Step It Up! Increasing Running Cadence Can Really Take a Load Off (Your Joints!)

Post by Laura Gold, PT, DPT

Running related aches, pains, and injuries are often a result of repetitively overloading our joints and other tissues. One simple technique change that may reduce strain on the runner’s body is to increase your cadence. Have you ever watched elite distance runners glide around the track in the 10,000 meter or down the road in a big marathon? If so, you might have noticed how quickly they move their feet- their step rate, or “cadence” is typically at least 180 steps per minute.

So how exactly does increasing cadence help prevent or treat injuries? In a study published in 2011 in the ACSM’s journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Heiderscheit and colleagues provide evidence that subtle increases in step rate can decrease the energy absorbed by a runner’s joints- specifically the hip and knee. A 5-10% increase in step rate significantly lessens loads on the knee and hip. Increasing stride rate also helps to naturally decrease “over striding” habits and helps to decrease hip adduction and internal rotation moments at the knee- all of which are associated with injury.

In this running analysis video of elite runner Priscah Jeptoo by running coach James Dunne, you can see how a substantially higher running cadence can overcome some pretty significant biomechanical inefficiencies.

Running with a higher cadence is certainly a more efficient way to run, and although you might not be able to clock the times that the elites do, achieving a high cadence is possible even for the amateur runner. The key is to make gradual increase in cadence and to begin with short distances. Don’t try to ramp it all the way up in one day!

Start by measuring your cadence. You can calculate it manually simply by counting your foot falls over a set amount of time and then multiplying to get the number of steps you are taking per minute. It is usually easiest to count foot falls on one side only.

For example: Over a 30 second period, if the left foot strikes the ground 40 times, you would multiply 40 x 2 to get 80 steps on the left (for one minute) and then double that number to give you 160 total (left and right) steps per minute.

Once you get the hang of it, try doing quick 10 second checks throughout your run to see if your cadence is consistent or tends to change given the day, conditions, or your level of fatigue. When you have an idea of your baseline cadence, try picking it up a bit. Start slow with a 5-10% increase over a short distance, such as a tenth to a quarter of a mile. You might try using it as a warm-up drill before starting the main portion of your run. You can gradually try to incorporate the increased cadence into your runs using a metronome- several smart phone metronome applications are available on the market. The metronome gives you an audible beat at a specified rate to which you can match your footfalls.

Increasing your cadence can go a long way to improve your running efficiency and help in the prevention and treatment of injuries, but it is certainly not the only important factor in running mechanics. Even the elites with great running cadence still run into injuries (pun intended!).

If you have a running injury or questions about preventing running injuries, come see the physical therapists at Movement Sports. We would love to help you get back on the road or trail- AND help you to stay there!

Medical Disclaimer: Motion Stability has created and compiled the content on its websites for your information and use. This information is not intended to replace or modify the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. Please remember that the information and content, in the absence of a visit with a health care professional, must be considered as an informational/educational service only and is not designed to replace a physician’s independent judgment about the appropriateness of risks of a procedure or condition for a given patient. 

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