Running cadence – also known as stride rate – is the number of steps a runner takes per minute. You should see it in logged in your watch data as Strides Per Minute (SPM), not to be confused with Revolutions Per Minute (RPM), which is for cycling.

Many running experts believe the best stride rate to achieve peak running performance is 180. This is based on USA running coach Jack Daniels’ analysis of the strides of elite distance runners at the 1984 Olympics. He found the fastest and most efficient runners had a cadence of at least 180 SPM, with some runners reaching as high as 200 SPM.

The research showed that the shorter your stride length and the quicker your stride rate, the faster and better you run. Why? Well, it’s got a lot to do with running biomechanics. 

Runners who overstride tend to lock their knees and land heel first to the ground on every step. This creates a heavy, arduous gait, and puts extra pressure on muscles and bones, making you more susceptible to aches, pains and injury. By increasing your cadence, you’re changing the positioning of where your foot lands. With a slow cadence your foot land in front of your hips. With a faster cadence, it lands underneath you – in your center of gravity.

Secondly, when you increase your cadence, you also limit the force with which your body hits the ground. If you have a slow cadence, you’re spending more time up in the in air displacing your body mass so you hit the ground much harder than if you had a fast cadence. The more steps you take per minute, the less time you spend in the air, equaling a softer impact on landing and a smoother more efficient running gait.

But more recent studies show cadence is not one size fits all. Your optimal cadence depends on several factors, including your height, weight, and running ability. Cadence also varies based on the type of run you’re doing – trail vs road, hills vs stairs.

But one thing the research does agree on is that faster/higher is better. So if you’re suffering from constant aches and pains or you’re looking to improve speed, it might be time to work on your cadence.

How to measure your current cadence:

  • If you wear a sports watch (Garmin, Sunto, Polar etc) your software should be able to tell you what your SPM is for each run. Review the data of the last easy flat run you did. What number does it show?
  • If you run sans technology, simply count your steps as you run. Just count the number of times your feet hit the ground in 30 seconds and multiply it by two.

How to improve your current cadence:

  • Download a metronome on your phone, set it to your preferred cadence, plug in the headphones and run to the beat.
  • Practice first on a smooth flat surface, like a sports field, road or running track then progress to more challenging terrains.
  • Practice, practice and practice….it takes times.

What cadence should you set?

After finding your base cadence, or your starting point, increase that rate by 5-10%. Once you’ve nailed that and it feels comfortable, increase by 5-10% again. 

E.g. if your watch currently shows you running at 165 SPM, set the metronome for 170-175SPM.

Be patient, it takes time to readjust your stride and retrain your brain to run in a new way. But it’s worth the work and the wait. You should gradually see less stress on your body, fewer aches and pains and better performance.

From personal experience, I’ve noticed a huge difference. In fact, when I get lazy and my cadence drops, my achilles tendonitis and sciatic nerve pain creeps back in and the body is slower to recover. I have to consistently work at it, but when I’m hitting my stride (pun-intended) it feels effortless and I enjoy the running so much more.