running cadence

What is a good running cadence for trail and ultrarunners?


Running cadence – or step frequency – is one of the fundamental components of running form. Many runners choose to focus on altering their running cadence to optimize form and mechanical efficiency. In some cases, training your run cadence may increase running speed, decrease injury risk, and conserve energy. However, over time, runners tend to naturally gravitate to their most efficient run cadences for varying terrain. Here’s what you need to know about running cadence so you can decide whether you should attempt changing yours.

Definitions for steps and strides

From Jason Koop’s “Training Essentials for Ultraunning”:
“A step is defined as one foot strike to the opposite foot strike, in terms of either length or time (i.e., your left foot hitting the ground to your right foot hitting the ground). A stride is defined as one foot strike to the same foot striking the ground (i.e., the distance or time from your left foot hitting the ground to your left foot hitting the ground again). Therefore, your stride length will be double your step length, because two steps essentially equal one stride.

  • Step length: the distance between the initial contact of one foot and the initial contact of the opposite foot
  • Step rate: the total number of right and left foot strikes per minute
  • Stride length: the distance between the initial contact of one foot and the next initial contact of the same foot
  • Stride frequency: the total number of the same foot strikes per minute (i.e., the total number of right foot strikes per minute)

What is Running Cadence?

At its most basic definition, running cadence is how quickly a runner’s feet are traveling underneath them. It is typically twice your stride frequency (defined above). A convenient way to calculate it is to count either a left or right foot stride for 30 seconds, then multiplying by four. Many running watches and other devices monitor this metric so you don’t have to count and calculate.

The effect of running cadence on mechanics

Beginner runners tend to have a slower stride frequency, coupled with a longer stride length. This is not inherently incorrect. However, runners with notably lengthy stride lengths tend to land on their heels. This can act as a braking mechanism and potentially lead to injuries.

A lengthier and slower cadence means the foot strikes the ground further forward of the body. This tends to increase the impact forces with each foot strike. In contrast, a shorter stride allows the runner to land with their foot more directly underneath, allowing momentum to continue naturally forward.

Lastly, a slower, longer stride usually means the runner is airborne for a longer duration compared to maintaining a shorter stride length. When runners spend more energy propelling themselves forward and less energy moving up and down, running mechanics become more efficient.

How does running cadence change with experience?

Most runners, with time and with practice, naturally increase running cadence without any purposeful interference. However, there are some readily accessible tips and tricks than can shorten a runner’s progression. These will (hopefully) improve your form and decrease your chances of injury. Importantly for trail and ultrarunners, the goal of cadence work isn’t necessarily to increase your candence. Rather, the goal is to be more agile with pacing strategies and to create more ability to react to obstacles in the trail, as well as variable surfaces and pitches.

Before working on running cadence

The first step is to assess your running cadence across the several settings, including uphill, flat and downhill gradients. You also want to assess early in training runs, late in training runs, during higher intensity intervals and relatively short distance (1 mile to 5km) races. Once you’ve established a baseline running cadence in these conditions you can identify whether your cadence is changing from one setting to another, as well as naturally over a period of months or years.

What is a good running cadence?

Although the long-held standard was a running cadence of at least 180 spm (steps per minute). However, many successful and relatively injury-free runners hold a moderately lower cadence. There is no perfect cadence for all athletes in all trail or road running events.

There are a few reasons you may want to include cadence-oriented running drills a few times per week to increase your stride rate and decrease your propensity for injuries:

  • your cadence is significantly lower than 180 spm on a regular basis, but
  • you’re not making improvements in running pace, even with consistent and structured training
  • and/or you’re incurring frequent or recurring injuries

Drills and exercises to increase your running cadence

Some simple ideas for quickening your stride rate, if you believe it will benefit you, include running strides (also known as form sprints) and other technique drills, listening to a metronome, and using a quick arm drive to lead a faster step rate.

Strides and other drills:

For runners with a track or a cross country racing background, these may be familiar. They are typically executed on flat, relatively soft terrain (a track or grass for example). Focus on a specific aspect of the running stride and execute for only 5-30 seconds. Each drill largely over-emphasizes a certain aspect of the stride. Complete each drill two or more times during a session, taking 15-60 seconds rest between each drill.

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Beyond strides, which are similar to sprints, done at an RPE of 7-9 compared to a level 10 RPE, additional running drills include high knees, skipping A’s and B’s and butt kickers. This list is not comprehensive, but these are the more commonly used drills and should be executed with a very quick, explosive energy. Done two to three times per week, these are excellent entry-level drills that, with time, can increase a runner’s leg speed and cadence.

Running to a metronome

Another tip is to try running while listening to a metronome. Set it for approximately 2-4 beats per minute quicker than your typical run cadence. An entire run may be too long to use this tool, at least initially, so it’s wise to begin by using a metronome for shorter bouts of time. Try to match the stride rate to the beat of the metronome. An example would be to warmup, then begin running to the metronome beat for 5-10 minutes at a time. Between intervals, resume a regular running cadence for five minutes.Complete the process once or twice more during an Endurance Run. This practice could be coupled with a run in which running drills are completed, or as a stand-alone portion of a workout.

Lead with your arm swing

Lastly, because a runner’s upper arm swing and run cadence tend to match in a rhythmic, contralateral manner, runners can try ‘leading’ their cadence to a quicker turnover by initiating the action with an arm drive at a more aggressive rate. This can be especially effective on an uphill grade because many runners are able to use their upper body to help propel themselves upward. Running uphill tends to naturally encourage a shorter stride rate. So, increasing arm swing rate while running uphill can have a cascading effect on foot strike rate. Introduce this drill intermittently, and not necessarily for an entire run, at least for starters.

Trail and Ultrarunners benefit from cadence agility

Running stride rate will always be as individual as the runner. Also, it can and should change based on terrain, surface conditions and sometimes age. Running cadence usually trends faster over time and with experience and often needs little or no dedicated practice for improvement. For runners who maintain especially low cadences (less than ~160 steps per minute on flat terrain) or who are frequently injured, stride rate should be considered as something that may need attention.

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Trail and ultrarunners use a wider range of running cadences than track or road runners. This is beause they terrain changes all the time, along with the duration of climbs and their elevation changes. Changing your stride length and cadence during training or racing can be helpful for spreading the stress from ultraendurance events across more tissues and joints.

Working patiently and consistently to improve running stride rate, when appropriate, can support healthy and often faster running. It’s only one part of being a successful trail and ultrarunner. However, it’s an aspect that can create notable improvements with minimal interventions.

By Darcie Murphy,
CTS Ultrarunning Senior Coach


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