Is the ‘180 Cadence’ a myth or something to aim for?

Running cadence is the number of steps taken per minute. There is an increasing trend for runners to shorten the stride length and increase the rate that the legs turn over (ie increase cadence). With many claims and dogma along the lines that if you can get the cadence to around 180 steps/minute then this is somehow a magical way to reduce the risk for injury and increase performance. As usual, there is no evidence to support that.

The initial interest in this was popularized by the coach Jack Daniels (who was described by Runner’s World as the “World’s Best Running Coach”) with most people advocating this approach referring to Daniels comments on this (see the Appeal to authority fallacy).

Others have done a much better analysis of this than I could: Steve Magness  (180 isn’t a magic number- Stride Rate and what it means); Alex Hutchinson (The problem with 180 strides per minute: some personal data); Pete Larsen (Running Speed: Human Variability and The Importance of Both Cadence and Stride Length); and Peter Dunne (Running Cadence and Recent Research). I previously started a discussion on it here.

I think they all agree that it is a magical mythical number and there is a lot of individual variability. Increasing cadence does seem to have benefits in terms of preventing overstriding.

A couple of studies have looked at cadence manipulation:

Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running.
Heiderscheit BC, Chumanov ES, Michalski MP, Wille CM, Ryan MB.
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Feb;43(2):296-302.
The objective of this study was to characterize the biomechanical effects of step rate modification during running on the hip, knee, and ankle joints so as to evaluate a potential strategy to reduce lower extremity loading and risk for injury.
Three-dimensional kinematics and kinetics were recorded from 45 healthy recreational runners during treadmill running at constant speed under various step rate conditions (preferred, ± 5%, and ± 10%). We tested our primary hypothesis that a reduction in energy absorption by the lower extremity joints during the loading response would occur, primarily at the knee, when step rate was increased.
Less mechanical energy was absorbed at the knee (P < 0.01) during the +5% and +10% step rate conditions, whereas the hip (P < 0.01) absorbed less energy during the +10% condition only. All joints displayed substantially (P < 0.01) more energy absorption when preferred step rate was reduced by 10%. Step length (P < 0.01), center of mass vertical excursion (P < 0.01), braking impulse (P < 0.01), and peak knee flexion angle (P < 0.01) were observed to decrease with increasing step rate. When step rate was increased 10% above preferred, peak hip adduction angle (P < 0.01) and peak hip adduction (P < 0.01) and internal rotation (P < 0.01) moments were found to decrease.
We conclude that subtle increases in step rate can substantially reduce the loading to the hip and knee joints during running and may prove beneficial in the prevention and treatment of common running-related injuries.

It was a good study and the only issue I have is that “We conclude that subtle increases in step rate can substantially reduce the loading to the hip and knee joints during running and may prove beneficial in the prevention and treatment of common running-related injuries“. No one has actually shown yet that reducing the load or rate of load can actually prevent injury. That is pure speculation.

Step Frequency and Lower Extremity Loading During Running
Hobara, H.; Sato, T.; Sakaguchi, M.; Sato, T.; Nakazawa, K.
Int J Sports Med 2012; 33(04): 310-313
The purpose of the present study was to ascertain whether increase in step frequency at a given velocity during running reduces the lower extremity loading variables, which is associated with tibial stress fracture in runner. We hypothesized that the lower extremity loading variables at a given speed would be minimized at around + 15% f step. 10 male subjects were asked to run at 2.5 m/s on a treadmill-mounted force platform. 5 step frequencies were controlled using a metronome: the preferred, below preferred ( − 15 and − 30%) and above preferred ( + 15 and + 30%). From the vertical ground reaction force, we measured following lower extremity loading variables; vertical impact peak (VIP), vertical instantaneous loading rate (VILR) and vertical average loading rate (VALR). We found that there were significant differences in lower extremity loading variables among 5 step frequency conditions. Furthermore, quadratic regression analyses revealed that the minimum loading variable frequencies were 17.25, 17.55, and 18.07% of preferred step frequency for VIP, VILR and VIAR, respectively. Thus, adopting a step frequency greater than one’s preferred may be practical in reducing the risk of developing a tibial stress fracture by decreasing lower extremity loading variables.

This study was more measured in its conclusion: “Thus, adopting a step frequency greater than one’s preferred may be practical in reducing the risk of developing a tibial stress fracture by decreasing lower extremity loading variables“, as tibial stress fractures (which make up ~4% of running injuries) are the only injury that has been linked to impact loads.

A third unpublished study presented at the APTA conference in January 2013, found that “A 5% increase in cadence resulted in runners experiencing, on average, 3.4% less time in contact with the ground during each foot strike. This resulted in 2.2% lower heel loading and 2.2-2.4% lower forefoot loading over time” and concluded that “Increasing cadence by 5% in healthy runners decreases plantar loading associated with lower extremity injury“. This study was on plantar pressures and I do not know of any injury that is associated with a high plantar loading!

As always, I go where the evidence takes me until convinced otherwise and increasing the cadence is not going to be a magical panacea for reducing injury.

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2 Responses to Is the ‘180 Cadence’ a myth or something to aim for?

  1. Jedd Wellenkotter December 9, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

    Hi Craig-

    Thanks for posting on this topic.

    I’m the author of the third study you mentioned ” The Effects of Cadence Manipulation on Plantar Loading in Healthy Runners”

    The study is being published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine and will be available soon.

    I want to start off by saying that our study did not examine a cause and effect relationship between cadence and running related injuries, and I agree that current prospective research in this area is lacking.

    The objectives of our study were to determine how cadence manipulation of +/-5% from preferred influences plantar loading (peak force, peak pressure, pressure time integral, force time integral, and contact time).

    Our findings suggest that faster cadences decreased heel loading and did not increase metatarsal loads as expected; rather, metatarsal loads were generally reduced with faster cadence.

    Also- running at an increased cadence appeared to be inversely related to total foot plantar loading variables including contact time, total foot peak force, and total foot peak pressure.

    Our conclusion: “increases in cadence by 5% should decrease plantar loading that MAY be associated with lower extremity injury” we did not say “…..that is associated with lower extremity injury.” The articles I’ve mentioned below should be considered as they associate plantar loading and common lower extremity injuries.

    Clinical relevance? We feel that cadence should be considered in technique training in runners and during rehabilitation of running injuries associated with elevated plantar loading. See the articles on plantar loading and lower extremity pathologies.

    I don’t feel that cadence is the only thing that should be considered, but believe that it is a part of the puzzle. In addition, anecdotally I’m seeing/hearing more runners who are experimenting with cadence alteration and therefore as a clinician it is important to know how these changes influence lower extremity mechanics.

    My thoughts on increasing cadence:
    If people are looking to adjust cadence they should do so by counting the # of steps they take per minute and then adding or subtracting 5-10% of that number to the original. The jury is still out as to whether this will decrease running related injuries, improve running economy, and/or improve performance while minimizing fatigue.

    Articles to consider that associate plantar loading and injury:

    Burns J , Crosbie J , Hunt A , Ouvrier R . The effect of pes cavus on foot
    pain and plantar pressure . Clin Biomech 2005 ; 20 : 877 – 882

    -Evaluated plantar loading in individuals with pain and a pes cavus foot structure. They reported a greater peak pressure time integral from the entire foot, metarsals regions and a greater peak pressure under the heel in those with foot pain and malalignment.

    Van Ginckel A , Thijs Y , Hesar NG Z ■■et al.■■ Intrinsic gait-related
    risk factors for Achilles tendinopathy in novice runners: a prospective
    study . Gait Posture 2009 ; 29 : 387 – 391

    -They reported that runners who developed achilles tendonopathy demonstrated elevated peak force and force time integrals in the lateral metatarsal region pirior to injury. This was also found in those who developed patellofemoral pain, especially those with greater peak force throughout the second and third metatarsal and at the lateral heel.

    Willems T M , De Clercq D , Delbaere K , Vanderstraeten G , De Cock A , Witvrouw
    E . A prospective study of gait related risk factors for exerciserelated
    lower leg pain . Gait Posture 2006 ; 23 : 91 – 98

    – Reported a more centralized heel strike, greater peak pressure on the medial aspect of the foot and a more significant lateral roll-off in runners who experienced patellofemoral pain.

    Thanks again for posting on this topic.

    Jedd Wellenkotter, PT, DPT, MS, EPC
    Clinical Director at Sport and Spine Physical Therapy- Watertown
    Ironman triathlete and lead author of “The Effects of Cadence Manipulation on Plantar Loading in Healthy Runners”

  2. Greg M January 15, 2015 at 4:45 pm #

    Hi Craig,
    My understanding of Dr. Daniels’ observations on cadence had more to do with its impact on running economy, which of course is his primary area of research and expertise. To my knowledge, he has never done any research on this beyond observing elite runners *in competition* (emphasis mine) and noting that “most” of them had a cadence of “around” 180 steps per minute.

    I think Dr. Daniels, as a coach, would also say that over-training is the single greatest risk factor for injury, regardless of cadence.

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