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Why is a Cadence of 180 Considered a Magic Number?

Posted by on Jul 27, 2012 | 13 Comments

If you spend enough time around runners and a discussion on running form comes up, you’ll likely hear the “180 rule.” It states your feet should touch the ground 180 times per minute or more. This will result in the most efficient form. In theory.

Unfortunately, the rule is often botched. The most common mistake is to leave off the “or more” part at the end. The result is a belief that every runner should be running at a cadence of 180, no more, no less.

Another common mistake is view cadence as a static number that would never change.

Yet another mistake is to only count one foot, which would result in the runner attempting to run at a cadence of 360.

A Brief History

The “180 rule” was developed by researchers watching elite runners. It was noted they ran with a cadence of 180 or more. It was assumed, since they were elites, that 180 was a minimum threshold for a runner to achieve efficient form.

The “180 rule” was repeated by coaches and adopted by different running form schools of thought. Eventually us barefoot runners started using it, too. Today, it’s probably one of the most common teaching cues used.

Understanding 180

So why is the rule often botched? Is it even a valid measure of good form? Should we be teaching it?

Understanding a little more about the rule helps us understand when and where it should be applied.

First, we have to define “good running form.” I like to define good form as the point where you reach a peak in metabolic efficiency. In other words, you’re using as little energy as possible for the given conditions.

Second, we have to recognize that 180 is a rather arbitrary number that changes with different individuals. One person’s peak may occur at 182. Another may occur at 236.

Third, we have to recognize that an individual’s cadence may change with a change in pace, different shoes, running uphill, running downhill, or even weather conditions. Cadence is usually a dynamic concept.

With all this in mind, we can select the situations where we would apply the 180 rule. I like to use it when introducing the idea of better running form. For almost all people, running at a cadence of 180 eliminates overstriding. That’s usually the most difficult element of teaching better form. Once overstriding is corrected, most people will begin to feel more efficient. Once they begin to feel more efficient, they can experiment with cadence to find their actual ideal number.

Once a runner identifies their ideal cadence, further experimentation will allow them to determine if their cadence changes based on conditions. The most common change occurs when pace increases. To speed up, either stride length or cadence (or both) must increase. Some runners only increase stride length. Some only increase cadence. Many increase both.


Like many issues related to running form, it’s easy to over think cadence. Once a runner is able to eliminate overstriding, I would recommend they stop measuring cadence. Just run at a cadence that feels easiest. If you really want to get fancy, you could experiment with a heart rate monitor. Run at a given pace, note your cadence and heart rate. Then increase your cadence. If heart rate goes up, you’re going in the wrong direction and reduce your cadence. If heart rate goes down, you’re going in the right direction and increase your cadence.

Since heart rate can be influenced by many different variables, it’s not a great measure of efficiency… but it will work well enough for this purpose.


The “180 rule” isn’t necessarily a magic number. It should be used as a rough guideline; a teaching tool that will help a runner find their peak metabolic efficiency. The 180 benchmark is a good place to start, but experimentation is needed to find the true “magic” cadence. Also be aware that the cadence will likely change depending on pace, terrain, shoes, etc.

What do you think? Did you use 180 when you first learned about better running form? What is your current “peak efficiency cadence?”


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  1. Sam H
    August 7, 2012

    After going minimalist, I’ve noticed that I run a little under 180. I agree that it’s a good guideline. However making it a cornerstone of your running endeavors is folly. It would appear to me that 180 is only a symptom of good/healthy running, not a cause.

  2. Black Box WODs, CFE WODs: Friday 120803 | CrossFit NYC
    August 2, 2012

    […] Smith takes on everyone Rowers lose their senses during races Hydrating for performance Why is a cadence of 180 considered a magic number? Get out and go deep / More trees, less […]

  3. John
    July 31, 2012

    The Pose Method teaches 180, and many times on their forums I’ve seen their coaches emphatically hammer home the “180 Or Bust” mentality (probably why I don’t follow Pose anymore). For me, at under 7:00/mile, I can do 180 comfortably, and at under 6:00/mile I can even go as high as 186. 9:00/mile sees 172-176, so I think the “magic number” depends on pace, terrain, fatigue, time of day, alignment of the stars and planets on the vernal equinox…Just get out there and run.

  4. Kenneth D
    July 28, 2012

    I have to say, that when I hanging around all of the running forums, the “180 rule” is the most common thing mentioned when questions about running form come up.

    However, in my experience, the “180 rule” is probably the least important part of good running form.

  5. Janice
    July 27, 2012

    I think it’s risky to try and pick a number for cadence. if 180 were the optimal cadence, then the difference in one person’s run vs. another’s would be leg length. There are so many variables from one person to the next. I’ve been beaten by people with a higher and lower cadence running. The same goes for cycling. I think it all depends on the individual.

  6. EdH
    July 27, 2012

    I usually run with a metronome set to 180. I find when I don’t, my cadence drops and I can actually feel more sore after a run.

    The less time your feet are on the ground, the less soreness overall, and 180 for me works. I’ve tried 185 but that just makes me breathe harder.

  7. Matt
    July 27, 2012

    I’m new to the minimalist/barefoot running and have been researching the Good Form Running and all the Merrell stuff as well.

    I have been off of running for about 6 years and have recently started back up with bf shoes (Merrell Bare Access). I’ve worked myself up to 2 miles 3 times a week over the last several months, doing 10 min miles.

    The cadence thing is killing me. If I set out at 180, my heart rate sky rockets and I’m sucking wind in no time. However, if I slow my cadence (being mindful not to overstride) I not only feel better but can run longer.

    So, has anybody else experienced this?

    My legs just don’t want to move at 180…does this make sense?


    BTW – Looking forward to the Down and Dirty at Detroit! Hope to meet you guys!

    • Bare Lee
      July 27, 2012

      Yes, I’ve tried 180 cadence at 10mm and it feels awkward and tires me out. Why? Because we’re spending more energy activating our muscles, and not delivering as much force to each stride. We’re doing more work for less production. Now try the same turnover without cutting down the force applied. What happens? You go faster! And you also get tired, but now at least the production is equivalent to the effort, that is, the effort is optimized with respect to stride rate and stride length so that you go as fast as possible for that amount of effort. Have a look at the links I attached below, it’s all explained clearly.

  8. Kate Kift
    July 27, 2012

    *laugh* Isn’t it strange how barefoot bloggers tend to follow each other in circles as far as topics are concerned?

    I wrote an article for Canadian Running Magazine a couple of weeks ago saying the exact same thing. It was in response to an earlier article you wrote about stride length.

    We have come full circle…

    I’ll just post the link to the article as it works out to be a 800 word comment to your post..:) Yeah, why work if you don’t have to..

    • Bare Lee
      July 27, 2012

      Kate you discovered an important fact: Both stride rate and length have inherent costs. Higher stride rate requires greater activation, longer stride length requires greater force application. Most people’s bodies will decide on their own what the optimal ratio of rate to length is, over a given terrain at a given pace. Rate and length are effects not causes. If one is over striding or has excessive turnover, the problem probably lies in poor foot landing or posture or fatigue, and that’s where the problem is best solved.

  9. Dave
    July 27, 2012

    When running anything from 5K to ultra distances, my cadence is around 180-185. I.e. My running pace varies from 6min/mile to 12min/mile but cadence doesn’t change appreciably. This is just what feels comfortable and efficient despite my leggy 6’4″ frame – most people assume I’d have a longer loping stride.

    When running faster (e.g. intervals) my cadence does increase, and I think the same goes for elites. The marathoners tend to be very close to 180, but the short/mid distance guys go closer to 200, and the sprinters hit 250+. But at these highest cadences, the focus is on raw speed and less so on efficiency.

    Note that my barefoot turnover is about 190 (versus 180 shod) so not sure what that’s about. It points towards some subtle form difference between the two, though not sure what it is.

  10. Bare Lee
    July 27, 2012

    Nice summary and conclusion. You might also mention that the measurement of elite runners’ cadence at 180+ steps per minute was done while they were running at elite speeds. At slower paces, their cadence almost always decreased. You can’t take the cadence of someone running at 5mm pace (mm = minutes per mile) and assume it will work just as well for someone running half as fast at 10mm pace. My 10mm cadence is 162-4, but my 7mm cadence is 180. Most runners will optimize their running by adjusting both stride rate and stride length, unless taught otherwise. Just taking off one’s shoes (or never putting them on) is usually enough to correct for over-striding. The 180 rule is best used as you prescribe, but also mainly for shod runners, right?

    Anyway, here’s a few follow-up links:

  11. Dyay Fernandez
    July 27, 2012

    oh hey! i’ve tried this. and yes i completely agree with experimentation.makes a lot of sense!..i think somebody wise said “don’t leave your brain when you head out the door running”. when i transitioned to bf i forced myself to do 180bpm. i downloaded one of those metronome apps and played it during my long runs. over time i got used to it. now since i think my “metabolic efficiency” (thanks for the term btw) seem to improved, i find it weird to stay 180. i got a hrm and trained with it. i can go long and relaxed if i stay w/in the 182-184 bpm. thanks for this man. i sure needed a confirmation. 🙂