Step it up: Does running cadence matter? Not as much as previously thought

Press Release:

ANN ARBOR–Contrary to long-standing popular belief, running at a prescribed, one-size-fits-all “optimal” cadence doesn’t play as big a role in speed and efficiency as once thought.

Since the 1980s, when running coach Jack Daniels noted that the step rate for runners in the 1984 Olympics was about 180 per minute, it’s been widely touted as a means to reduce injury or improve speed, said Geoff Burns, an elite marathoner and University of Michigan doctoral student in kinesiology.

“It’s one of the few biomechanical measures we have that is a gross system-level output for running,” he said.

To find out what determines cadence and how much cadence really matters, Burns had the top 20 elite male and female runners record their cadence during the 100K International Association of Ultrarunners World Championship in 2016.

While the average number of steps per minute was 182, the number of steps per minute per mile varied enormously by individual.

“Some ran at 160 steps per minutes and others ran at 210 steps per minute, and it wasn’t related at all to how good they were or how fast they were,” Burns said. “Height influenced it a little bit, but even people who were the same height had an enormous amount of variability.”

The main takeaway for runners is that cadence is highly individual, and your body knows what’s optimal, said Burns, a third-year Ph.D. student in Professor Ronald Zernicke’s lab. This means runners shouldn’t necessarily try to manipulate cadence to reach the 180 steps, but rather, monitor cadence as their running progresses.

“It’s a barometer and not a governor,” he said. “There’s no magical number that’s dogmatically right for everybody.”

For years, many coaches and practitioners thought that cadence should remain constant as speed increases, which required longer steps. Burns says longer steps takes more energy, and his study found that cadence naturally increased four to five steps per minute per mile as runners ran faster.

Other findings surprised Burns, as well. First, step cadence was preserved through the race, even during the torturous “ultra shuffle” near the end–when racers shuffle across the finish line, barely lifting their feet.

Burns assumed that exhausted runners would take shorter, choppier steps. But surprisingly, when researchers controlled for speed, cadence stayed constant.

Another unexpected finding is that by the end of a race, cadence varied much less per minute, as if the fatigued runner’s body had locked into an optimal steps-per-minute turnover. It’s unclear why, Burns said, but this deserves further study.

An ultramarathon is anything longer than a traditional marathon of 26 miles. As a semi-pro ultramarathoner, Burns spends about two hours a day running and another two hours a day on conditioning–in addition to his doctoral work.

“It’s a really unique symbiotic relationship,” he said. “My running informs my research and helps me not just ask novel questions and gain insight and perspective into the craft, but also helps me refine how I prepare for races.”

Burns’ research appears in the February issue of Applied Physiology.


SaleBestseller No. 1
Science of Running: Analyze your Technique, Prevent Injury, Revolutionize your Training (DK Science of)
  • Napier, Chris (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 224 Pages - 02/04/2020 (Publication Date) - DK (Publisher)
SaleBestseller No. 2
Run Better: How To Improve Your Running Technique and Prevent Injury
  • Harvey, Jean-François (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 312 Pages - 03/28/2017 (Publication Date) - Greystone Books (Publisher)
Bestseller No. 3
Older Yet Faster: The Secret to Running Fast and Injury Free
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Bateman, Keith (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 233 Pages - 03/25/2020 (Publication Date) - Older Yet Faster Publications Pty, Limited (Publisher)
Bestseller No. 4
Running Technique
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Martin, Brian (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 237 Pages - 08/04/2011 (Publication Date) - Brian Martin (Publisher)
Bestseller No. 5
Barefoot Running Step by Step: Barefoot Ken Bob, The Guru of Shoeless Running, Shares His Personal Technique For Running With More
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Wallack, Roy (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 245 Pages - 05/01/2011 (Publication Date) - Fair Winds Press (Publisher)
SaleBestseller No. 6
Running the Room: The Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour
  • Audible Audiobook
  • Tom Bennett (Author) - Tom Bennett (Narrator)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 08/15/2023 (Publication Date) - John Catt (Publisher)
Bestseller No. 7
The Art of Running: Raising Your Performance with the Alexander Technique
  • Shields, Andrew (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 160 Pages - 01/03/2017 (Publication Date) - Collins & Brown (Publisher)
Bestseller No. 8
Running techniques that do not cause pain or injury that 90% of people do not know about: Running form bible for beginners (Japanese Edition)
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • NAOKI MIURA (Author)
  • Japanese (Publication Language)
  • 237 Pages - 03/02/2024 (Publication Date)
Bestseller No. 9
The Lost Art of Running: A Journey to Rediscover the Forgotten Essence of Human Movement
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Benzie, Shane (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 289 Pages - 08/20/2020 (Publication Date) - Bloomsbury Sport (Publisher)
SaleBestseller No. 10
80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower
  • Audible Audiobook
  • Matt Fitzgerald (Author) - Rob Grgach (Narrator)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 04/30/2017 (Publication Date) - Tantor Audio (Publisher)

I get commissions for purchases made through links on this website. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.