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Ask the Coach
A running stride consists of stride length and stride rate/cadence. The theoretical “optimal stride rate” is …
Illustration by Jeremy Collins
I have heard a lot about turnover/cadence and how it affects running efficiency. What is optimal cadence for trail running and how do you increase your turnover/cadence?
—Todd Merrill, Woodstock, MD
A running stride consists of stride length and stride rate/cadence. The theoretical “optimal stride rate” is one that allows you to maintain the most efficient bio-mechanics, resulting in faster running. Among coaches there is a general rule of having athletes try to achieve 180 foot falls per minute. But as sports scientist Alex Hutchinson points out, “This number comes from observing Olympic-level runners running at race pace.” We also know intuitively that our cadence picks up as we speed up and decreases as we slow, which is also proven in the research. So there is no one magic running cadence that is optimal for everyone.
That doesn’t mean the 180 foot falls per minute does not have the desired effect however. Even if the theory isn’t one size fits all, it does generally improve athletes’ stride and efficiency just striving for that number. Explains Hutchinson, “Over-striding is probably the most common mistake in running form, so anything that encourages you to take shorter, quicker steps helps.“
When you over-stride, your foot moves out in front of your body which causes a heel strike. An over-striding heel striker is essentially creating a small braking effect with every step. Not only can this slow you down, but it causes unnecessary impact on the joints, which can lead to overuse injuries.
With a high cadence, you naturally take shorter strides, which means your foot lands underneath your center of gravity. With no braking, your speed will increase and joint impact will decrease. Faster feet also mean you are in a better position to react to the quickly changing trail terrain.
Improving your cadence simply takes practice. Count your cadence a few times during a few runs a week, then work to increase it five percent. Fast-twitch training exercises, such as quick feet drills and ladder drills, also help.