What is Running Cadence and How Can You Improve It?

Three runners run on a paved greenway trail together.

What is Cadence in Running?

Running cadence is the number of times your foot hits the ground in a given period, usually measured within a 60-second period. Cadence is an important aspect of your running form to focus on because it ensures that you’re running as efficiently as possible. When it comes to running long distances, the name of the game is delaying the inevitable fatigue that will cause you to stiffen your shoulders, land heavier on your feet and slow your cadence down to a shuffle. Once your cadence drops, your speed is quick to follow. Focusing on cadence as you fatigue can improve your posture, activate your core and strengthen your arm swing.

What is a Good Cadence for Running?

Three runners run through a shaded sidewalk area.

It’s important to note that different runners have different leg lengths, so the best running cadence will vary across the board rather than being one number that every runner should follow. For that reason, we’ll discuss a range of cadences rather than any specific number. An ideal cadence for runners is typically between 170 to 180 steps per minute, or 85 to 90 steps per minute on one leg, depending on how you measure. For the purposes of this article, we’ll stick to steps per minute on one leg.

Most of us don’t put a lot of thought into the way we walk or run, it comes naturally, and our bodies flow naturally within its own movement. But, if we take the extra effort to think about the way our feet strike the ground, or the length of our steps, we could save our bodies from unnecessary pain or injury and spend more time enjoying our run.

When you take quicker, shorter steps, you shift your center of gravity and reduce braking forces with every footfall. This creates a less pronounced heel strike and a more fluid running stride. You prevent your knees from taking on excessive load forces and you reduce injuries related to over-striding (e.g. hamstring strains).

A 2014 study conducted by Dr. Rachel Lenhart from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that increasing your step rate, or cadence, by as little as 10 percent could effectively alleviate knee pain and even reduce your risk of knee injury from running.

So what does this mean for you?

In order to improve your cadence, you need to know where you’re starting from so you can make a plan to slowly and progressively improve it. That’s why we start with a baseline! Run at a relaxed pace, running however you normally would, and count your steps for a 60-second period on one leg. Once you have your baseline number, you can focus on increasing your cadence with the following tips:

Use Cadence Intervals

As with any new introduction into your running routine, it’s best to start small. For the first cadence interval, add one step to your base cadence and aim to run at that cadence for about 30 seconds. For example, let’s say your base cadence is 80. Try to keep your cadence at 81 for 30 seconds, run regularly for 30 seconds, and repeat. Next week, up your goal cadence by two (for this example, 82).

Be careful not to increase your speed while increasing your cadence. You srpeed is a function of stride rate (cadence) and stride length, which brings us to our next tip…

Take Smaller Steps

In order to run the same speed at a slightly higher cadence, you are going to want to shorten your stride length accordingly. Most of the time, your cadence drops due to a loss of good running posture as you fatigue. Your shoulders tighten up and your arm swing drops. Your glutes aren’t firing and your hips aren’t pressing as far forward, leading you to overstride and land heavier on your feet than necessary. By focusing on keeping your steps quick and light, you’ll be able to run taller, more relaxed and keep your arm swinging smoothly. But like any changes we make, approach with caution. You don't want to aim for too big of a cadence change too quickly but rather start slow and increase from there.

A gait-analysis study performed in 2019 at the University of British Columbia found that runners who increased their cadence (and decreased step length) saw a 15 percent decrease in brake forces as they ran, meaning less impact on their joints and a healthier run overall. This group, led by Dr. Christopher Napier, PT, suggests that restricting the gait to shorter, more frequent steps may be a viable injury prevention method for recreational runners of all ages.

Two runners run down the paved El Rio trail, smiling.

Use a Metronome or Music

Finding the right stride length for your shape and size is the key to building and maintaining a healthy cadence. Since 90 steps per minute doesn’t seem to be the magic number for everyone, we recommend finding a song with the optimal beats per minute you’d like to maintain, and run with it intermittently throughout your run.

In recent years, Spotify and other music streaming platforms have released workout playlists organized by beats per minute (bpm), so you can find your rhythm (pun intended) and help your body get used to a new cadence without overly fatiguing your body or your taste in music. As with anything, practice makes perfect, and over time you will find that you can run at your new cadence without the help of music or a metronome.

You can also download a metronome app on your phone (or order a physical one online)! While many of our watches these days will tell us our cadence after the fact, listening to this audible beep really helps with rhythm and timing. And as you start to fatigue later in your runs, you’ll quickly notice how much more difficult it is to maintain this rhythm, drawing your attention back to your posture, your breathing and your form.

Talk to an Expert

While we can all use drills to improve our running form, it’s important to remember that we all have different bodies with different backgrounds and experience levels. Our outfitters use tools like our 3D scanning technology to help you understand the way your body moves and what shoes would suit you best, which will help you enjoy running even more.

If you find that you are having joint pain on the run, adjusting your cadence may or may not help. The best way to address the pain you are experiencing is to consult an expert to learn what the problem may be.

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