Why cadence is so important for heavy runners

Let's get this out of the way...I'm a big dude.

I've talked about this a lot in my articles because I think it's important for people to know that bigger people enjoy running too!

I weigh about 200 pounds.

That's me up there in the green shirt crossing the finish line of a half Ironman Triathlon with a good friend of mine.

As a heavy, overweight runner, I can tell you from experience that being heavier comes with a price.

Every step you take is harder on your joints, your heart and lungs have to work harder to move more weight, and your muscles will generally fatigue earlier because they have to support more mass!

Running uphill is definitely harder because you have that much more weight being pulled down by gravity.

Running downhill is tougher on your body because there is more force pounding your joints as you descend.

So yeah, life as a heavy runner isn't great.

But, let me share some good news with you...

There are some things you can do to make running a little better for you!

  1. You can lose some weight.

  2. You can use the right shoes that will support your weight.

  3. You can improve your cadence.

Today we're going to talk about cadence...what it is, and why it's so important for heavier runners to master.

What is cadence?

Cadence is how many steps you take per minute when you're running. This includes both feet.

If you have a fitness tracker or step counter, it's basically counting your cadence. If you have an app or website that links to your tracker it will generally show you something like the image above. This is what the Garmin website displays after I track a run with my Garmin Vivoactive 3.

If you don't have a fitness tracker you can use an app on your phone like Strava or MapMyRun.

And if you really wanna go old school, you can just count your steps for 30 seconds, then multiply by 2 to get how many steps you take in one minute!

If you look at the image above you'll see that during this run I averaged 164 SPM (steps per minute). That means that during this roughly 32-minute run, I took about 5,248 steps! (164 spm x 32 minutes)

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Ok, so now you know what cadence is, but why is it important?

Well, cadence is important for any runner. Increasing your cadence can help reduce injuries while also helping you improve your form.

As heavier runners, you and I are at an even greater risk of getting injured due to the added stress we're putting on our joints, so improving our cadence is that much more important.

Here are a few reasons why I think that improving your cadence may be one of the most important things you do as a heavy runner.

Why you should increase your cadence

Increasing your cadence will result in less impact on your joints.

Try this at home...jump as far forward as you can, like you're trying to jump over a puddle. Then, turn around and take tiny little baby steps back to where you started.

Do you think your body experienced more of an impact when jumping or when taking tiny little baby steps?

The obvious answer here is that you experienced more force when you jumped!

This is how running works as well. When you lengthen your stride and take those long, bounding steps, you are actually introducing more force on your feet and joints.

When you increase your cadence, you take smaller steps which means that each step has less impact on your body.

Less impact on your body means you are less likely to get an overuse injury like plantar fasciitis, patellar tendonitis, or shin splints.

Not only will you be more likely to stay healthy, but you'll probably experience less pain during/after your runs as well. Less impact is always a good thing.

Increasing your cadence will help you stay in control

Thinking about the same example as above, which action do you think is more likely to cause an acute injury like a rolled ankle or blown ACL...jumping as far as you can, or taking baby steps?

Again, taking long, reaching steps (this is called "over striding") is generally less controlled than keeping your steps shorter and under your body.

When people take longer strides they tend to reach out in front of their bodies with their feet instead of pushing off further behind their bodies.

This can cause two things.

  1. Excessive force, which can lead to overuse injuries as well as acute injuries like muscle strains or tendon/ligament damage.

  2. Instability which, again, can lead to acute injuries like rolled ankles or groin strains.

You generally get a sense of this sensation when you're tired and you're running down a hill. Your feet are lazily slapping the pavement because you've lengthened your stride in an effort to keep up with the pace that gravity set for you!

By the time you get to the bottom of the hill you feel like you just got off a rollercoaster because it was such a rough ride.

Next time you're bombing down a hill try to actually take shorter, faster steps, you'll feel much more controlled.

Increasing your cadence will decrease the "braking" effect

The "braking" effect is what happens when you reach out ahead of your body with your legs in order to take longer strides. As we've talked about, this leads to excessive force on your body which can cause injuries.

But on top of that, you're actually slowing yourself down!

When you lengthen your stride by reaching out in front of your body with your foot, the inevitable heel strike actually slows you down a bit because it opposes your forward momentum. You're essentially slowing down when your heel hits the ground and then having to make up that lost energy when pushing off again.

This is a horribly inefficient way to run which will cause you to run slower and get tired faster.

Alright, we've determined that running with a low cadence sucks...let's talk about how to fix it.

How to increase your cadence

First things first...you need to assess your pace and cadence to see if you actually need to increase it.

If you are running a 10 minute mile, you're not going to have a 180 spm cadence...it's just not feasible at that speed.

If you are already running with a 160-170 spm cadence in the 8-10 minute/mile pace, you're doing just fine! You probably don't need to focus too much on increasing your cadence at this point.

However, if your cadence is lower than that, you would probably benefit from increasing your cadence a bit.

The first thing you can do to help increase your cadence is work on some footwork drills to improve your foot speed and coordination.

It might seem a little awkward at first but when you increase your cadence you're essentially asking your feet to move faster than normal. By doing some footwork drills you're preparing your feet and legs to move quickly and nimbly.

Just like speed work helps you improve your pace, foot work drills will help you improve your foot speed and overall agility.

The next thing I think really helps with increasing your cadence are intervals. If you don't know what intervals are you can check out this article about different running workouts, but essentially intervals are when you run faster for a period of time, then you run slower for a period of time, then repeat.

An example might be running 400 meters fast and then 400 meters slow and continuing that cycle several times.

This short burst of speed will allow you to run faster which will naturally increase your cadence. Again, this allows your body to get a feel for the increased cadence that you want it to run at.

Lastly, you need to start utilizing a faster cadence during your normal runs.

You have to be careful when doing this because this is a major change to your running form. Some changes, like breathing patterns, are more mental. Changing your cadence will affect every aspect of your stride, so you need to do it slowly and gradually to avoid causing any injuries or discomfort.

You don't want to try to change your cadence for the entirety of a run, and you also don't want to try to increase your cadence by too much.

I wouldn't try to increase cadence by more than 6-8 steps per minute. So if you're running at 150 spm you could try to bump that up to 156 spm. As you get more comfortable with that cadence you can work on increasing it again.

Initially, try just increasing your cadence for 30 seconds every few minutes. On a 2-3 mile run this means you might only increase your cadence 4-6 times. That's ok...we're doing this gradually!

After you've done this for a few runs try increasing your cadence for a longer period of time, maybe 1 minute every few minutes during your run.

Continue this process until you can run the entirety of your run at the increased cadence.

It's important to remember that your cadence will vary with your pace. Your cadence will be a bit lower on an easy run, and a bit higher on a tempo run. That's normal and there's no need to try to keep it the same all the time.

Another thing to be mindful of is your breath.

Your breath tends to be correlated to your cadence, so when you pick up your cadence you also tend to breath faster. Breathing faster can cause your heart rate to spike which can make you get tired faster.

The trick is to pick up your cadence while maintaining the same pace and breathing rate. This can be pretty tough to get used to so just try to take it slow and when you're ready to pick up your cadence make a conscience effort to keep your breathing rate the same.

As always, thank you so much for reading!

If you liked this article and know someone who might like it too, please share it!

If you're interested in more articles for heavy runners, CLICK HERE.

If you're interested in more articles for new runners, CLICK HERE.

Lastly, join the conversation below! Have you ever tracked your running cadence? Have you ever tried increasing it? Let us know, leave a comment!


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