Running Awareness: Cadence, Foot Placement, Lean


I just started the new year with a run in the cold with my dog.  It was a good run and I can report that I’ve tuned into something(s) important. I was aware of several gait-related details that I adjusted and played with, those being cadence, foot placement and the degree to which I lean while running.  Why was any of this on my mind?


First, upon reading the excellent Anatomy for Runners I’ve become more aware of my running cadence aka how often my feet hit the ground.  The author Jay Dicharry discusses a popular notion that the ideal cadence is about 170-180 RPM.  I’ve run with a metronome a few times to investigate this idea and compare this range to my normal cadence.  Turns out my cadence was quite a bit slower.  The problem I found when running at  this higher cadence is that my cardiovascular system felt overwhelmed!  Maintaining even the low end of that cadence was very challenging.  Seems that I may have found a simple solution.  Before I get to that, let’s discuss why a quick cadence may be beneficial.

Changing cadence to prevent overstriding

I mentioned in my last post that where your foot lands is very important in running.  You want the foot to land as near to your center of mass as possible, not way out in front of you, a situation also known as overstriding.  Several elite-level running coaches have discussed cadence and foot strike position.  I’ll let their words do my talking.  First, Steve Magness at Science of Running says:

“Then why is everyone in a rage over increasing stride rate? Because as I’ve pointed out before, most recreational runners simply overstride, which artificially creates a very low stride rate. Why? Because the foot lands so far out in front of the Center of Mass that it takes a while for your body to be over it and ready to push off. So, when some running form coach says to increase stride rate to X, what ends up happening is the runner is trying so hard to increase stride rate, he chops his stride a bunch by putting his foot down earlier and landing closer to his center of mass, thus decreasing the overstriding. Nothing particularly wrong with that.

Where we go wrong is in the logic that the stride rate increase is the key. No, it’s not. It’s the elimination of the overstriding. Using the cue to increase stride rate is a way for coaches/runners to reduce the heel striking overstride.”

The key concept here is that it’s not cadence in and of itself that’s so important, but rather by manipulating cadence we can improve the location of where the foot lands.  Pete Larson at Runblogger puts it well when he says:

“In other words, reaching with the leg is bad, and increasing cadence can help us avoid doing that. Let me repeat – overstriding is what we are trying to prevent by manipulating cadence. If you don’t overstride, manipulating cadence might not be wise or necessary.”

Now, you may be asking why is overstriding an issue?  Essentially overstriding is harder on the body.  In contrast, keeping the foot closer to you won’t beat you up so much.  I won’t go into the details but if you’re interested, then please check out Jay Dicharry’s posts on Loading Rate Part 1: What Does it Mean for You and Part 2.  (Part 2 is a very interesting discussion as to why a forefoot, midfoot or heel strike may not matter at all.)

Leaning forward

I’m obviously on the lookout for gait and running mechanics information.  I recently discovered a very good site called Kinetic Revolution. There’s all sorts of very useful science-based information there for runners and triathletes. Among all this wealth of good stuff, I came across the post titled Essentials of Running Mechanics. That post features a video from a South African running coach named Bobby McGee.  (Insert whatever obvious Janis Joplin joke you’d like.) Leaning forward is the first thing McGee discusses.  Through leaning we can go faster or slower: more forward = faster, more upright = slower.


Remember earlier I mentioned that this faster cadence was overwhelming my heart and lungs?  At the 1:34 minute of the video McGee discusses this issue. He says to simply get a bit more upright (don’t lean so far forward) to slow down and control the cardiovascular exertion.  I tried it today and it worked perfectly!  I was able to a) maintain proper foot placement under my center of mass by b) speeding up my cadence and c) adjusting my lean so that I was more upright.  The overall result is that I maintained a quick pace and felt good doing it. I felt my glutes working well.  Foot placement felt ideal.  All-and-all I was very pleased with what this small adjustment did for me.


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