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Cadence – It’s Not Just for Cycling

The very first time I got on a road bike, I put it into one of the heaviest gears, and mashed those pedals around the Pine Barrens of South Jersey for two hours. I’m guessing my cadence couldn’t have been much more than 60-65 rpm.

This story is a common one – especially for runners who start cycling. Runners just love to mash and grind, don’t we? If it doesn’t hurt, we can’t possibly be doing it correctly, right?

Thankfully, those more experienced at the time than I taught me to stop being such a schmuck. So, I lightened up the gear, and increased my cadence. At first, I found this shift to a higher cadence rather challenging for my cardiovascular system.

Cadence

Meet the ‘Zilla twins. They are large and in charge. For a party trick, I can flex my hamstring like Popeye’s bicep. It’s a crowd pleaser. More spinach, please!

You see, I have quadzillas and hamzillas (as John likes to call them), and those puppies can take some big heavy gear torture before my heart even knows the difference — hence my infatuation with hilly races. But, low gear mashing isn’t efficient, and it’s a mistake that will be paid for on the run. The ‘Zilla Twins can take a lot of punishment, but hours upon hours mashing away at 65 rpm will leave my muscles shredded, and with nothing left for the run.

So, I worked on bringing my bike cadence up, and now I rock out pretty happily around 85-90 rpm. That cadence is an important factor for cycling efficiency is well known and accepted within the triathlon community. The common wisdom is to ride between 80-100 rpm, with 85-95 often being the sweet spot for most.

Run Cadence & Efficiency

However, a higher cadence for cycling isn’t just about being more efficient on the bike, it’s also about setting yourself up for a good run. If you lift your cycling cadence, you won’t trash your muscles and you will mimic an ideal cadence for running – which is about 90 steps per foot per minute, or a total of 180 steps per minute.

Run cadence has always been important, but it hasn’t gotten as much attention as cycling cadence.  And, thinking about cadence isn’t just important for triathletes – runners of all types should care about cadence if they want to go faster with less or the same effort.

I’ve always had a pretty high cadence for running, between 180-188 steps per minute. I credit this to having a crew coach, who was also a collegiate runner. He worked with us not just on rowing form, but also running form. Even so, I will regularly check on my cadence to make sure I’m in an efficient zone – especially when I’m fatigued in the final miles of a race. Counting my cadence often brings with it a soothing function – and keeps my mind off the fact that I am suffering.

In this video, well-known Olympic running coach Bobby McGee explains why higher cadence matters:

Still unconvinced? Okay, I’ll share an example from my own coaching.

I work with an athlete who used to have a run cadence around 160 steps per minute. But, we’ve worked on his form, which has ultimately increased his cadence, and he now runs 176-184 steps per minute – right in the money zone. This increase in cadence has come with an increase in speed – without an increase in heart rate.

Consider the following. On August 25, 2013 he ran 90 minutes in zone 2 at an average of:

  • 162 steps per minute,
  • 10:23 min/mile,
  • 142 beats per minute heart rate

One month later, on September 22nd, he ran 100 minutes in zone 2, at an average of:

  • 176 steps per minute,
  • 8:58 min/mile,
  • 143 bpm heart rate.

Interestingly, on October 5th, he ran 105 minutes with an average cadence of 164, HR of 149 bpm, and pace of 9:49. Hmmmmm. In subsequent runs, whenever his cadence is on point, his pace and his HR are too.

Now, cadence is not the only reason why this athlete found an improvement in his runs–nor why the October 5th run showed a dip in performance. Clearly, improved metabolic efficiency, improved endurance, and strength also play a role. But, I argue that had he not also worked on his form, the gains would not have been as striking, which is evidenced by the October 5th run. We can assume that on October 5th his fitness was not dramatically different from September 22nd, yet his cadence was significantly lower, which to me signifies that his overall form was breaking down, which in turn affects the effort.

He’s only one example of many others I could share. I’ve had athletes who have had a very hard time keeping their heart rate in control. As soon as we started working on their form, and improving their efficiency – we see their split times improve, and their ability to control their heart rate increases. Improvements in form compliment and enhance improvements in fitness.

But, here’s the thing, you can’t just go out tomorrow and start increasing your cadence, without looking at the totality of your form, and what might be causing the lower cadence. Is it overstriding? Is it shuffling? Is it upper body posture? Is it some combination of these factors?

Running mechanics are in part dependent upon your individual physiology, but there are also some general principles that apply to all of us – no matter what our individual biomechanics might be. In another video (Essentials of Running Mechanics), McGee discusses the importance of the forward lean, which is a key component to support a higher cadence – it’s not simply moving your feet faster – it’s ensuring that everything about your posture, form, and movement supports each other for the highest efficiency possible.

So, what can you do to work on your running cadence? Well, with the aforementioned aspects of form in mind, I recommend doing 2-3 sets of 30 seconds of various drills (e.g., anklingankle springsquick foot drillg-drill to name a few), with 30 seconds rest. These can be done as a warm up before most runs.

You should also consciously count your cadence while running. Every so often, count how many times your right foot hits the ground in a 30 second period. Times this number by 2 and that is your cadence for 60 seconds. You ultimately want to get to 90. If you aren’t there, go through the aspects of your form, like a checklist. It also helps to get some video to see what specifically might be your limiter or where you are a little off the ideal.

Swimming & Stroke Rate

Lastly, what about swimming — does cadence (or stroke rate) matter in swimming? Yes!

But, maybe not in the way you might think. Just as with cycling and running, a higher cadence might benefit the triathlete swimmer as well. Doubt me? Well, don’t take it from me – how about Dave Scott?

Triathletes don’t swim in the pool, and an open water swim presents different demands than a “smooth” pool, and a higher cadence can benefit triathletes in this circumstance. Moreover, as this video points out, the physiological structure of the triathlete’s body might make a traditional low stroke rate difficult to execute properly. The early vertical quick catch, high elbow, and the quick pull through the water leads to lower drag, and faster times. It’s a stroke well suited for open water, and to the unique aspects of swimming in triathlon.

Working on the efficiency of your form – in this case your cadence – can be incorporated into almost any training session for the bike, the run or the swim. During the base period (for three base phase specific workouts, click here), regularly using drill segments as part of your warm up is a great idea. But, even during the build or race-specific components, incorporating some efficiency work is not a bad idea to keep your form sharp.

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Do you do efficiency work in your training? What are some of the workouts or drills from which you’ve had the best results? 

2 comments

  1. vttrailgirl

    Awesome stuff. This is spot on for me. I recently started heart rate training, now seems like a good time to incorporate to work on shortening my stride…and get faster!!!
    I’m going for a run now to practice this.
    Thanks for an awesome post. You rock!

    1. Maria Simone

      Thanks, Astrid! I’m glad it was useful :) Happy Running, mama!

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