It is well known by scientists through academic studies, and with coaches working in the field, that the two measurable factors that determine speed of performance in an endurance runner are stride length and stride frequency.
Take for example the 110 meter high hurdles, as this is the only running event in track and field where an average high school competitor uses the same number of steps as the Olympic Champion. In the race, the same numbers of strides are used to reach the first hurdle, then three strides between hurdles, and a finish with the same number of foot strikes. Every other event from the 100 meters to the 10,000 meters will show that the faster the athlete is, the greater the number of strides. But, what is the ideal cadence for people in the 5000 meters and does it play a part in the factors that affect cross country racing success?
For decades, cyclists have been well aware of the importance of cadence, or pedal RPMs employed in competition, as they sought the most physiologically efficient strategy for success. Swimmers count their strokes and race walkers diligently count their strides as further examples of the importance of cadence in competition. It is only recently that cadence has emerged as an important factor to consider in distance running.
Related article: Planned Balance (Multilateral Training) for Cross Country Runners
Academic studies on barefoot running and anecdotal stories emerging from the use of minimalist shoes by distance runners fueled the discussion among serious runners. It is thought that by running barefoot, or using very light shoes, distance runners develop a stronger toe-off upon losing contact with the ground, thus promoting a quicker cadence in their stride pattern.
The well known American coach and exercise physiologist, Jack Daniels Ph D, performed experiments in his lab after the 1984 Olympics that seemed to indicate that elite distance runners run at a rate of 180 strides per minute (SPM) when competing at race pace. Another study indicated that world class distance runners upped their stride rate from around 180 SPM to nearly 215 SPM when running the last 200 meters of their race, without greatly modifying the equally important stride length portion of the ideal leg stride model.
Studies on elite distance runners are interesting, but they do not tell the story for all runners. Since cadence has been linked to velocity of running effort, studies on competing at sub world class speeds were shown to have a smaller cadence value in some athletes. The difference could be as much as 30 SPM when the cadence value of a VO2 max effort of 5 minutes per mile was compared to an effort at the aerobic threshold of that same athlete at a 7:25 mile. What is important to understand is that increasing velocity definitely increases the cadence of all runners without changing stride length much at all.
Beginner runners rarely run at a cadence of 180 SPM. The most common reason for this is over-striding, which is caused by too much vertical movement in the gait cycle. This often leads to injuries that are more common in beginners, such as sore knees. Because less proficient runners take fewer steps per minute, their body mass is suspended in the air for a greater amount of time which causes a greater force applied when the body makes contact with the ground. Since most injuries are impact related, cadence improvement becomes essential to the progression of the runner.
Another benefit of quickening the cadence of a developing runner is a reduction in metabolic cost. The more the center of mass (COM) moves up and down in the gait cycle, the more energy it takes to run at a given pace. An easy way to reduce the metabolic cost is through step rate changes. To spot a runner that has too much vertical movement, watch for foot landing in the gait cycle. The distance runner should land with the foot directly under the hips and have a relatively “soft” knee upon impact. That means the knee should show about a 20 degree of bend.
There are many ways a cross country runner can quicken their cadence, especially in the critical zone of the race. Training sessions in the Special Endurance 1 (150-300 meters) and Special Endurance 2 (300-600 meters) zones definitely improve the neuro-muscular makeup of the runner and leads to less vertical movement and a quicker cadence as the runner “learns” to run fast. The more quality work done in these training zones, the more the body achieves the ideal stride length. Ultimately, the runner achieves the proper stride length-cadence combination that is most efficient for the physical characteristics of that runner.
In trying to improve the gait cycle, lowering the vertical portion of the stride usually means keeping the back side portion of the stride long, but reducing the front side component. This will be evident when the young runner no longer reaches out with the lead foot, thus keeping the COM more directly under the hips. This allows the glutes and hamstrings to properly create the horizontal propulsion without being hampered by the braking forces of a lead foot that is too far forward.
Plyometrics and bounding, in addition to running fast, help provide the stimulus of explosive activity that teaches the body to produce more ground forces with less contact time. A more powerful stride leads to quicker running cadence. Bounding teaches the body to extend the back side of the stride.
Coaching Resource: The Training Model for High School Cross Country with Scott Christensen
Is 180 SPM the proper cadence for your athletes at race speeds in the 5000 meter cross country race? It is probably some number in that range once the novice runner has proven to be proficient. It is definitely greater than 180 SPM during the critical zone, and that is usually when the race is won or lost. However, in cross country there are hills, sharp turns, and variable surfaces that also influence the cadence of a distance runner.
Scott Christensen is the head track coach at Stillwater Area High School in Oak Park Heights, MN.