Cadence, Form and Speed in Ultratraining- a personal perspective

Cadence, steps per minute, the magic 180… this is a pretty controversial subject, there’s a lot of science, a lot of studies and a heck of a lot of advice.  But (and it’s a big but) whilst the science agrees on some things and contradicts on others what we can’t find is a conclusive study of cadence in Ultra running (if you find one, please let us know). What we know from our own experience is that 180 is not the answer for everyone (and the science is showing its probably not the answer for anyone all the time).

That said, I have done a lot of work on my cadence in conjunction with my other training. And I have learnt a lot  from it. I started looking at cadence because I was getting a number of ‘niggles’ that could be linked to impact when I was running at low speed and hence much lower cadence. 

Adjusting your natural cadence

Firstly, ‘adjusting’ my cadence was done over a period of months, built into my training plan, using music (see below) to increase cadence slightly each week. Most studies recommend no more than a 5% increase every week or so. 

180 is not the answer for me.  On a long run my average natural cadence has increased from around 162 to 176 over a period of about 6 months.  But cadence and speed are very hard to separate – my 5k drills* cadence is 180+, 190 for a 1k effort, but recovery runs are nearer 165 (unless I’m using a metronome!).

Running to the beat

Cadence before
Cadence Before – Ave 165 spm

Music and/or a metronome has helped me massively. Running to a steady beat has a mental advantage as well as the obvious physical manifestation. Music has been shown (another scientific debate!) to reduce perceived effort and enable endurance athletes to go further, faster (reference). For fixed tempo music try podrunner.com (we have no affiliation, just like what he does).

Personal results

Cadence after
Cadence after – Ave 176 spm

As my fitness has increased so has my pace and so has my natural cadence – They are all intertwined and I’ve no idea which caused which!  Also as I’ve got fitter and hence increased my natural cadence my running form has changed (significantly) for the better. I didn’t set out to ‘change my gait’, or ‘eradicate heel strike’ (more controversial topics) BUT I now run faster, with a quicker natural cadence and I heel strike less, use my glutes much more and have had no joint issues, muscle strains or other significant niggles for over 9 months (following a 4 year period of needing to see a physio every 3-6 months).


Cadence in the mountains
A big mountain day with lots of rough technical terrain

Is all this goodness and positive improvement due to a change in cadence alone? – definitely not.  Has it contributed? – probably.  Do we recommend adding cadence drills into your training – definitely, that’s why you’ll find them in our training plans.  And if you’ve always been a runner with a naturally high tempo and beautiful running gait, you may still benefit from focus on cadence and form at various times e.g. working on cadence and form on uphills if you perceive that as a personal weakness.

And the harsh reality of Ultra running is there will be mountainous days. Days where cadence is less than ideal, and keeping moving becomes much more important…

* (strides or efforts at 5k pace) 

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