running cadence training

If you’re like me, you might geek out on reading about ways to achieve optimal performance. Actually putting these strategies into practice is a whole different story. How can I even try them all? I’d get anxious trying to track and improve on them all whilst also maintaining my level of performance.

So I picked just a few metrics to focus on. One of them is cadence. Cadence has become one of the primary things to track and improve on among elite and amateur runners. There’s many ways you can increase running cadence but I’ve found 8 that are particularly effective for me.

But first let me tell you why leg turnover (or cadence) matters so much.


Why should you increase running cadence?

It’s clear that increasing your leg turnover would decrease ground contact time, thus resulting in faster movement. The changes followed by proper cadence training are dramatic – even after a 10 minute drill my client’s running improved significantly. Best bit – their form improved too!

You see, cadence of less than 160 steps a minute has been proven to increase risk of injury by 5-10%[1]. To give you a reference less than 160 spm is considered an average cadence observed in majority of runners. Majority of runners (over 60%) suffer from bi-yearly injuries too.

On the other hand, 180 spm is thought to reduce the risk of injury by 20%. This is anecdotal evidence, but this cadence is still favoured by many coaches and athletes. If true, these numbers could make a difference for any OCR or endurance athlete as well.


What makes optimal cadence?

180 steps per minute. In fact, anything higher than 160 spm is considered to be safer than anything under 160spm. Depending on the type of run and terrain, the steps per minute will vary greatly, however it should never go below that rate. For example, running uphill will reduce your stride rate, meanwhile downhill and flat runs would naturally force your body (if in correct form) to increase cadence.


How to increase your running cadence

  • Add weekly runs focused solely on achieving optimal cadence
    Every running plan will have shorter recovery runs, the so-called ‘leg flushes’. Why not use them to work on your cadence too? Just 10-15minutes a week can be all it takes if done at a correct cadence. Over time, this improvement should manifest in your other runs.
  • Condition your body and brain with relevant feedback
    We’ve talked before how having audible or tactile feedback (e.g. automated beeps or vibrations) can be beneficial for your body to respond in desirable way. Modern smartwatches (e.g. the Garmin Fenix 3) and phones have specific metronome apps which you can set to tick at e.g. 180 beats per minute. The app will then make a sound every time your foot needs to hit the ground in order to achieve the cadence of 180. You’ll be surprised how effective this sort of feedback is for increasing cadence. Tip: start with 165 beats, then work your way up to 170, 175 and so on. 180 spm can be too quick too soon for beginner athletes who primed their bodies to run at slower cadences.
  • Track your progress
    You might already be using Garmin Connect, Strava or another app to track your runs. Did you notice you can dig deeper into each run report to check how your leg turnover changes throughout segments of your run?


    Cadence metric tracking on Strava

    Concentrating on specific metrics over different segments of your run such as going downhill or uphill can revolutionise your approach to your training sessions. For example, seeing if your cadence naturally lowers running uphill or how it correlates with your heart rate can give you plenty of information for improvement.

  • Pick the right shoes
    Cushioning on a shoe is good for beginners, but you cannot ride a bike with supporting wheels forever. This is exactly what keeps all the runners down and makes them prone to injuries. More cushion usually means heavier shoes, which correlates with slower leg turnover and wasted energy. I’m a big proponent of minimal, low-drop footwear (<4mm or ideally zero drop). If you want to run for decades and go far, it’s a no-brainer to pick this type of shoe which will keep your foot mechanics strong and healthy.
    Here’s a few great picks for low-drop footwear (no affiliation):
    Merrell Bare Access 4 – zero drop. Best shoe ever.
    Inov8 F-lite series – low drop. New to minimal footwear? Start with these.
    Lems running shoes – zero drop.
    Vibram 5 fingers – zero drop. For ninjas and maniacs.
    Saucony A6 – low drop.
    Newton series – low drop.
  • Use the correct form and set regular reminders
    It’s not a secret that forward lean, not breaking at the hips, springy position and forefoot strike are some of the fundamentals to proper running form. This includes cadence too. Failing at just one of these things can result in slower cadence or even worse effects in the long run.
    You can (and should) set a regular reminder to check the form and focus on quick leg turnover. You can use a timer app or smartwatch – simply put a reminder to ring every 5 minutes. Don’t underestimate your forgetfulness and short attention span – use a timer!
  • Add a weekly workout for speed and agility
    Using cheap yet effective fitness equipment like a speed and agility ladder can add up to increased cadence too. For example, you can do a 20 minute session performing timed drills (e.g. Tabata set x 5), skipping through a ladder, moving laterally, forward-backwards. Tip: add a metronome at 180 bpm to play in a background.
  • Always warm up with optimal cadence
    Here’s the drill: perform your every warmup at optimal cadence. No excuses. I’ve been coaching a few athletes now, and this single adjustment leads to significant improvement in a workout to follow. Your legs and CNS can be easily conditioned to perform at their peak when you warm them up at the level of the results you want rather than going slow and easy. About 10 minutes of high cadence warm-up is enough to transition into a tempo, speed, fartlek or any other run you have planned.
  • Condition your legs by cross-training
    I’m a strong believer in cross training for aerobic base training, recovery sessions and for avoiding injuries from overtraining that you get with high mileage. Cross-training, and cycling in particular, is a good way to condition your cadence too. For example, 90RPM on a bike translates to optimal leg turnover of 180 steps a minute. Best bit – you don’t need to use metronome, since most indoor bikes as well as outdoor bike computers allow you to track the RPMs easily. Adding cycling sessions at that rate to your training will help you run better too.


Are you ready to shuffle it to the next level?
Now you don’t have to implement all 8 ways; adding just 1-2 to your running routine can transform the way you run for the better.
1. Heiderscheit BC et al: Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. 2011

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