180 strides per minute

Something that has been rattling around in the back of my mind of late, as I’ve been trotting through my easier and long runs, has been the much talked about topic of stride rate and the magical number 180 that was famously recorded by Jack Daniels in his book as being the gold standard for running cadence. This was based on observations of runners competing at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics where he noticed remarkable consistency of stride rate across a range of distances. While this was based around elite runners who happened to be running very fast it has trickled down into mainstream running without much of a challenge.

Running technique, stride rate and the social media intervention

That was until earlier in the week when I spied a Tweet from the @NakedRunners linking to Sweat Science, the blog of scientist, author and runner Alex Hutchinson who had compiled some personal data on his stride rate as he increased his running speed from 5 minute km pace to 3 minute km pace. Have a read of the article by following the link above, it’s worth a look and some thinking time. So the material put together by Alex gave me a shove to get my thoughts in order about the implications of stride rate on proper running technique. And in late breaking news RunBlogger Pete Larson has also weighed in with some more thoughts. Who said social media serves no useful purpose? I immediately re-tweeted and posted it on my Facebook page, which I’m using as a fast way to link and share material generated by other authors – so if you haven’t done so you might like to like Running Technique Tips on Facebook to get more of these on the fly updates.

Could too much focus on turnover lead to teeny tiny strides?

Before I started researching running technique I had a crack at implementing the 180 mantra with my quad oriented, painful running technique, I found it helpful, but it wasn’t a panacea for my running technique ills. And I have to admit I’ve been guilty of focusing on stride rate perhaps a little too much in the past. I also included some information about cadence in my Running Technique book, however, I had some reservations about it as I’ve listed it as a factor to look at, but not the whole story when it comes to assessing whether or not someone has good running technique. This was in part due to seeing the implications of some of my own experimentation where I found that too much focus on cadence was at times turning me into a teeny tiny strider.

Read the follow-up article: training and coaching implications

An unsubstantiated but pretty good theory

So how does that work? Well I’m not a scientist so I’m going to throw out a theory based on my own experience and that of other runners grappling with this issue. When you’re running on an easy day, unless you’re Haile Gebrselassie* (world marathon record holder), there’s a fair chance you’ll be running at 5 – 6 min km pace or even a little slower depending on your ability level. *It’s been reported that Haile finds it painful to run much slower than 4min km pace.

Anyway my take on stride rate and proper running technique is this: if you strive too much for fast cadence at slow speeds it is possible to compromise your technique. By this I mean either jamming up the late forward swing phase of running too much and/or by not completing a reasonable extension of the hip joint through the contact phase – that is not activating the glutes (buttocks) enough to push your body ahead of the hips.  In each case the runner is in such a hurry to launch the next stride that it is started prematurely and/or the previous one is left as unfinished business. Get more information about how I describe the four phases of running here.

Running technique - four phases explained

Under-striding: a problem you may not have thought about

Launching your stride prematurely or under-striding as I call it, is less damaging than landing with your leg straight out ahead on your heel, however it can translate into loss of stride length (ground covered) at faster speeds if you don’t allow yourself to open up a bit more. However if you do decide to open up the taps in search of speed and flowing running form it’s a good idea to ensure your hamstrings and glutes are well conditioned and in reasonable balance (in terms of strength) compared to your quads. When I initially started redressing the imbalances in my own body I had to consciously stop myself from over extending (straightening) my knees (the cause of a nasty season ending injury), however as my strength has increased it’s become a subconscious factor where the hamstrings are strong and supple enough to resist over-extension.

As an interesting aside, the so called Kenyan shuffle exhibited by American sub 13 minute 5k runner Chris Solinsky in this video does not appear to be done with fast cadence – I estimate about 156 strides per minute by shoulder movement and sound, but maths was never a strength of mine.

 

I actually think under-striding can be an issue because there’s so much talk about over-striding that regular runners are scared stiff about touching down slightly ahead of their body – even though this is exactly what elite runners do. Check out this article by Michael Yessis for a bit more information and another take on the over-striding phenomena.

Unfinished business – don’t switch off your bum too early

The point Alex makes in his blog is valid – elite runners are likely to stride slower at cross-over jogging pace (in training) with recreational runners because they are stronger, better coordinated and able to tap into more free energy from the muscles and tendons and therefore able to cover more ground per stride. This is exactly the reason I believe that it is beneficial for recreational runners to focus on getting good glute (buttock) activation during ground contact and ensuring the stride isn’t cut short prematurely (even if this leads to a slightly slower stride rate in training). This ensures that when the time comes to run a bit faster your glutes are better conditioned and able to help propel you further for each step in race conditions when your stride should lengthen and cadence increase.

In terms of the of the running technique assessment work Mark and I have been doing, we have noted slow stride rates on a few occasions but we generally don’t make a big issue out of it unless the cadence doesn’t pick up much with increases in running speed e.g. 6 min km pace to 5 min km pace or 5 min to 4 min pace. If the stride rate doesn’t increase much it implies and is often visually evident that the runner has increased their speed by over-striding, not through a longer bound or flight phase, but through an elongated stride pattern – not a good idea. So you do need to keep an eye on it.

Coaching for cadence

So is an increase in stride rate a good coaching cue or instruction to give to a runner? It depends, everyone responds to and then implements that kind of suggestion differently, some might become teeny tiny striders, for others they may be ok and it could be exactly the stimulus they require to run better. I think it needs monitoring to make sure the intended result of the instruction is implemented by the runner.

A personal aside

So I went back and had a look at some old footage someone took of me a few years back before I began working on improving my running technique. The results were interesting, and I’ll send them to Alex so he can plot them on his graph. At 5min km (12kph) pace my cadence was pretty slow about 152-154 probably a bit too slow, interestingly at 4min km pace things had speed up to 180 which sounds optimal, but my technique was still seriously flawed whether running and striding slowly or quickly. The video below is at 4min km pace.

 

When I get back on the treadmill later this week or early next I will check what my cadence is like now at 4min km pace. Prior to working on my technique I had a 5km personal best of about 19 minutes which I managed to get down to 17.42, so it’s possible that I may now run at 4min km pace with a slightly lower cadence because I’m a bit stronger and use my glutes more and therefore cover more ground per stride. I’ll report back when I know more …

Read the follow-up article: training and coaching implications

So the running technique tip is to think about how you are completing each stride not just count how many times you stride. Both factors need consideration.

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7 Responses to 180 strides per minute

  1. KG November 20, 2011 at 4:22 am #

    Glad to read this. I’m a chronic understrider, which I attribute to lack of neuromuscular power. When I am at the end of a race, or sprinting, I cat get up to 200 to 208 strides per minute. My question is, if its all in the glutes, how to i strengthen them? Hill sprints?

    • Brian November 20, 2011 at 8:40 am #

      G’day Kevin, thanks for getting in touch. Definitely hitting the hills is a good idea to build strength in the glutes and hamstrings. The key is to not run them too fast, to begin run them a bit slower with focus on getting good decent glute activation and drive. Push yourself up the hill. You can also take up some strength work such as that discussed on this website. Brian

  2. Alex Hutchinson September 15, 2011 at 10:03 am #

    Interesting thoughts, Brian. I definitely agree that “understriding” is a potential pitfall from being too focused on a single number like 180. Flight time is going to depend on a bunch of different factors (like body weight, push-off force, push-off angle, and so on), all of which vary from person to person — so it’s crazy to think that everyone should have the same cadence even if they were running at the same pace!

    Anyway, look forward to seeing your data and adding it to the graph when you have a chance to get on the treadmill!

    • Brian September 15, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

      Cheers Alex. One of these days I’ll have to get high-tech and get a Garmin and a footpod thing … but for now the treadmill and video camera will have to suffice!

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