There is a lot of misinformation out there about the beats per minute (bpm) that running music should be set to. The intuitive thought is the faster you run the faster your steps and therefore the higher the bpm. Or, runners come in different shapes and sizes with unique running gaits, therefore, the tempo will be different for everyone.
The above is true to some extent. However, for master runners using a quick efficient running gait that maximizes speed and minimizes risk of injury the variation between a tall male Olympian and a short female weekend warrior might only be a beat or two per minute or, they could be identical. It turns out that speed is more dependent on length of stride than rate of leg turnover. Even when running very slowly a quick turnover with a short stride is better for absorbing landing shock and maintaining good running form.
There is a range of stride rates when it comes to the novice runner. It is possible to run with a stride length that is too long for the speed you are running. This can usually be seen in a lot of up and down bouncing or side to side motion because the runner is left hanging in the air too long between steps. There is very little extraneous motion in an efficient running gait, it is all straight forward momentum like a wheel on a track.
The Origin of 180 Steps Per Minute
The 180 bpm cadence, or 180 steps per minute has become the gold standard in the running community stemming from the work of Jack Daniels, PhD, author of Daniels’ Running Formula and coach to runners ranging from complete beginners to elite Olympians. He studied the stride lengths and rates of runners in the 1984 Olympics and found that “from the 3,000 meter [about 2 miles] distance on up to the marathon [26.2 miles] there was little variation in turnover rate.” (Daniels, 93) He also found that when the athletes were running slowly outside of race conditions their stride rates changed very little; it was their stride length that changed. He writes:
If a group of beginners were required to start running 100 miles a week two things would probably occur:
Manny runners would hurt themselves, and many who didn’t get hurt would adjust to taking quicker lighter steps. I try to save runners a lot of grief by encouraging them to convert to a stride rate associated with less landing shock and more efficient use of energy. (Daniels, 93)
The mental block that most people need to get past is divorcing fast steps with a fast pace. It is more about nailing down the foundation of an economic, aligned running form that remains balanced and consistent whether running fast or slow.
It is possible to run in a perfect 180 bpm cadence while maintaining a 12 min per mile pace or higher. If you don’t believe it start by running in place just to get used to the feeling of the tempo without moving forward. Count just the steps of your left leg and get them as close to 90 in one minute as you can. If you slowly inch forward at this same cadence your body will begin to get used to the concept of quick steps without having to maintain a difficult pace.
Leg Turnover and Running Form
Once you master the basic rhythm with good aligned running form having a quick turnover will help you find your speed in a natural way. Nicholas Romanov, PhD, creator of the Pose Method of Running advocates Daniels’ 180 bpm cadence and notes:
The frequency of our strides in running is nothing more than the rate at which we change support from one foot to the next, which is the essence of good running technique. When we change support, we start free falling and let the force of gravity accelerate us forward. The faster we change support, the less we do to interrupt the gravitational pull and the faster we run. It really is that simple. (Romanov, 83)
Simple sounds good right? Of course there is a lot of work that goes into conditioning and learning good technique. It is usually the result of a lot of practice, but being able to maintain a light quick leg turnover is one adjustment that is relatively easy to make that will give you a nice bang for the buck if you do it right.
Danny Dreyer, author of ChiRunning, writes of cadence and stride length:
When these two team up, magic happens. Once you can run at a steady cadence and keep your hips and legs relaxed, your perceived effort level will take on a new dimension, because you are increasing only your use of abdominal muscles, not leg musles. As you improve your ChiRunning skills you won’t have to think about adjusting your stride length; it will happen naturally…” (Dreyer, 82.)
In order to achieve this “steady cadence” Dreyer goes on to suggest buying a metronome that you can clip to yourself and will beep the tempo (of 85-90, to be doubled to 180 steps on both feet) while you are running.
The Running Music Advantage
Memories of trying to keep to a strict metronome beat as an unhappy child in piano lessons leads me to argue, why not use music at 180 bpm? Honestly, there is nothing magical about that exact number of 180. If you are a bit faster or slower or not syncing to the beat perfectly you will not lose the benefits. However, if you are running to a song with that tempo you will instinctively get a lot closer than if you are running to something with a beat that is way off of this tempo. That is why choosing running music at or around 180 bpm is a good standard for training. This is also why all Lady Southpaw running music is composed at or around this tempo.
Running as an Art Form
Well-crafted running music takes the body’s natural rhythms and cadence into consideration to further add to a beautiful running performance. Though not referring specifically to running music Romanov puts it nicely when he writes:
While running is not as obviously creative as music, it too is an expressive outlet for human expression and requires well-honed technique beyond the physical realm. Just as with dance, there is a rhythm and a beauty that transcends mere pavement pounding and elevates the act of running well to artistry. (Romanov, 105.)
Together music and running can interact to further heighten this experience and enable a smooth performance at a 180 bpm cadence.
Check out my playlist of approved 180 bpm running songs.