To run faster you need to increase cadence, stride length or both. The question of which it is best to increase is not easy to answer. In particular, the question of the optimum cadence has long been an issue of discussion among runners and coaches.
On the basis of observations of athletes racing distances ranging from 800 m to marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, Jack Daniels suggested that across various distances, cadence should be at least 180 steps per minute. The figure 180 became enshrined in folklore. There have been two niggling concerns about this. First, many recreational athletes tend to adopt a slower cadence. Secondly, it is clear that among both recreational runners and elites, cadence tends to increase with pace. For example, observation of a video recordings of 5000 m races reveals that many elite athletes increase cadence to 200 steps/min or more in the final lap.
Consideration of the effect of increasing cadence on the peak height of the centre of gravity during the airborne phase illustrates why a fairly high cadence is beneficial from the point of view of both efficiency and minimizing risk of injury.
First, we need to consider the question of what proportion of the gait cycle should be spent airborne. Much empirical evidence indicates as speed increases, a shorter time is spent of stance. For example in his study of the factors influencing running speed, Peter Weyand found that the proportion of gait cycle spent on stance typically decreased by around 40% as speed increased from 3 m/sec to 8 m/sec. This is understandable as the shorter the time on stance, the less the braking. To minimize braking at high speed, at least half of the gait cycle should spent airborne.
However when airborne, after mid-flight, the body inevitably accelerates downwards under the influence of gravity. The total vertical distance fallen in one long hop is greater than the fall in a series of short hops of equal total duration because the body accelerates to a greater average speed in a longer fall. As a result, the total gain in height and the energy that must be spent on getting airborne increases with increases of step duration. In addition, the impact forces are greater the longer the step duration. Conversely higher cadence and shorter step duration result in lesser expenditure of energy on getting airborne and lesser impact forces.
However, the saving in cost of getting airborne must be set against the increased cost in repositioning the legs, The swing leg must overtake the torso before footfall, and the cost of accelerating the swing leg increases in proportion to the product of cadence and speed (see calculations in the side bar). The need to avoid large repositioning costs sets an upper limit to cadence. The most efficient cadence is that which minimizes the total cost of getting airborne; overcoming braking; and repositioning the legs.
However, self-selected cadence differs greatly between individuals. Recreational runners tend to have relatively low cadence, often less than the 180 recommended by folk-lore. A study of recreational runners by Heiderscheit and colleagues demonstrated that a typical recreational runner might decrease both airborne costs and braking costs by increasing the self-selected cadence by up to 10% . Heiderscheit reported that at a pace around 3 m/sec, a 10% increase in step rate from a self-selected mean step rate of around 170 resulted in a reduction of approximately 20% in energy absorbed at hip, knee and ankle joints., It is likely than many recreational runners would benefit by increasing cadence.
Elite 5000 m runners
Even elites differ greatly, with typical cadence during the mid-stages of a 5000 m ranging from 180 to over 200 steps/min. Why is there such a large range of cadence among elites? I suspect it is largely determined by the efficiency with which the athlete can capture the energy of impact at footfall as elastic energy and use it to help get airborne again. An athlete who can achieve a greater saving through elastic recoil will require less energy to get airborne and therefore can afford a lower cadence and longer stride at a given pace. If such an athlete can increase cadence while maintaining his/her long stride in the final lap of a 5000m, he/she will have an awe-inspiring powerful finishing kick.
The best illustration of this is provided by Mo Farah. In a previous blog post, I discussed Mo’s cadence during the indoor meeting in Glasgow in 2009, when he set a British indoor 3000 m record. In the middle stages of the race, his cadence was around 175. For example, he covered the sixth lap of the 200 m track at a pace of 6.4 m/sec with a cadence of 175 steps / min and a step length of 2.18 m. He made his decisive break from the field in 13th lap, by increasing pace to 6.6 m/sec. He achieved this by increasing his cadence to 185 steps / min while his step length remained virtually unchanged at 2.17 m.
It was interesting to contrast his long-loping style with that of Galen Rupp as they ran together in the middle of the pack, with Galen about metre behind Mo, along the back-straight in eighth lap of the 5000 m in the London Olympics in 2012. Mo’s cadence was 190 steps/min while Galen’s was 204 steps/min. In the fiercely contested final lap Galen was dropped as Mo increased his cadence to 208 steps per minute while maintaining a step length of 2.18 m to hold off six strong contenders.
In the World Championships in Beijing in 2015, again it was Mo’s ability to maintain his long stride while increasing cadence that carried him 8 metres clear of Caleb Ndiku in the home straight. Mo’s cadence of 204 steps per minute was only marginally faster than Ndiku’s 202 steps per minute, but the telling difference was Mo’s step length of 2.24,m compared with Ndiku’s 2.08 m.
The secret of Mo’s powerful finishing kick is his ability to maintain his long stride as he increases cadence to match that of his opponents in the final lap. It is most likely that this is based on very effective elastic recoil allowing him to re-use impact energy to get airborne. It is noteworthy that he had this ability in 2009, before he joined Alberto Salazar’s training group in Oregon. It is probable that the discipline of Alberto’s coaching took him from the status of UK record holder to World Champion, but the foundation for his later achievement had clearly been laid before 2009. It is an intriguing question to wonder how much of this reflects his genetic endowment and how much reflects the trainable features of his running style.
At footfall, his right foot splays outwards in an ungainly manner, but perhaps more relevant, to my eye, he typically exhibits about 10 degrees of dorsiflexion of his ankle immediately prior to foot-strike. This is clearly illustrated by contrasting the orientation of Mo and Galen’s feet an instant before footfall as they run lock-step (though with Mo landing on the left while Galen is on the right) along the back straight at 9:05 in the 5000m at London, 2012, captured in Michael Wilson’s slow motion video. This small degree of dorsiflexion will pre-tension Mo’s Achilles and promote efficient capture of elastic energy.