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.
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?”