Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Running cadence

The other day I realized that even though it has the title "Rebuilt Runner", my blog has precious little on it about running.  I tend to write about what is on my mind, and because I've been doing a lot of other types of exercise lately, that's what I've been writing about.  But that's all gonna change today!

When I started running again a few months ago, I decided to completely retool my form.  I had learned a lot about running mechanics during my many months of injury, and I knew that now was as good a time as ever to start from scratch.  I kept reading about the importance of striking on the midfoot, but as hard as I tried I could not figure out how to actually do it.  I could either land on my heel as I had been doing for years, or I could run entirely on the balls of my fight.

After a couple of weeks of awkward experimentation, I decided to try working on something else-cadence.  Cadence is how often you take a step, the rhythm of your running.  Everything I had read suggested that 180 steps per minute was the best, so I got on on the track and tried this new, faster pace.  Amazingly, as soon as I made that change, I naturally started landing on the midfoot!

Everything in running is connected, so when you improve one element, it will improve others.  Taking that many steps felt clumsy at first, because I been taking long, loping strides for so long.  But when you take many small steps, you feel lighter, smoother.  It's like a ballerina up on pointe gliding across the stage; she takes so many small steps that it looks like one fluid movement.  This feeling is what you are going for.

This cadence was so different from how I used to run, that it took a long time to get the new rhythm etched into my muscle memory.  I even went so far as to get a metronome app for my iPhone and run with the program clicking away three times a second in my ear.  If you don't have a smartphone, you can just look at the seconds ticking away on your watch, and count "DA-da-da-DA-da-da-DA-da-da..." for several seconds before each run.

The difference it makes is tremendous.  With a slower cadence, you go up really high and come crashing down hard with each step.  With a fast cadence, you rise and fall less, and the force of the landing gets spread out over more steps.  This makes running easier on your body and can help to avoid injury.  You also run faster...too fast, sometimes.  To run slowly with a high cadence, you need to have a shorter stride, and learning to vary your stride length with your pace is a skill that takes time to develop.

180 bpm isn't a hard and fast rule; like everything in running, it depends to a degree on your own body shape.  Some may find slightly faster feels more comfortable, while others might find that slightly slower works better.  But the variability should be small.  I saw a slow motion breakdown of the top five finishers in the latest Boston Marathon, and everyone was within about 5 bpm of 180.  So if it works for them, that's good enough for me.

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