The Tarahumara (or Rarámuri) people are a tribe in northwestern Mexico renown for their ability in long-distance running, brought to light by the book Born to Run (Christopher McDougall). You can seek out a good amount of their extraordinary abilities- but here are just a few: for one Rarámuri literally means “runner’s on foot”. Their culture has no history of heart disease, the men (and hunters) are known to run up to 200 miles in one session (over 2 days or so). They run in huaraches, a handmade sandal, and according to local custom- men of all ages (70’s to 20’s) can run the same pace for long periods of time.

How can this be?

Without going into the details of exceptional health and wellness in the Tarahumara, I want to talk about efficiency in rhythm. People that can run for extended periods of time have to be efficient, and not only efficient- but can’t risk injury rates. On a biomechanical level- how can this be? Cadence. Rhythm in cadence is key. Not only step and stride rate, of course, but a smooth rhythm to running is one of the basic foundations that set a runner up for maximizing their potential. Current evidence proves the following: running at a rate of about 170-190 steps per min for the average runner, or anywhere between 178-225 steps per min in competitive racing (winners) has been recorded. What does this mean?

Your legs are springs. Amazing combination of joints, muscles, and *tendons* that when used the right way, have the capacity to smoothly carry 2.5-2.8x your body weight every step during running. Here’s 2 important points:

  1. 80% of energy is used during stance phase in running.
  2. It costs more energy to raise the body up and down than to cover horizontal distance.

Adequate rhythm + proper biomechanics = efficient and effective gait cycle.

Finding the “sweet spot” of rhythm when running allows your springs to be springs- essentially your musculotendinous junction to accept load and release energy, or recoil. That sweet spot, on average is approximately 3 Hz. And while 1 hertz (Hz) simply means “one cycle per second”, that would mean approximately “3 cycles” per second- which happens to produce the least metabolic cost and best exchange of elastic energy. For all you numbers folks out there, that adds up to be within the range of 170 to 190 steps per minute (on average of course), and gives us a good guideline to aim for.

Applying this ‘sweet spot’ of cadence and directing the tendon’s release of energy in the right direction (combining vertical and horizontal distance), makes a nice rhythm when running. What’s the objective difference between a beautiful symphony orchestra and someone playing a musical instrument for the first time? Among multiple factors in the musical sense, a major factor is this: excellence in rhythm. Some of the best musicians, best artists, best runners, or any true expert in their field, find one that is fluid, consistent, structured, and repeatable. In this regard, running itself is a special combination of athleticism, science, and artistry that forms something truly beautiful.

Checking (and possibly changing) your running cadence can have exponential biomechanical influences on decreasing energy absorption in one’s joints, and using the body’s “spring system” (musculotendinous recoil), to run rhythmically and more efficiently. At it’s best, this looks like a nice pendulum swing of your legs that powers your body with the least metabolic cost possible, and the best possible exchange of energy (spring system).  So how do you know what yours is? Here are some tips:

  1. Go run. Set a timer. Count your steps for 60 second timeframe. Check.
  2. Change your speed while running. Does your cadence change? How so?
  3. Find a phone, download a metronome application, and set it to about 180 beats/minute.
  4. Change the rate plus or minus 3-5 beats per minute and play around with what is most rhythmic an easy for you.
  5. Voilà! You’re one step closer to maximizing your capacity to run fluidly and efficiently.
  6. Bonus: instead of running, try this while standing and jumping up and down.

You don’t have to be a Rarámuri, elite athlete, nor be able to cover hundreds of miles on a consistent basis to benefit from a sweet spot in cadence. Runner’s of all types can (and do!) benefit from using this as a practical tool to increase their capacity to be the best possible runner than can (and want) to become.

A few furthering resources:

  1. Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running.
  2. Leg stiffness and stride frequency in human running.
  3. Changes in the coordination of hip and pelvis kinematics with mode of locomotion.
  4. The influence of cadence and shoes on patellofemoral joint kinetics in runners with patellofemoral pain.

Stay tuned for the next post on Intensity, and it’s influence on what has been covered under the STRIDE umbrella.