Cadence is the golden thread
Olympic endurance coach Bobby McGee was showing a group of we newbie USAT coaches the essentials of good running form. All tips were great: the one line that struck me most at the time was ‘Cadence is the golden thread.’ Bobby’s visual was a small woman with quick but continuous steps passed by the big, long-stride loping dude, who ultimately loses all momentum and steam while the woman passes him to finish. Intrigued, I took this one home to chew on.
Over many years as a trainer and coach with a hundred or more clients, I figured out and tested this cadence concept across a number of sports. I thought about dance: you need rhythm and tempo. Rhythm as a skill seems a particularly difficult one to teach, particularly to non-dancing jock types. It is felt not understood. I could better grasp cadence, which embraces both rhythm and tempo and allows me to put numbers to the skill. I still geek out over numbers.
Once I got the concept I began integrating cadence accelerations into my runs and races, and I ended up with a PR 10K run and top spot on the triathlon podium at Treasure Island. My clients have had similar results. The one aspect of the form of the most-decorated runners in history that anyone should be able to imitate is cadence, or the number of steps taken per a certain distance, which doesn’t change. Steady cadence fosters success.
Teach yourself to run effectively and avoid injuries while training or racing at your optimum level. Cadence is a great way to start.
Optimal cadence increases speed and efficiency
Take cycling. Spinning the pedals at 120+ rpm is good for powerful track sprinters going relatively short distances but is not efficient for longer cycling events. Control the cadence and manage your energy.
Optimal cadence helps avoid injury
Increased cadence reduces the impact forces of running. Longer strides necessitated by a slower cadence take runners higher off the ground, which means that each footfall is harder. Many running injuries are associated with the impact of landing.
A higher cadence reduces peak leg deceleration as well as peak impact forces in the ankle and knee joints. Higher cadence is also related to a reduction in over striding. For example, if the pedaling rpm is too low you are likely mashing the gears and causing greater stress on the knees and more muscular fatigue.
Optimal cadence assists recovery
A higher cadence reduces Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and the associated weakness.
SO WHAT IS OPTIMAL CADENCE?
I saved the best for last. For running and cycling a turnover of about 90 steps or rpms/minute is right for most people.
Swimming? No one-size fits all as there are many more factors to consider in the water. You could test yourself though (tempo timers) and figure out what stoke count is optimal for your most efficient stroke. Which lets you go fast enough without compromising fluidity or breathing.
How to check your cadence
Count how often one foot touches the ground in a minute. If the number is 90 or higher, pat yourself on the back and go for another run. If the number is lower than 90, then you should look at changing your cadence. Your cadence does not have to be exactly 90, and is likely to change somewhat with your pace and terrain. If your cadence varies between 88-92, you’re doing well, though above 90 is preferable.
With cycling use your RPM measure on your computer. Or you can use the manual approach of counting revolutions with one leg just as counting running above.
How can you improve your cadence if it isn’t currently in the optimal range?
Run “as if you’re on eggshells or ‘hot feet” and count your steps as you run to track your progress. Watch football players do ‘patter’ drills, which are simply short bursts of high-cadence work. Stay mostly on the balls of your feet and focus on your cadence while letting the stride length take care of itself. Truth is most of us have a natural stride length that will change little with training.
Check your arm position. Your arms act as both a counterbalance and a pendulum. They swing back and forward, similar to the time it takes for a pendulum to swing, which depends on its length. So the lower your hands are when you’re running, the slower your arms will swing. Likewise, the higher your hands are, the faster the swing. To have a good cadence you need to have your arms held reasonably high.
Skipping rope could help you get the feel of quick feet and establish rhythm. I recently counted cadence jumping a speed rope at what felt comfortable, and it was almost double or about 180/minute. One of the best ways to find rhythm on the jump rope is to do it one leg at a time, 10 jumps with your left foot and then 10 jumps with your right foot, and repeat. Before you know it you’ll be flowing effortlessly from one foot to the next.
You can use gizmos to track cadence, but the best practice is simply do 30-second accelerations and integrate what it feels like to take 45-50 steps with each foot. Practice it uphill too, as your cadence should remain constant although your stride length may shorten. Initially the change in cadence may feel strange. It may take several weeks but when the adjustment happens your running can improve dramatically.
Contact me with any questions or feedback here or on Facebook: email me at email@example.com and send a video if you would like input on your running form