Knee injuries are among the most common ailments in runners and triathletes young and old. While there are a number of culprits at work, new research suggests that simply increasing your cadence or step rate may be one solution to running without pain. To be sure, elite runners have been shown to have a much faster cadence, around 180 steps per minute, than recreational runners, who tend to top out around 160. With a bit of purposeful training and a quicker stride, knee pain may be a thing of the past for some athletes.
One such study, published in the journal Gait and Posture, looked at 45 injury-free runners, instructing them to increase their natural stride rate by 5–10 percent. As a result, they discovered that the gluteus maximus and medius (better known as the glutes) responded differently as each foot struck the ground than they did during their original cadence. The researchers surmised that the faster stride rate encourages those important muscles to activate differently, which in turn supports a more efficient stride that is less prone to injuries, in particular anterior knee pain.
“If a runner has a foot strike around 160, chances are that he or she is a heel striker and the leg is overextending,” says Ryan Knapp, a running and triathlon coach for PRS FIT in Estes Park, Colo. “This can create a braking motion, which causes injuries due to the impact on the body. The overextension leads to a different landing posture, which forces the glutes to work differently.”
By speeding up your cadence to closer to 180 steps per minute, you are more likely to strike under your center of mass. By training yourself to have faster feet and, in turn, better form, your glutes will fire more effectively to support your stride. This means a stronger butt, and it may also help you avoid knee injuries.
Now this doesn’t mean you should hit the pavement and ramp up your stride rate by 20 steps per minute all at once. Knapp warns, “It takes time and training to learn how to turn your legs over faster.” He works with his athletes to increase cadence incrementally in order to achieve—and be comfortable with—the right form. And it turns out, as your body adjusts to the faster turnover, not only might your knees benefit, so may your finishing times.
3 Ways to Increase Your Cadence
Make a playlist. There are plenty of songs out there that rock to 180 BPM (Jog.fm or Songbpm.com can help). Put together a running soundtrack to keep your feet moving to the beat of the music.
Employ a metronome. If you aren’t a fan of running with music, consider using a digital metronome. It will help you keep your focus on stride rate, rather than getting lost in the music.
Stride it out. Head to the track and practice increasing your stride rate. Simply count your steps as you charge around the track for one minute. Take a break and adjust as necessary.