What Is The Best Running Cadence?

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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?

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 over striding 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.

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

Thats an extra 42 seconds faster per mile or for a marathon, just over 18 minutes faster, simply by changing 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 turn over, but can have a huge impact on your race times once you adapt to the higher running cadence.