My running journey began in a rather conventional way. Someone I knew had gotten a burst of motivation, wanted to make a change, and signed up for a half marathon. Along the way they recruited some family members, and I jumped at the chance to tag along.
I’m not sure what excited me the most about the prospect of running a half marathon, especially since I had been a running-hater leading up to that point. Something had changed as I ventured off to college, and I embarked on a brand new (to me) fitness journey. I had just recently taken up running as a way to get in shape, and somewhere along the way became addicted to those endorphins.
It wasn’t until the completion of my first race that I truly began to love running for running. After completing my first half marathon, I felt elated and proud. I had accomplished something that, until I finished, I wasn’t sure I would be able to complete. A half marathon felt like a new personal record, something to brag about, and something that I never in my wildest dreams imagined I could complete. Until I did.
After that, I was hooked.
I started running more frequently, running longer distances, and looking for future races. I decided to push myself even further and sign up for a marathon. By the time I finished the marathon I felt the same elation as my first race… plus some. The walk to the car afterwards was miserable at best, but I didn’t care because I was so proud. However, the next day was a little different story as I found myself unable to bend my right leg.
Eventually the aches and pains went away, and I was eager to resume running. I headed out the door to complete my first post-marathon run, but was disappointed to find that my right leg was still hurting me.
Thus began my journey with chronic injuries.
From this point on, I struggled with injuries throughout my training. I wound up in physical therapy two times in one year, spending 6 months of that year completing PT exercises with my doctor. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong – I ran consistently, took rest days, and stretched after every run.
What was I missing?
I finally started to take PT seriously the second time around. This time made me realize that if I didn’t change anything I might end up injured after every single race. I started experimenting with different running techniques. I went crazy researching running tips, advice, form, different shoes, and everything in between on the internet. My runs were constant experiments – trying one thing from the next, always hoping that I would stumble upon a miracle cure.
And eventually, I did.
Between a mixture of advice from my physical therapist, internet research, and random running experimentation, I finally found my miracle cure. In came in the form of a simple change to my running, and has allowed me to remain injury free for the past four years. Through 4 marathons, 12 half marathons, and everything in between, I have yet to get injured since. So what was the cure?
Changing my cadence.
It turns out that changing my cadence, something so simple that it often gets over-looked, has magically cured my injuries. And I’m betting it can help yours too! Whether or not you struggle with the occasional runner’s knee or chronic stress fractures, every run can benefit from evaluating their cadence.
Here’s what I did: I increased my cadence. When I first started running my cadence was rather slow. My stride was abnormally long for my height, I was taking very infrequent steps compared to what I should have been, and I had no idea that a running cadence was even a thing. My physical therapist mentioned something about my cadence to me during my first visit, but I didn’t pay too much attention to it.
It wasn’t until the second visit that I started to take him seriously. I learned that the “ideal” cadence is around 180 bpm (beats per minute). This means that your feet should come in contact with the ground 180 times each minute (90 on your right and 90 on your left). Figuring this out on your own is nearly impossible, so I downloaded a metronome app on my phone, set it to 180 and got to work. I put the metronome on in my headphones and started running with it, focusing on getting my feet to hit the ground at exactly the same time as the click in my headphones.
For the first few weeks I ran only on the treadmill. I didn’t want to increase my cadence, all the while accidentally running faster because I wasn’t shortening my stride. I set the treadmill to my normal pace so that I would not be able to speed up even if I wanted to, and focused on shortening my stride.
When I began, my cadence was somewhere around 150.
This was ridiculously low! Getting up to 180 took quite a bit of work, but after a few weeks I finally got the hang of it. Once it started to feel more natural I let myself run outside, keeping the metronome going in my headphones and focusing on shortening my stride and increasing my turnover.
After about 2 months of really focused work, I had finally increased my cadence to 180 and it began to feel natural. My legs were now used to the faster turnover and I was able to head out the door to run without my metronome.
Don’t get me wrong, it took quite a bit of work to get there. The runs were tedious, I got bored and often wanted to give up. But once I got started I could tell I was on to something – my muscles were much less tight after each run and my feet didn’t hurt at all.
All that work 4 years ago was completely worth it. Every once and a while I check myself now with a metronome to see how close I am to 180. My Garmin has a handy-dandy feature that tells me my average cadence, which is usually somewhere around 178. There are days when my cadence is much slower, and those are often the days where I feel sluggish or the run is abnormally challenging.
But overall, my cadence remains happily around my goal. And since this change, I have not had to take any forced time off running (due to injury). My legs are happier and mentally I am in a much better place because I know that I am finally in control of my body.