Why Is a High Cadence Useful For Runners?

One of the few things that make science and medicine beautiful is experimental reproducibility. This is when a study is repeated in different settings, by different people and yet produces the same result.

 

It is also rare when a simple idea can be immediately transferred from the lab to the real world. Such is the story of running cadence, whereby increasing one's steps per minute can reduce running forces that are associated with running injuries.

 

Heiderscheit et al. (2011) asked 45 healthy runners to run on a treadmill at their preferred cadence, and to increase their cadence by 5% and 10% by following the beat of a metronome. The researchers compared the amount of energy absorbed by the runners’ lower limbs (hip, knee, and ankle) while running at different cadences.

 

What were their findings?

 

When runners increased their cadence by 10%, they tended to reduce step length, “vertical bounce”, and braking by striking the ground closer to their body – all of these things help to decrease forces on the legs when running. When cadence was reduced by 10%, the opposite effects happened.

 

Nearly ten years later, Wang et al. (2020) repeated this experiment and had similar results. A twelve-week retraining program significantly increased cadence by 5.7%. This increased cadence effectively reduced impact, measured by the “vertical loading rate” of the ground reaction force.

 

Adams et al. (2018) tried this in an outdoor setting and found that “increasing cadence by an average of 7% in an outdoor setting resulted in a decrease in peak force at two different time points during a 2.4-mile run.”

 

And there are many more studies (see below).

 

Source: Aditi Pandya, geeksonfeet.com

 

Increasing cadence reduces forces everywhere

 

For example, increasing cadence has been shown to reduce loads on:

  • the lower limb (Willy 2015; Heiderscheit 2011);
  • hips (Heiderscheit 2011; Gerlach 2005);
  • knees (Swennen 2021; Willy 2016; Willson 2015; Lenhart 2014; Willson 2014; Allen 2014; Heiderscheit 2011);
  • ankles (Swennen 2021); and
  • feet (Musgjerd 2021; Gerrard 2017; Wellenkotter 2014; Clark 1985).

 

Bramah et al. (2019) even showed that increasing cadence in a single retraining session reduced knee loading and symptoms in people with knee pain at 4 weeks and 3-month follow-ups.

 

Increasing cadence is the safest gait modification

 

Increasing cadence reduces forces everywhere, instead of “shifting” them somewhere else.

 

For example, if you have knee pain and want to reduce loads at the knee during running, you can do this by wearing more minimalist shoes (Sun et al. 2020). However, this shifts the loads from the knees to your feet/ankles, which might increase your risk of getting a foot or ankle injury in the short-term if done too quickly.

 

What are the take-home messages?

 

  1. Running at higher cadences reduce forces on the body while lower cadences increases them.
  2. Running cadence can easily be increased. The results are immediate and sustainable.
  3. Increasing running cadence may be a simple and cost-effective first-line treatment compared to changing footwear, and other approaches.

 

Want to learn more about cadence?

 

 

As always, this post is not meant to be medical advice. If you have any questions about running cadence and injuries, please consult a healthcare professional to address these concerns.

Waldo Cheung & Jean-Francois Esculier

Waldo Cheung is a physiotherapist based in Calgary, Alberta with a special interest in running and climbing injuries. He enjoys reading the latest running science and educating the public through his physiotherapy blog.

Jean-Francois Esculier is a Speaker and Leader of Research and Development at The Running Clinic. He practices at MoveMed Physiotherapy, a specialized clinic recommended by The Running Clinic based in Kelowna, Canada.