And proving it with Garmin data
Last summer, following a short hiatus from running, I made a concerted effort to rework my running form as I began to ease back into training. My goal was to run more efficiently by reducing overstriding; focusing on increasing my running cadence with shorter, quicker steps. I was able to track my progress by monitoring my run cadence data (in SPM – steps per minute) measured by my Garmin watch. Over the last year, I can show I’ve boosted by cadence from a SPM in the 160s when I started, to around 180 SPM now! I’ll talk about how I showed my improvements using Garmin data and mention how the new, quicker cadence is paying off now.
A thorough explanation of overstriding can get pretty technical, and a tutorial on how to fix it would require at least an entire separate blog post; so I’ll keep it brief for now. Overstriding is super common among distance runners and occurs when your front foot makes contact with the ground in front of your center of mass while running, see below:
As shown in the diagram, when your foot lands out in front of you body, the tendency is also to make contact with the heel first (“heel striking”), often with a straight leg. Doing so is essentially applying the “brakes” with each stride, making you less efficient. There is also a ton of impact absorbed by the rest of your leg and body by landing in this position, increasing your risk of injury. In fact, overstriding is often the root cause of many common running injuries like runner’s knee and IT band syndrome.
Landing under your center of mass while running (image on the right) can make you a healthier, more efficient, and ultimately faster runner. Increasing your cadence isn’t the only thing to focus on to reduce overstriding, but it is a very important component of improving running form. Plus – cadence is measured by most newer running watches, making it easier to see and track improvements made…
The Proof is in the Data
For any fitness goal, it’s really important to have a quantifiable way to track your progress. Whether it’s logging your weights/reps at the gym when training for strength, or monitoring your weight loss on a new diet, it’s motivating to see progress over time in an explicit way based on your goals.
So for me, the average cadence data measured by my Garmin watch was the perfect metric for me to track as I set off to increase my SPM. And because I’m a scientist & programmer nerd, I enjoyed taking this tracking to the next level with this blog post 🤓.
I downloaded one year’s worth of workout data from the Garmin connect app in spreadsheet form. I then wrote some code to load, process, and visualize the data. I filtered out all non-running workouts and runs with paces slower than 10:00 min/mi. I then plotted the average cadence from all remaining runs versus the time of year from March 2019 to March 2020 as circles, and colored those circles by average pace (blue for slower, red for faster). I wanted to be able to see how my cadence increased with time, but also how much the pace of the runs affected my cadence.
I was pumped with the result! I was able to clearly see a trend of increasing pace from June – October and it was obvious that my average cadence these days is signficantly higher than last year at this time. Also, I can see that even my slowest runs now have a higher cadence than my fastest runs back before I started. This is awesome, because it used to be a challenge to move my feet fast when the pace was slow.
At first I thought I made a mistake in my data processing when I saw the gap in runs you can see around May 2019… but then I remembered I had ran in a 24 hour race on April 27th (my first ultra), and took a brief break from running afterwards to let my feet recover 😧. What’s also cool is you can see all of the slower-paced runs leading up to that race (the darker blue dots) where I was doing lots of long and slow walk/jog workouts to train.
Further evidence of the improvement can be seen by looking at a couple races I did before/after making upgrades to my stride. Check out a comparison of my stats from Richmond Half Marathon (2018, 2019) and the Oozlefinch 10 Miler (2019, 2020) below:
The pace and finish times between the two years were remarkably similar, but my cadence increased significantly (I think the average cadence showed from Oozlefinch 2020 is actually slightly higher because I forgot to turn off my watch after the race for almost a minute 😅).
Feeling Lighter & Quicker
With an average cadence of around 180 these days, I’m feeling light and quick on my feet, even during the long, slow runs. Like learning anything new (or re-learning something you’ve been doing for years), it takes time to change, and even longer for the change to feel normal and second-nature. I’m just now getting to the point where I can keep my feet moving fast without focusing on making it happen.
With the exception of periodically tight/sore calves (landing on the balls of your feet as opposed to heels puts more emphasis on the backside of your legs, especially calves), the quicker turnover has my legs feeling fresher. It’s only been a relatively short period of time, but for what it’s worth, I’ve avoided any injuries/tweaks to knees/hips/shins/feet over this stretch.
The healthier stride also motivated me to finally switch up my running shoes for the first time in over five years. I switched from the heavy and super cushioned Brooks Glycerin to the lightweight Saucony Kinvaras. The difference is huge: going from a heel-to-toe drop of 10.5mm to 4mm; and a weight of 11oz to just 7.8oz. It’s hard to imagine now how I ran with such heavy-duty shoes.
Finally, another thing I love about changing my stride and focusing on fast cadence is having a new, powerful cue for the end of races and hard runs. I’ve noticed that when I get fatigued, my cadence tends to drop, even if my pace is the same. So now when I come to the final mile or two of a race, my internal cue is to keep quick feet. I bring up the cadence display on my watch and focus on keeping the number high. To me, it’s mentally easier to focus on fast cadence than focusing directly on fast pace… but the faster pace naturally comes with it.
Where to Start
Looking to learn a healthier stride? As I mentioned, changing something so ingrained over time like your natural running stride is going to take some time. The best time to make changes to form and technique is in the offseason or in between training cycles. You’re more likely to fall back into your same habits if you feel rushed and pressured to build speed and endurance for an upcoming race.
The first step is simple and is just about observation to find out where you’re at now. Look through your run data just to get an idea of what cadence range you tend to run at. Then change your watch settings to show your current cadence on one of your displays. Pay attention to how your cadence may tend to slow when you’re fatigued.
Once you have an idea of where you’re at – start small. Aim to increase your cadence by 5%. Add in drills at the beginning and end of runs that emphasize good form and quick feet like strides and downhill running. Although I haven’t tried this, some people even recommend running with a metronome to hit a target cadence. I also found an app that will change the tempo of your favorite music.