The 180 Steps Per Minute Running Myth

Kipchoge ran his record-shattering marathon at cadences that were almost always between 190 and 200 steps per minute (spm). That is based off my counts taken at multiple times throughout his run using the live race clock to count seconds and my Mark I eyeballs to count his steps. This nicely brings us to...

The 180 Steps Per Minute Running Myth

As running myths go, this one is relatively benign in that it is unlikely to cause injuries, which is why it’s not #1. It is, however, so devoid of sense and has such persistence that it drives me nuts. Anyways...here we go, starting with an abridged History of 180.

Speed = step length x cadence

Cadence – the number of steps per minute - has been a variable of interest ever since people turned running into a competitive thing. This is because running speed is a simple formula: speed = step length x cadence. Step length is a more complicated issue, with things like hip mobility and over-striding coming into play. It’s also super-inconvenient to try to measure and track in real time, whereas cadence simply requires an ability to count and use a watch. It’s so simple even an exercise physiologist turned biochemist could do it. But I digress.

Think of it like your car or your bike. You can go faster or slower by changing gears (step length), by changing the RPMs (cadence), or some combination of the two. Now back to running.

NOTE: the terms “step” and “stride” are often used interchangeably, which is both confusing and wrong. A step is from one foot-strike to the next foot-strike i.e left foot to right foot. A stride is from one foot-strike to the next foot-strike of the same foot i.e. left foot to right foot to left foot. Step rate (spm) is simply twice the stride rate (also spm – seriously?)

It's tempting to lay all the blame for this 180 hype at the feet of a running coach by the name of Jack Daniels. After all, it was his observations at the 1984 Olympics that led to this number showing up on the running world's radar. What did his keen eyes spot that everyone had been missing up until that fateful day? It was this:

Really fast runners who are running really fast have higher cadences than runners who are not running quite as fast.

Can I get a "well, duh"?

To elaborate: at the 1984 Olympics, running coach Jack Daniels counted the stride rates among elite distance runners. This is how it was reported, but obviously, he was counting steps, not strides. Of the 46 he observed, only one took less than 180 spm (176 spm). Daniels also noted that in his 20 years of coaching college students, he never had a beginner runner with a stride rate of over 180 spm.

The above blindingly obvious observations somehow morphed into a research study that found that elite distance runners all run at exactly 180 spm all the time. This is clearly bullshit.

  1. it was a guy with a notebook watching a track meet, not a research study
  2. his “findings” were those elite runners were all ABOVE 180 spm, not AT 180 spm

The above BS somehow morphed into a fundamental principle of running when people decided that this applied to all runners at all speeds. Obviously, the average runner is just like an Olympic calibre distance runner, so they should all run just like them even though they lack the strength, endurance, mobility, and speed of the world-class runners.

This, also, is clearly BS.

  1. It’s a widely accepted no-brainer that training and performance characteristics of elite athletes cannot and should not be transferred directly to Jo and Jane average
  2. Daniels made no comment one way or the other about whether or not cadences changed with speed. This bit of garbage materialized out of thin air after the fact.

Do some basic arithmetic already! Running a 40 minute 5 km at 180 spm would have your step length at 69 cm. That’s a shade over 2 feet for you people in the USA. Mediocre race walkers have step lengths longer than that. It’s not merely slow and inefficient but is totally nuts.

Alternatively, if you really, really hate math, then just watch literally ANY video of world-class (or even top collegiate) runners and count the steps. If even that is too big an ask, then here are some nifty numbers that others have kindly prepared for us.

Step Lengths & Cadences Of World Class Runners

This is a graph showing the step lengths and cadences of the medallists in the men’s 10,000 metres race at the 2017 IAAF World Championships.

180 steps per minute

As you can see, all these guys are running fast, between 21.5 and 27.5 kph. In mundane terms: the slowest speed during this race was a 66-second lap.

Note how the cadences vary with speed, contrary to the 180 Myth.

Note also how each runner has a different cadence, again flying in the face of 180.

Note the number of runners actually AT 180 spm during the 5 laps. (hint: it’s zero)

Furthermore, you can see that each runner had a unique combination of step length and cadence variations at different speeds. Each one had their own mechanism for increasing and decreasing their pace. The cadences here all agree with Daniels’ observation that the vast majority of elite runners are above 180 spm. FYI: spm 2.89Hz = 173 spm and 3.45 = 207 spm.

Here is the same graph for the women’s 10,000 medallists.

As you can clearly see, the women are the same as the men in terms of having unique running “fingerprints” that change with changes in speed. Converting the cadences gives us: 3.03 Hz = 182 spm, 3.80 Hz = 228 spm.

Moving up in distance when can see the numbers from the 2017 IAAF World Championship marathons. Here are the women (data from Lap 4 somewhere between 30 and 40kms):

The same numbers from the men’s marathon:

The obvious and irrefutable takeaways from these graphs are:

1) Everybody is different

2) Most elite distance runners are over 180 spm most of the time.

How/Why did runners, running coaches, and running magazines all jump onto this steaming pile of BS?

The short answer is that the cuing used to try to get people to increase their cadence caused them to shorten their stride, which often had the beneficial effect of clearing up the over-striding that was rampant in beginner-intermediate runners. However, this was merely a happy accident and the laws of physics in action, not any sort of silver bullet for an awesome running technique for the masses. Ok, so it’s lame but where is the harm in it? Glad you asked.

Artificially constraining cadence hampers running speed.

Period. It’s like when Nascar mandates the use of rev-limiters. They do it because it makes it literally impossible for any of the cars to go at their top speeds. The fastest runners in the world - sprinters - are all doing their best Road Runner imitation, with cadences up over 250. You also see it in endurance runners during their surges and final lap kicks: all of them increase their cadence in order to speed up.

It forces runners into trying to increase their step length if they want to go faster, which requires more force (i.e. strength and fitness) as well as more mobility in terms of hip extension. BTW, “hip extension” in running is a brilliant example of functional workarounds, given that we are all of us almost at our end range of motion simply standing upright. I know of at least 4.5 ways of extending the hip that doesn’t require any extra movement at the actual hip joint. Whoever can figure them all out gets a free 57-year supply of all EndurElite products. (Pending Matt’s approval) #goodcop-badcop

Rigid adherence to the 180 mantra is also crap for the economy.

Running economy (RE) is an overlooked metric in running, where everyone is concerned with pace and VO2max. In a nutshell, RE is simply about being able to run faster with less effort. It’s often the only avenue of improvement left to runners who are at or near their maximum potential fitness. When Paula Radcliffe moved from the track to the marathon, her VO2 numbers stayed roughly the same as she improved over the years, culminating in her massive 2:15:25 World Record.

The point is that distance running rewards RE more and more the longer the distance.

The 10,000 metres and the marathon are the longest distances contested at the IAAF and Olympic levels, so it stands to reason that the best athletes would all have massive REs. Scroll back up and look at the cadences for both events for men and women at the latest World Championships. ‘Nuff said.

About the Author

Peter Dobos has his B.Sc in Human Kinetics, completed coursework for his M.SC in Biomechanics, and has extensive adventure racing and off-road multisport experience. 

He is affiliated with the Endurance Project and works with many elite OCR athletes. 

Peter can be contacted at petedobos@gmail.com