For those of you who don’t know, cadence is the measure of a beat of movement (in this case steps per minute). The ideal rate of cadence for natural feeling running is 180 steps per minute or more, and this does a couple of things; gets your feet moving, lessens the impact on your body, and takes advantage of the elasticity of your muscles.
First off let’s go out and see what a 180 steps per minute cadence feels like. Go here for an online metronome and set it to 180 bets per minute with 2 beats per cycle. Listen to that beat for a minute and try to get a feel for it so that you can remember it and put it into practice. For some people its more helpful to count the number of steps with a single foot, so you would be thinking more along the line of 90 strides per minute (I like to focus on keeping up three steps per second but do whatever works for you). Now go take a short run at this pace, around your house, around the neighborhood, down the street; just long enough that you get a feel for running with higher cadence. One thing you’ll notice is that you have to keep your feet under your center of mass (no reaching) in order to keep your feet moving that quick. Also you have to focus a lot more on picking up your feet rather than pushing yourself forward, both of which are important to both good running form, and ease of running (see The Basics for a little more explanation).
Now let’s talk a little bit about how running at a higher cadence reduces impact on the body. To help explain, imagine you are sitting on top of a 20 story building and you needed to get down, the twist: you locked out of the building and will have to go over one of the sides. The first side of the building is a sheer drop, the second side of the building has a balcony on the 10th floor, the third side has a balcony every five floors, and the fourth side has balconies on every floor. Which one of these sides would you go down? To help you decide I’ve made another crappy diagram outlining what would happen in an average fall from each height.
Unless you are suicidal you probably chose the side with balconies on every floor, with the reasoning that if you had to jump down more than one floor at a time you would probably hurt yourself. The same principle also applies to running; the more air-time we have translates to more force upon our next footfall. The easiest way to mitigate that is to make contact with the ground more often, spreading the overall impact of the run into small, easy to absorb impacts. Like I talked about in The Basics I want you to think about a run as one big fall, and a the higher the cadence the shorter each little dividing fall is gonna be. Just like in the building metaphor you want to fall as short a distance as you can at a time to prevent yourself from getting injured.
Another thing that maintaining a high cadence lets you do is to take advantage of the elasticity of our Achilles tendon. Now if you think back to the “punch your foot” experiment from The Basics you might have noticed something I didn’t point out before; when you hit your forefoot it bounces back into its original place (go ahead and try again if you want, just make sure you are relaxing your leg). That little display is your Achilles’ elasticity in action. When you are maintaining a high cadence and landing on your forefoot your legs are moving quick enough to use the snap back of your Achilles to help keep up your pace. You are essentially turning the impact of hitting the ground into free energy to pick up your foot again for the next stride. With this new helpful mechanism runs become less taxing and more freeing.
So now that we’ve learned about all the good things that a high cadence can for you, go ahead and try it out some more. Get a feel for the 180 steps per minute cadence and give it a whirl, and feel free to turn it up to more than 180 if you want; 180 is a minimum cadence not an optimum cadence. And like always if something hurts; stop running. If a muscle gets tight; stop running. I’m not trying to make you into a marathoner, I just want you to get to enjoy running, and getting injured is the easiest way to fall back in the “I hate running” trap.
Next week I’ll be addressing the second principle I’ve found that can help you to enjoy running: posture. We’ll be talking about what posture is, why it’s important, and the easiest ways to get good posture and take advantage of it.