Want some ‘free’ speed? Here’s how!

We are all looking for ways to get faster. Whether you want to admit it or not, you probably want to get faster on as little work as possible! This is a wise strategy. Why would you want to do more work than necessary to reap rewards?

In reality, there is really no way to get benefits without SOME work, but there are strategies you can employ to get significant gains with SMART work.

With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to stride frequency.

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).

STRIDE LENGTH: At 7 minute pace at 90 footstrikes/minute, I 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) When I focus on stride length by working on flexibility and speedwork, my stride length gets longer, maybe only by an inch or two per stride length, but still it gets longer – at the same perceived effort. If I increase my stride length 2 inches from 8’ 4.5” to 8’ 6.5”, I gain 15 feet per minute or 105 feet per 7 minutes. This translates into a 6:52 mile at the same effort with just a 2” increase in my stride. This has worked in the past, and I typically gain free speed when I incorporate some stride length work into my program. I try to do this year round, but there are certain times I deliberately focus on this aspect.

STRIDE FREQUENCY: I’m trying to condition my body to cruise at a cadence of 93 instead of 90. Once I adapt to the quicker turnover (assuming I use about the same amount of energy) I will have 3 extra strides (3 strides x 8’ 4.5” per stride = 25’ 1.5”) per minute! That translates to an additional 176 feet per 7 minutes. So assuming I am running at perceived 7 minute/mile pace, but I have a cadence of 93 instead of 90, I’ll cover the mile in 6:47!!! Viola! My new speed is 6:47 at a perceived 7 minute effort. That is assuming that I haven’t lengthened my stride yet. If I add the two inches I can potentially gain from stride length work, my speed decreases to 6:39 min/mi.

This takes practice, but in yesterday’s 130 minute run, I had a cadence of 93 at the beginning, 93 at multiple times in the middle, and, most importantly, 93 at minute 129.

But, like all aspects of training, all the pieces need to come together and be in sync the day it matters.