According to a 2011 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a slight increase in cadence—we’re talking five to 10 percent—substantially reduces the impact in your hips and knees while running, therefore decreasing your risk of injury.
It works like this. When you take quicker, shorter steps, you shift your center of gravity and therefore reduce breaking forces with every footfall. This often creates a less pronounced heal strike and a healthier, more fluid running stride. At the same time, these shorter steps also reduce injuries related to over striding (think hamstring strains).
Further, the same study revealed that load volume is reduced even more with a 10- to 20-percent increase in stride rate. But for most of us, that’s a major and unsustainable change (just think, if you regularly run 160 steps per minute [spm], a 20-percent increase would be 192 spms—a hard stride rate to keep unless you’re running intervals on the track). Not to mention that much of a change can often cause injury itself just because it alters so much the way we’re used to running.
So, what do we do?
While the goal is literally to take smaller steps, figuratively taking smaller steps by increasing your cadence only slightly, will help train your body into a new running form. Approach with caution. Repetition and symmetry are key. For example, you don’t want to over stride on your left side and overcompensate by short stepping on your right.
Since 180 spm really 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.
So, let’s say you’re going out for 40 minutes, listen to your selected song several times—spaced throughout your run—to get your body used to the new cadence without overly fatiguing either your body or your mind. (For fun, check out our Ultimate Running Playlist to get some song ideas.) The more you practice, the easier this will get. Eventually, you'll be able to run at your new cadence sans metronome or music.
This might be the most important one. Knee or hamstring pain doesn’t automatically mean you’re over striding, so it's important to talk to an expert. Maybe you really just need new shoes.