Running Technique Principle 1: Running Cadence
Running Technique Principle 1: Cadence
Five key principles constitute good running technique. The most fluid, graceful and fastest runners on the planet exhibit these characteristics as part of their running technique. Even if you’re not aspiring to be one of the world’s fastest runners, your running speed would be well served by becoming familiar with these principles. Once awareness of these principles has been developed, you can then integrate the principles into your running technique. Not only will your running speed improve but your chances of developing an injury will also markedly reduce.
Principle 1: Do not overstride
While numerous running technique flaws exist, arguably the major flaw made by most runners is the adoption of an ‘overstriding’ running style. Based on my clinical observations, I estimate that overstriding is evident in approximately 75 per cent of injured runners’ techniques. This observation means that three-quarters of the running-related injuries I treat have overstriding as one of the chief contributory factors to the development of the injury.
Once you know what to look for, you will observe overstriding runners at any event or during any training run. Overstriding is particularly evident in events that attract masses of beginner and recreational non-elite runners. While it’s not just beginner runners who over-stride, it’s far less likely that you will observe over-striding running styles in the ranks of the world’s elite runners.
Before looking at reasons runners overstride, clarifying what an ‘overstride’ actually is may be useful. Defining a stride as being too ‘long’ isn’t possible, because a runner’s stride length will vary, depending on the speed or velocity that the runner is running at. So identifying an over-stride is easier in the context of where the foot lands relative to the runner’s knee. Alternately where the foot lands relative to a runner’s centre of mass can also be a good indicator of whether a runner’s stride is an ‘over-stride’ or not.
When a runner over-strides, their foot at the point of impacting with the ground will land in front of their knee (see following figure).
Invariably with the leg in an extended, or straightened position. In this position the runner’s heel will be the first point of contact. Landing in this out-stretched leg position increases loading on the runner’s legs and body and also slows the runner down.
Why do runners over-stride?
Many people ask me why runners over-stride. I would very much like to give a simple, one-size-fits-all answer. Although no such answer exists, I believe that so many runners over-stride because of two primary reasons.
Reason 1: Observing the world’s elite runners
The first reason has to do with our observations of the world’s best runners and our own inclinations. It seems ‘intuitive’ and very ‘natural’ to take bigger strides in an attempt to run faster. When we wish to run faster we begin to ‘stride out’. When trying to catch the runner in front of us, our default self-talk is often something like:
I’m going to stride out and catch them.
That is, if we want to speed up, we default in our thinking to ‘I must take bigger strides to go faster’.
What is the rationale for such thinking? Why do we assume that bigger strides will produce faster running? My best hypothesis is that when we observe elite runners running at the front of an Olympic marathon or any other race in which they compete, we see these runners taking enormously long strides. They typically do this with ease and make it look effortless.
I believe that when we observe these runners ‘loping’ along at rapid speeds, we assume that to run fast we need to take big strides. What we do not realise in adopting this incorrect assumption is that the elite runner’s big strides are a result of the sheer speed they are running at, and not the cause of their fast running speed. Elite marathon runners will typically run at speeds in excess of 20km/hr (sub 3min/km/hr pace). Meanwhile a recreational runner will run at somewhere between 10km/hr and 15km/hr (on average).
Technique factors such as good foot position, forwards body lean and tendon utilisation, combined with high V02max scores (oxygen supply scores) and elevated lactate thresholds, all positively affect the speed of these elite runners. We typically fail to take these factors into account when we watch the elite runners compete, instead focusing simply on their huge strides and attributing these as the chief reason for their fast running. (To read more about the three ways a runner gets faster click HERE).
Reason 2: Heavy heeled shoes
The second reason I believe the majority of runners today over-stride has to do with what are known as ‘motion control’ or heavy heeled running shoes. The popularisation of the motion control shoe as a running shoe of choice in recent decades has had an effect on the stride lengths of runners.
Motion control running shoes are designed to absorb shock and stabilise the foot on impact. With such extra cushioning, I believe that some runners in effect get ‘lazy’ with their stride length, and so ‘default’ to a longer stride length, one in which the first point of contact with the ground is made by the heel, positioned at the end of an over extended and straightened leg.
Because the heavy heeled shoe provides extra cushioning, no immediate consequence is felt by the runner when they over-stride. The shock and braking forces being ‘thrown back’ from the ground toward the over-striding runner are largely being absorbed by the well-cushioned shoes, and so these forces go unnoticed and don’t result in any immediate repercussions. If, however, the runner was in a lesser heeled shoe or, at an extreme, attempting to run barefoot, the runner would simply be unable to land in an over-striding manner. The impact of the heel with the ground would mean the runner would immediately experience discomfort – as a result, they would modify their technique away from a heel strike and over-striding style.
Avoiding Over-striding as an injury prevention strategy
Research validates avoiding over-striding as a sound injury prevention (and, in some cases, rehabilitation) strategy. The aforementioned study found that when runners decreased their step length by 10 per cent or more, reduced impact loading at the knee (and hip) was achieved.[i]
This is significant given that we know that knee injuries are the most prevalent injuries among runners, with nearly 50 per cent of all running injuries occurring at the knee and more than 90 per cent of individuals with patella-femoral (knee cap) pain suffering ongoing or chronic pain.[ii][iii] For runners seeking to run pain and injury free, the risk of developing knee pain can be reduced by modifying step rate and length to prevent heel striking. This is a great injury prevention strategy. It has also been suggested that running with shorter strides reduced the risk of tibial stress fractures.[iv]
Making the transition to a better running cadence
It’s important to note that when a runner transitions from habitual overstriding and a heel-striking technique to an improved running cadence, it can at first seem to feel like ‘harder work’. This is because of a slight increase in oxygen utilisation when making more leg contact ‘cycles’, as a function of higher cadence and a shorter stride length. One research paper caused a stir when it reported that eight triathletes who received 12 weeks of POSE running technique coaching actually had reduced running economy after the 12 weeks.[v] This was compared with another eight triathletes who did not receive POSE technique coaching. In the coaching group, the triathletes’ stride length reduced from 137.3 centimetres to 129.2 centimetres, which resulted in the runners adopting more of a forefoot landing than a heel landing. This was a positive outcome of the intervention.
The results of this isolated research paper could come under some degree of critique. For example, the runners were not tracked beyond twelve weeks to see whether their running economy improved due to their shortened stride length at a later stage.
I have observed that runners report a ‘perceived’ greater effort in taking shorter and quicker steps. I believe this perceived effort reflects the increased attentional focus on the task of running differently and with a new technique rather than a true metabolic ‘cost’ of shortening the stride length due to an increased running cadence.
When coaching injured runners to not over-stride, I advise them that they need to begin to count their steps (or foot strikes) each minute, which will give the runner their ‘cadence’ in steps taken per minute (steps/min). In order to not over-stride, you should be aiming to run with a turn-over rate (or cadence) of 180 to 184 steps per minute. This is equivalent to one foot contacting the ground around 90 times per minute, or a cadence of 90 (single foot) steps/min. When your cadence is less than this, you will be typically over-striding.
By running at the correct cadence, your foot will land closer to directly beneath your knee (or under your body’s centre of mass) at foot strike. This is opposed to your foot landing out in front of the knee which is what occurs when a runner over-strides. You can measure your running cadence – and so work out whether you’re over-striding – by two main ways.
In order of my preference they are:
- Do a manual count or ‘stocktake’ of your cadence when training. Simply count your steps for one leg over a one-minute interval on your next run. (I recommend counting only one foot because counting a single foot landing is easier than counting both feet.) Use your stopwatch (or whatever run tracker device you use) to ensure you get an accurate one-minute count, and count for one minute of every five minutes of running. Doing manual counts creates a ‘brain to foot’ link that makes integrating 180 to 184 steps/min achievable in the quickest time frames. I have found that runners who commit to manually counting one minute out of every five minutes of running tend to improve their cadence more quickly and completely than the runners who use technology to get their count.
- Use a foot pod (for example, a Garmin or GPS-type device). Devices such as these, which are similar to a bike computer, will automatically compute and display your cadence. I encourage runners who wish to use technology to still do the manual count for a period of time and achieve a cadence of 180 to 184 steps/min before becoming reliant on technology to monitor their ongoing cadence. Most runners report an initial cadence of fewer than 90 single foot steps/minute. This shows them they’re taking stride lengths that are ‘too long’ – this is the reason they’re not able not able to get the required number of strides completed inside the assigned one-minute time interval.
When I first started to count my cadence, I was surprised to discover that I was landing with 78 steps/min (counting one foot). At that initial point, I thought it would be impossible to consistently run with a cadence of 90 steps/min. I persevered , however, and I now run every minute of the many kilometres I cover each week with a cadence that is consistently 92 steps/min.
The role of fatigue in a runner’s cadence
Because running consists of repetitive motions that involve repetitive muscle contractions, the body is subjected to muscular fatigue. When a runner fatigues, such as towards the end of a longer training run, the runner’s cadence will tend to get lower as the fatigue sets in. That is, as the runner fatigues they resort to taking bigger loping strides as opposed to the more economical shorter strides. At this point of fatigue the drop in cadence will typically correlate directly with a drop in speed and economy.
Not only can fatigue result in a slowing down of the runner’s pace and a loss of form by way of return to overstriding, it can also increase the chance of injury. As fatigue sets in, the protective effect of the muscles’ ability to absorb loads is reduced. The effect of a reduction in shock absorption by the fatigued muscles is an elevated or increased risk of injury. One study found that the incidence of heel striking increased by 5.2 per cent between the 10-kilometre and 32-kilometre markers of a marathon.[vi] This occurred as a result of the fatigued runners losing their ability to maintain a quick turnover rate of the legs and so they resorted by default to their over-striding and heel striking running style.
It’s also worth noting that a point exists when extra foot strikes per minute become inefficient. For example, if you ran with a cadence of 100 steps/min or above, you would likely be negatively affecting your running economy because a significant extra oxygen debt would be associated with such a quick leg turnover rate. An exact cadence for this point of inefficiency is difficult to define; however, it becomes physiologically difficult to exceed 100 steps/min for distance runners.
The following table is an easy to use reference guide to interpreting your turnover rate count.
|Single foot strikes/min
|90 foot strikes/min
|<90 foot strikes/min
|>90 foot strikes/min
|Ideal turn-over rateFoot lands directly under knee and body’s centre of mass
Likely mid-foot landing at impact
Better recruitment of gluteals and hamstrings
Better use of stored energy in tendons
Efficient running which improves running economy
|Overstriding; because the runner cannot get enough foot strikes per minute,the stride length is too long
Likely heel first landing
Results in an added energy cost and increased injury risk
|Possibly landing on forefoot instead of mid-foot‘Wheel spinning’, which creates an additional energy cost
Running economy decreases if taking too many step/min
Increasing your running cadence
You can use a variety of methods to improve your running cadence. It is best to not over complicate this process, so I encourage runners to keep their approach simple. I have observed runners who over-think their approach to correcting their over-striding tend to delay their progress.
Follow these tips to increase your running cadence:
- Be patient. Be prepared for a correction of cadence to take up to six months. The longer a runner has run with too slow of cadence, the longer it will take to reverse the technique fault. On average, though, most runners will have made significant changes at around the three-month mark.
- Irrespective of distance (short, middle distance or long runs) count for one minute of every five minutes of running.
- Pay close attention to your cadence as fatigue sets in. The aim is to run at a cadence of 90 steps/min per foot throughout the run’s entire duration. Nowhere is this more important than at the end of the run when fatigue kicks in.
- Run like Cliff Young. If you’re familiar with the Cliff Young story, think of the famed ‘Cliff Young shuffle’. By not overstriding, Cliff Young modelled exceptional efficiency in claiming victory in the inaugural 1983 Sydney to Melbourne ultra-marathon. Cliff covered the distance of 875 kilometres as a 61 year old in five days, five hours and fifteen minutes. He certainly did not achieve this extraordinary result by over-striding. If you’re not familiar with Cliff Young but are curious (and I hope you are) do an online search using the term ‘Cliff Young shuffle’. It’s a heartwarming story of sporting triumph.
- Count, count, count! Make counting your cadence a habit on every run. Irrespective of whether you are running slow, fast, on a track, on the road, on trails, a long run, or a short run, just count! Consistent counting and habit formation is the key.
- Keep in mind that, initially trying to increase your cadence can feel less efficient. Rest assured that this feeling of extra work is only temporary. Inside two to four weeks you will begin to experience the rewards of running with a faster cadence. Significant changes usually come by the three-month mark.
- Keep persisting. If you have identified that you are an over-striding runner and you wish to run faster and with less injury risk, you really have no alternative to getting your cadence to 90 single steps/min. If you do, you will reap the rewards of running faster with a far reduced injury risk. Once you have corrected your cadence and ceased over-striding, you will never look back (particularly in a race – there will be no need!).
When attempting to improve your running technique through improving your running cadence don’t forget that you can ‘teach an old dog new tricks’. Some of the studies shared in this chapter highlight this. When running technique is taught, changes result. Even the runner with years of an ingrained running style can make positive technique changes.
I have observed that it can take runners on average 3- 6months to improve their running technique by improving their cadence. I am often heard saying that there is no other way forward than to start with correcting cadence. I have certainly found this to be true with my own running.
[i] Heiderscheit, BC, Chumanov, ES, Michalski, MP, Christa, MW, Ryan, MB. op cit
[ii] Taunton, J, Ryan, M, Clement, D, McKenzie, C, Lloyd-Smith, R, Zumbo, B. 2002. ‘A retrospective case control analysis of 2002 running injuries’. Br J Sports Med. 36 (2): 95–101.
[iii] Stathopulu, E, Baildam, E. 2003. ‘Anterior knee pain: a long term follow-up’. Rheumatology, 42 (2): 380–382.
[iv] Edwards, WB, Taylor D, Rudolphi, TJ, Gilletee, JC, Derrick, TR. 2009. ‘Effects of stride length and running mileage on a probabilistic stress fracture model’. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 41: 2177–84.
[v] Dallam, GM, Wilber RL, Jadelis, K, Fletcher, G, Romanov, N. 2005. ‘Effect of global alteration of running technique on kinematics and economy’. J Sports Sciences, 23(7), 757–764.
[vi] Larson, P, Higgins, E, Kaminski, J, Decker, T, Preble, J, Lyons, D, McIntyre, K, Normile, A. 2011. ‘Foot strike patterns of recreational and sub-elite runners in a long distance road race’. J Sports Sc, 29(15): 1665–73.
PAIN-FREE. PERFORM. PROLONG
Brad Beer (APAM)
Physiotherapist, Author Amazon Running and Jogging Best-seller You CAN Run Pain Free!, POGO Physio Founder