WHEN LANCE ARMSTRONG was taking the cycling world by storm in the early 2000s, cyclists around the world suddenly started to try and duplicate his riding style that featured a higher cadence – typically around 95 revolutions per minute – that was thought to be one of the keys to his success. (Unfortunately, we now know some of the other factors that helped him dominate the Tour, but there’s no denying Armstrong’s impressive cycling talent.)
These days, we’re starting to see a similar wave of “cadence-tracking” when it comes to running performance. Many triathletes, ever the group to analyze any bit of data they can muster, now closely monitor not only their pace during their runs, they keep an eye on their running cadence, too.
Now, in the same vein that everyone strived to duplicate Armstrong’s 95 RPM, many have come up with a magical “cadence” of 180 strides per minute as the ideal. As I often argued in the early 2000s (possibly as a defence for my traditionally slow 75 to 80 RPM bike cadence), those ideal numbers really don’t make sense for everyone. Jan Ulrich, who famously finished second to Armstrong at many of his Tour victories, traditionally pedalled with the same cadence as I did. Riding like the second-best cyclist at the planet might not be too bad an option for some people, I argued.
The same goes for that magical 180 steps per minute number. Your ideal cadence is determined by many factors, most of which you’ve incorporated into your running style since you were a child. If your muscles are made up of more fast-twitch fibres – you were always one of the speedsters when it came to games or running events – you are likely more comfortable with a quicker cadence. If you have longer legs, you might also be more inclined to have a slightly slower cadence as your body sought to take advantage of a longer stride.
So, should you be worried about your run cadence then? Absolutely.
The faster your feet can get to the ground, the faster you’re going to go. When you’re running, you only to generate forward motion when your foot is touching the ground, so the more times you can get your foot on the ground to push you forward, the better off you’ll be. But that’s only a part of the equation – the world’s best runners’ cadence can vary from as much as 172 to 212 steps per minute according to some studies, which means that there is a sweet spot for each and every one of us. The same goes for triathletes. Watch the best runners in a triathlon field and it looks like they’re floating along, running effortlessly and at a fast rhythm and tempo. Those who are struggling seem to labour at a much slower cadence – not only do they seem to be covering less ground with each stride, they seem to take fewer of them.
This brings up an important caveat to remember when it comes to trying to run faster thanks to quicker cadence: If you’re not pushing yourself forward every time you hit the ground, you’re not likely to see a huge difference if you suddenly start moving your legs quicker. That means that to get the most benefits from improving your tempo, you need to ensure your form is good, too. A forward lean with your hips in front of your feet and your shoulders in front of your hips is critical if you are to get the most out of this modification.
The best way to try and dial in your ideal run cadence is to start by figuring out where you’re at now. If you don’t have a watch that will provide that information for you, simply count the number of strides you take over a 15 second period and multiply that number by four. As a simple test to see if what you’re doing is optimal, head to a track to do some self testing. Start by running a few 400 m intervals (one lap of the track) at your current, comfortable cadence. Then see if you can up your cadence by a few strides per second and see how much faster you might go. Keep track of your perceived exertion, too – it doesn’t help to chop lots of time off that 400 split if you’re not going to be able to sustain that pace during a race.
Some researchers suggest that improving your cadence by five per cent is both attainable and beneficial. Don’t try to get to that new cadence all at once, though. See if you can gradually work your way up to that higher number without adding a lot of effort and see if your times improve.—KM