; which can be impacted by muscular imbalances as well as limited or restricted range of motion of the hips and/or spine.
In general, most running coaches would agree that an “optimal” running cadence for longer distance running (5 km) would be around 90 steps per minute or slightly higher.
While this increase in cadence from 80 to 90 steps per minute may not seem like much, if the runner is able to maintain the same stride length, it can represent a large change in overall speed:
If a runner has a stride length of 5 feet then:
- 80 step/min cadence — 5 ft/step x 80 steps/min x 2 = 800 feet per minute or a 6:36 min/mile pace
- 90 step/min cadence — 5 ft/step x 90 steps/min x 2 = 900 feet per minute or a 5:52 min/mile pace
That’s an extra 42 seconds faster per mile or for a marathon, just over 18 minutes faster, simply by changing your running cadence. Granted, it’s a simplification, and for more runners that are increasing their cadence, there can be a shortening of the stride length to compensate for the increase in running cadence or turnover, but can have a huge impact on your race times once you adapt to the higher running cadence.
Should You Change Your Running Cadence?
The answer to that question is “It depends.”
Really the focus for most runners, whether you are a beginner runner or more advanced runner is to focus on running economy first. For many runners, as they work on their running form, their running cadence will naturally increase somewhat.
What you don’t want to to is to focus solely on increasing your running cadence if it makes you a less efficient runner.
How to Improve Your Running Cadence
First step (pun intended) is to count your current running cadence and then work on running cadence drills to improve it. I usually recommend counting the number of times one foot hits the ground in 15 seconds and then multiply that number by 4 to get your running cadence for 60 seconds/1 minute.
If you’re focusing on running cadence drills, try slowly increasing your cadence and maintaining the faster cadence for several minutes. Focus on a “smooth” running stride and don’t let your running stride shorten too much.
Running Cadence Drills
We’ve found some of our favorite running cadence drills on YouTube and posted them below:
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