To run faster, you either need to take longer strides or quicker strides. While both stride length and rate will increase as you become a fitter, stronger, more experienced runner, focusing on increasing your running cadence, or stride rate, may help you get faster quicker and more safely.
Runners, especially inexperienced or developing runners, often take longer strides when they speed up. “Among most distance runners, bias is always toward stride length initially,” says Bryan Heiderscheit, Director of the Runner’s Clinic through the University of Wisconsin Sports Medicine Center and a leading researcher on cadence. “Then they start to have that overstriding, overreaching landing.”
Effective increases in stride length come during the stride flight time, a result of being able to push off stronger. “You don’t want to think of reaching farther ahead when taking a longer stride,” says Heiderscheit.
How to get faster then? You need to train your mind/body system to turn over quicker—to have a higher cadence. “It is important to get people used to a higher turnover to avoid the reach—because there is so much downside to reaching,” Heiderscheit says. “Yes, you may run faster, but there is a definite mechanical cost to your body associated with that, in terms of load on your tissues.”
No Single Perfect Rate
Contrary to some popular teaching, experts agree that you don’t need to increase your cadence to some predetermined optimal rate. “The idea that there is a single optimum for all flies in the face of the science,” says Heiderscheit. Every runner is different, and our bodies naturally find the rate that is most efficient for our build, mechanics, fitness and speed.
“One of the beautiful things about the human body, that is in our nature, is that we are master self-optimizers,” says Geoff Burns, an elite ultramarathoner and research fellow at the University of Michigan who studies running biomechanics and performance. “We are really, really, really good at finding the thing that minimizes the energy costs.” When it comes to cadence, Burns says, “We self-optimize our cadence pretty closely to that which is best for us.”
That said, that optimization is for our current fitness, mechanics and experience. If we want to run faster while staying economical and not putting undue stress on our muscles and joints, we need to get our neuromuscular system used to striding faster. Cadence can serve as one of the running variables we can manipulate to get our bodies used to faster paces. “Broadly speaking, it is a training tool, like hills or sprints or plyometrics. It’s a functional tool to move the dial,” Burns says.
Here are three ways you can increase cadence in training to get your body ready to stride faster when you feel the need for speed.
1) Do High-Cadence Strides
The most basic way to teach your body to go fast is to go fast. A couple of times per week, after an easy run—or during a run after you’ve warmed up—accelerate until you’re turning over as fast as your legs can comfortably go and maintain that rhythm for 8 to 12 seconds. Jog or walk easy until you’re fully recovered. Repeat 3–4 times to start, working up to 8–12.
These strides target the neuromuscular system, jolting it out of your usual rut and creating new pathways for it to use as it works to optimize your mechanics. “If you get into running for fitness and all you’re ever doing is [easy] running, you’re never asking your body to self-optimize to do anything faster,” says Burns.
You’re probably running at a cadence that is optimal for your easy runs, but to get faster, your body will need to learn to turn over more quickly. “If you do drills where a few times per week you’re running 20 steps per minute higher, that might provoke an overall system response to move both mechanics and fitness in that direction,” says Burns.
Take care when you accelerate that you don’t reach and strain—the goal is to move your feet quicker, not necessarily run faster (although you will speed up). Stay relaxed and smooth, popping off the ground quickly, as if it were a hot surface.
2) Quick Arms
Focusing on moving your arms faster can help you take quicker strides rather than reaching and extending your stride when you speed up. Arms aren’t weight bearing and thus easier to manipulate. When the arm rhythm changes, legs and feet will follow.
“Some runners have difficulty changing their turnover…they start to swing their arms into rhythm and then everything falls into place,” Heiderscheit says. “They’re using their arm swing as the entry to make changes in their gait, rather than going to the feet.”
When you swing faster, make sure to drive your arms backward and keep the motion tight and compact with elbows behind your hips and your hands near your lower ribs. Driving your arm back will keep your chest forward and torso balanced, and will encourage your feet to drive backward rather than reaching forward.
Driving your elbows back with a quick, short swing will speed up your running cadence and have you going smoothly faster at any time.
3) Run Tall and Dynamically Balanced
Just increasing your cadence will make you go faster, but to maintain that speed you need to develop an efficient stride that doesn’t brake with each landing. “The generic ‘just increase your step rate,’ doesn’t work universally,” says Heiderscheit. “If you’re going to increase your step rate, also try to land with your foot closer under your hips.”
Landing closer beneath you and pushing backward—rather than reaching and pulling—often requires improving the mechanics of your hips and reactivating muscles that have been compromised by our sedentary, seated lifestyles. As your hips increase in mobility and your glutes get active and strong, your body will optimize your cadence and stride for every pace.
In conjunction with doing the work to improve your mechanics, starting today you can increase your fast-running cadence by improving your posture and getting tall and balanced. Novice runners often retain a “sitting” position on the run, with their hips bent and their weight back on their heels. Experienced runners use a tall posture, stacked in a straight line from head to heels, with a slight, full-body, forward lean putting their weight over their toes.
One way to feel this position is lift your arms and reach up as high as you can, as if trying to get something off a high shelf just above your fingertips—without going onto your tiptoes. Then, without changing your hip and back position, slowly lower your arms back to your sides.
Now look down at your feet. You should be able to see the top of your shoelaces where you tie them. If not, still keeping your hips and chest tall, bring your torso forward slightly so you can see the front of your ankles, noticing how the weight shifts off your heel toward the ball of your foot.
From this tall posture, lean forward with your whole body as if about to take off on a ski jump, keeping a straight line from your heels to your head. Keep leaning as you feel the weight move completely onto your toes, and then one step farther. When you begin to fall forward swing a leg forward to catch yourself, then continue into your run keeping the same tall posture and full-body lean.
Take care that you are not leaning forward from the waist. Think about leading with your hips—as if being pulled forward from a climbing harness—while keeping your torso balanced above them. While you are running you should be continually falling slightly forward, with your feet catching you then pushing back. When you stop running you should have to pull back slightly to get upright or you’ll fall on your face.
By keeping this tall, dynamic balance on the run, you’ll naturally step quicker as you increase in speed. As you develop postural endurance and your body optimizes your mechanics through practice, you’ll be able to maintain that cadence—and speed—for longer, utilizing the efficient elasticity of your body rather than having to muscle your way forward.