What is “ideal running form?” Views differ, to put it mildly, and philosophies fall in and out of fashion. Most recently, the minimalist running movement (launched by the publication of Christopher McDougal’s publication of Born to Run in 2009) insisted that the “best” way to run was natural – pursuing a natural and biomechanically easy form with a forefoot strike, in either barefoot or in minimally structured shoes.
However, many who jumped on the minimal bandwagon got only half the message; they transitioned too quickly to minimal-style shoes and didn’t change their form to accommodate this change. Therefore, they got injured and transitioned back to more traditional shoes. By 2012, the minimal movement had peaked and commentators began referring to it as a fizzled fad.
The rise and fall of the minimal movement – accelerated by journalists, shoe marketers, and self-proclaimed experts – is perhaps good evidence that there is no ideal shoe that is best for everyone. Runners’ various foot shapes, gaits, weights, and unique biomechanics warrant the extensive diversity of running shoes on the market. However, one can make a case that the research done by minimal enthusiasts points toward an ideal running form that encourages biomechanical efficiency and reduces the frequency and severity of injuries.
Minimal enthusiasts argue that changing one’s shoes (or barefoot running) promotes a more ideal form -- a midfoot to forefoot strike, a shorter stride, and a slight forward lean. They suggest that it’s impossible to heel strike in a minimal shoe because runners instinctively shift to a midfoot or forefoot strike to avoid the pain of landing on their heel in an uncushioned shoe. Improvements in form and alignment, in turn, eliminate excessive stress on the knees and lower legs due to an excessive load rate after footstrike.
The theory seemed sound and there were quite a few runners who successfully changed their form using minimal shoes. Unfortunately, there were also quite a few runners who got injured because they continued to heel strike. As Peter Larsen (author of the essential website Runblogger) notes, a change in footwear does not guarantee a change in form. Many runners in minimal shoes continue to land on their heels with severe foot dorsiflexion (http://runblogger.com/2011/09/foot-strike-photos-from-nyc-barefoot.html).
So, what’s the fix? Cadence. Research suggests that overemphasis on footstrike might be preventing us from seeing the true key to efficient, injury-reduced running. Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, points out that footstrike alone is an overly presumptive and limiting category. We all, in fact, heel strike, midfoot strike, and forefoot strike depending on our speed, running surface, and exhaustion level. Biomechanical diversity makes it difficult to argue that there is a “best” way to make ground contact that could be utilized by all runners. Instead, we’d all be better served by concentrating on our turnover rate, or cadence.
A higher cadence helps to achieve what the minimal movement thought it could accomplish through shoe design –– the elimination of overstriding. Overstriding happens when you “reach out” during your gait cycle, rather than making ground contact under your hips. It magnifies load rates on the knees and lower legs by contributing to a braking motion. Obviously, that’s bad.
As it turns out, it is impossible to overstride when you are running with a cadence of 180 steps per minute. Why 180? At the 1984 Olympics, legendary coach Jack Daniels systematically observed fifty runners in events ranging from the 800 meters to the marathon and found out that only one had a stride rate under 180. Later follow-up revealed that even at slower paces, elite runners maintained their stride rate around 180 and changed their stride length to increase their speed. Increasing your stride rate or cadence does not automatically increase your speed. The faster rate is critical to maintaining good form, with your feet landing under your hips. This means you spend less time in the swing phase of your gait cycle and less time in the air, thus reducing landing shock and resulting injuries.
To achieve this form, Daniels suggests that runners try to roll over the ground rather than bound from foot to foot. To encourage a quicker turnover, or cadence, pretend that you are running over a field of raw eggs and do not want to break them (Daniels’ Running Formula, third edition, pages 26-28). Your turnover should be light and quick. Don’t worry about the length of your stride and resist the urge to reach out with your legs to increase stride length. This is all about turnover.
When I started writing about cadence and its relationship to running form, I decided that it might be a good idea to experiment with increasing my own cadence. I had read about all the potential positive results of a cadence adjustment, but was mired at around 165 steps per minute. So, for the next several days, I very consciously cut down my stride length and increased my stride rate, and ran like I was moving across hot coals. I initially felt ridiculous and wondered how I was going anywhere, since I wasn’t consciously trying to propel myself forward. Then, I looked at my GPS watch. My overall speed hadn’t changed very much, but I was definitely feeling much less stress on my legs and joints. I had the thought that I might be able to run like this all day –– now that I’ve reached middle age, that’s a thought I haven’t had in a while.
After testing this out for a week, the results have been encouraging. As I got closer and closer to a 180 cadence, my legs felt better and I could tell that this was probably due to less time in the air during swing phase. You simply can’t spend much time in the air if you are taking quick, light, short steps. I found that with some heel flick, I was able to increase my stride length while maintaining a high cadence. This was reassuring since it will be necessary when I want to go faster and it helped me to understand how elite athletes can run everything at a high cadence. You merely need to adjust stride length while maintaining high turnover. The last part of this transition can be tiring. I found that when I started to tire during the last several miles of my run, my cadence started to slow and the length of my stride increased. I was beginning to bound and reach rather than land under my hips.
Remember that when you are modifying your running form, there can be an initial period of decreased efficiency. I definitely felt this towards the end of my run the first time I tried this. I was tired and found that concentrating on maintaining an increased turnover had resulted in a significant speed decrease. My advice would be to not get concerned. Over time, the faster cadence and the light, quick steps will feel natural. Finally, solving the problems associated with overstriding through an increased cadence, does not rely on wearing any specific type of shoe or having a midfoot or forefoot strike. If you are wearing a stability shoe and land on your heels, it won’t prevent you from developing a quicker turnover. If you like wearing a more minimal shoe and landing on your toes, it still won’t make a difference. You can make this positive change in any shoes with any feet and in any shoes. Think quick, short, and light and you will be running more efficiently with less risk of injury in mere days.
I urge everyone to experiment with increasing your cadence. A GPS watch with an accelerometer makes assessing cadence very easy. My Garmin 220 does this automatically and can tell me what my average cadence was for each mile. I found that experimenting with my form during mile splits allowed me to accurately assess how various cadence increases felt.
What are your thoughts on cadence being the key to running form? Have you tried this? How was your transition to a faster cadence? Would you recommend this form adjustment? We would really like to hear about your own experience.