Running cadence explained – including how to calculate your own

Taking shorter strides when you run might help prevent injury, but changing your running cadence as an older runner could be risky.

Running cadence refers to the number of steps you take as you run. There is much debate as to what the “perfect number” is but, as I discovered, it’s not an exact science.

And for runners 50 and older the idea of changing your running cadence is a challenging one. On one hand there’s evidence that perhaps it can help reduce injury, while on the other is the problem that learning how to change it increases the chances of getting hurt. 

There are lots of variables – if you’re a runner you’ll already know that every run is different – so unless you have a love of running the exact same route at the exact same time in the exact same weather, your running cadence probably won’t matter much to you. However, it can be fun to try to figure out what yours is – but be warned, finger-counting may be required!

Lower limbs of a woman with an artificial leg running on pavementCredit: Shutterstock / Nomi_Photographs

How to calculate your running cadence

If you’ve invested in a fitness tracker or running watch, your device may have a cadence function, which will calculate your running cadence for you.

If not, there’s not much to it other than counting your own strides per minute. Set a timer on your watch or phone and run for a minute while counting how many steps you take.

It might take a few attempts – as it did with me – because counting and running, while trying to avoid anything coming your way, is a challenge in itself.  

I tried counting in my head, out loud, and then discovered if I made my hands into fists, counted to 10 and used a finger or thumb for every 10, I could just about get it right.  

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Does your running cadence matter?

Having a higher running cadence doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a faster runner, it just means you take more steps to cover the same distance.  

Unless you’re going to count your steps on every run (unlikely) or you have the need to hit an exact number every minute, you don’t need to pay too much attention to your running cadence – although there is some evidence that suggests that running with quicker, shorter steps could reduce impact injuries. However, most studies are with small groups of participants.  

If you’re getting injured frequently, you might want to consider shortening your strides. But, if you’re going to think about changing your running cadence, proceed with caution, advises Trevor Rodwell, coach to Olympian Steve Heard 

Rodwell is in his seventies and still trains four times a week. His advice to older runners is to opt for “softer stuff”. He says: “When you’re younger, your body can adapt easily to what’s called power application – so, high impact drills to speed up your cadence. But I tell people that I help, ‘You recognise that your body benefits more from light resistance.’”  

Trying to change cadence at this stage of your running life can be risky, says Rodwell. He advises to try other activities instead. “Much of the talk around cadence is about how it reduces injury, but I’ve found Pilates or yoga does exactly that for older runners.”  

Our yoga vs Pilates guide explains the difference between the two, so you can decide if they’re suitable for you, whilst our Pilates for runners article has exercises to try.

Jack Daniels and elite running cadence

No, whiskey lovers – not that Jack Daniels.

Instead we’re talking about American exercise physiologist and running coach Jack Daniels. He measured elite runners’ cadence at the 1984 Olympics and concluded that 180 steps per minute was the ideal running cadence for elite runners – they key word being ‘elite’.

He wrote in his book, Daniels’ Running Formula: “Almost all elite distance runners (both men and women) tend to stride at about the same rate: 180 or more steps per minute.”  

Daniels continued: “The stride rate many beginner runners take is quite different from that of elite runners. When I have new runners count their own stride rates, I find that very few (sometimes none out of a class of 25 or 30) take as many as 180 steps per minute.”  

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So, unless you’re an elite (and much younger) runner, you don’t need to worry if your running cadence isn’t in the 180-per-minute ballpark.

When I calculates my own running cadence, the figure was between 160 and 170 strides per minute after counting for six minutes. I’m – touch wood – a lucky runner and don’t get injured very often (I think the amount of Jeffing I do is a huge factor), so I’m not going to give my running cadence much further thought.

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It’s surprising what can change runners’ strides

The perfect running cadence figure of 180 became a benchmark thanks to Daniels – many people took it and, well, ran with it.  

Dick Weis, the former head coach at Oklahoma State University and someone who has helped hundreds of athletes over the years, admits he doesn’t ever really consider running cadence. “We do drills (exercises to improve running technique) which of course helps, but as such we’ve never spent any time trying to change anything.  

“However, in recent years I’ve seen a huge improvement from some athletes thanks to carbon shoes. They seem to speed up runners’ strides and last year, for instance, 12 athletes beat 28 minutes for 10k [six miles 376 yards] at the nationals – when before that almost nobody had ever. Shoes have really changed how runners’ legs respond.”  

There are lots of factors or considerations when it comes to running that can take over and suck the fun out of it. But the simple act of running doesn’t need to be over-complicated if you don’t want it to be.  

You know yourself best, so do what is best for you. If you want to explore running cadence to see if it makes a difference to you, then give it a go – if not, feel free to just enjoy the benefits of running 

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Rebecca Frew

Written by Rebecca Frew she/her

Updated:

Becky Frew has written various articles for newspapers and magazines focusing on fitness, is a qualified run leader, and a certified sleep talker trainer who loves to help advise people how they can nod off easier. When she is not writing or reading about fitness, she is at hot pod yoga, bounce class, training for an ultra-marathon or booking anything with a medal and free food at the end.

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