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If you are interested in taking your athletic performance to the next level - whether that next level is beginning a training program for the first time, improving your personal best time, winning your age group, or turning professional - you came to the right place.

Joe Company, PhD founded ECo in 2010, but prior to this he coached at the high school and collegiate level, worked with Olympic training programs, and worked with a number of high-performance athletes, scientists, researchers, and coaches.  Joe began consulting endurance athletes in 2002, but as he evolved in his education and experience, he wanted to make his expertise available to more people.  ECo is the product of Joe's experience.

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Free Speed?!?

When I began running longer distances, I learned that elite distance runners had a cadence of 90-95 foot-strikes/minute.  Since I came from a sprinting background, leg turnover wasn't an issue, but it was a challenge for me to keep my cadence at ~90 for longer runs.  It took practice, but I after a while, I was able to adapt ~90 strides per minute as a comfortable, relaxing running cadence.  But, at certain times of the year, I tried to bump that number up a little bit. 

I habitually count my steps during runs.  Almost every mile, I check my watch and wait for a new minute to turn over and I begin counting one foot, each time it hits the ground.  After one minute, I typically have counted to 90.  If I am really tired and felling sluggish, my footstrikes/minute give me instant feedback - if I only count to 87 or 88 in one minute, I'm probably fatigued.  If I count to 91 or 92 and feel good, I'm probably rested and 'springy.'  The slower cadence almost always translates in to a slower pace at an perceived effort that should be producing a faster pace, while a faster cadence almost always translates into a faster pace at that same perceived exertion. The effect cadence had on overall pace independent of perceived exertion fascinated me, so I began to monitor cadence, perceived exertion, heart rate, and pace on all of my runs.  This n=1 study helped shape my philosophy on the importance of cadence on run performance.  So, as I progressed in my running and worked with runners of varying speeds and abilities, I began to incorporate cadence and stride length work into the training programs. 

QUESTION:  Would it be beneficial for an athlete to consciously practice increasing their cadence?

ANSWER:  Probably.  Here is the philosophy: 

Cadence, or stride frequency, is just one factor in the speed equation: 

SPEED = STRIDE LENGTH x STRIDE FREQUENCY

So, let's break down the two components of the speed equation and see how we can alter the variables to make you faster. 

    First, STRIDE LENGTH:  At 7 minute pace at 90 footstrikes/minute, you have a stride length of 8’ 4.5”.  (a stride length is measured from left foot to left foot or right foot to right foot).  If an athlete works on increasing their stride length through passive means (tendons) or active means (more force per stride), the stride length will increase.  It may only increase by an inch or two per stride, but still it increases. Does this matter?  Well, if you increase your stride length 2 inches from 8’ 4.5” to 8’ 6.5”, you gain 15 feet per minute or 105 feet per 7 minutes.  This translates into a 6:52 mile at the same perceived exertion with just a 2” increase in stride length.  

    Now, STRIDE FREQUENCY:  What happens if you train yourself to increase your cadence by 3 strides per minute, say 93 instead of 90?  Now, is 3 strides a big deal?  YES!  3 strides x 8’ 4.5” per stride = 25’ 1.5”, which translates to an additional 176 feet per 7 minutes!!!  So assuming you are running at perceived 7 minute/mile pace, but you have a cadence of 93 instead of 90, you’ll cover the mile in 6:47!!!  Viola!  Your new speed is 6:47/mile at a perceived 7 minute effort.  That is assuming that you haven’t lengthened your stride yet.  If you add the two inches from increasing your stride length, your speed decreases to 6:39 min/mi at the perceived 7:00/mile effort.

Now the caveat...  I mentioned perceived exertion a couple of times above.  Obviously running faster takes more energy, but is there a way to run a little faster by NOT using more energy (i.e. becoming more efficient)?  

STRIDE LENGTH.  There are two main ways to increase stride length:  actively (increasing muscle force per stride) and passively (increasing tendon stiffness).  It is clear that the active method increases energy cost and may not be the most efficient way to increase stride length.  BUT, if you trained non-metabolic systems (i.e. tendon stiffness - think about a tight rubber band - if you stretch it it snaps back with a lot of force), you would not cost yourself more energy, thus you could gain speed and become more efficient.  This is backed up with scientific studies and provides good evidence for working on stride length to increase speed.  So there is good data to support increasing stride length through passive means - in other words, free speed!

How do I use this information?  I incorporate specific workouts and drills at certain times of the season to help athletes optimize their stride length and thus peak for races.  Caveat- this is risky for some athletes with a history of tendon issues.

STRIDE FREQUENCY.  Does increasing cadence cost more energy?  Probably, but how much energy?  Is the increased energy cost worth the added speed?   There is surely an optimal stride frequency for maximal efficiency at different speeds - the trick is finding YOUR most economical step rate at different speeds.  Many "tuned-in" runners self-regulate this and find a nearly-optimal cadence.  

How do I use this information? I monitor each athlete closely and work to help them optimize their stride frequency.  I have used laboratory measurements (metabolic efficiency at different cadences) as well as field testing and race data to help athletes with this. 

So back to the original question - Would it be beneficial for an athlete to consciously practice increasing their cadence?  I said probably.  Some runners would gain a lot of 'free speed' by altering their cadence.  Most runners would benefit from increasing their cadence, but I have worked with a few runners who needed to decrease their cadence.   Like most exercise physiology performance topics, it is complicated and this short article just touches on a few of the variables.  So, while I don't have a specific answer for YOU, hopefully you have a bit more insight into changes you can make to get a little free speed! 


Endurance Company LLC
Joe Company
(573) 326-9618
joe@endurancecompany.com


 

 

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