mundane adventures in running
180 bpm. Click click click. Three beats per second. The upper limits of the human heart. Roughly the tempo of Mirror in the Bathroom.
180 bpm is commonly cited as the optimal cadence for running. That’s three steps a second. The wonderfully named Jack Daniels was the first person to research this, using observations of competitive athletes to work out how fast their cadence was. By watching video footage, he found that runners at the 1984 Olympics ran at a pace of at at least 180 bpm.
Criticisms of 180 as a magic number are rife and valid: the athletes Jack observed were competing, the question of whether they would train at 180 is unanswered; they were nearing the end of a race, they didn’t necessarily run at this cadence for the whole race; 180 was the minimum cadence, obviously very different to an optimal cadence; and the race was a 5k, would 180 hold for a longer race? Possibly the greatest reason to take 180 with a pinch of salt, however, is that we’re all built differently; what might be great for one person might well suck for another.
Despite the criticisms, for those running at a slower cadence than180, those starting to run for the first time, those experimenting with barefoot, or with improving form, 180 can be your friend. Download a metronome app to your phone, download a 180 bpm clicker mp3, find a 180 bpm mix (I quite like this), find the least painful of the myriad 180 playlists on spotify.
180 cadence brings a trinity of benefits: grace, speed and focus.
Three steps a second makes you fleet of foot; you flit, your soles barely brushing the ground. With a short, tight stride, your footsteps can’t help but be light: no heal strikes, no clomping, no pounding shock shaking and crashing through feet, shins, knees, sending tremors through your whole body, wrecking hips and and patellas without discrimination. At three steps a second, the runner doesn’t commit to footfall; you have the chance to change your mind, to skip, to side step, to make a short stride even shorter. 180 cadence helps you float across the surface of the planet with perfect form. At 180 grace becomes natural.
With a longer, even stride, upping cadence makes you pick up the pace. Three steps a second and a longer stride bringing power to your elegance. The butterfly becomes the gazelle. The click of the metronome milks speed from you: forcing you to keep up, to not flag. 180 or faster, the metronome becomes your training partner on tempo runs.
And the focus. Beginning meditation, you’re often told to follow the breath. Breath in, notice the hiatus, breath out. Imagine your breath filling the world. Imagine the world filling your body. As unwelcome thoughts enter your consciousness, gently wave them away and go back to the breath. In running, the metronome can act as a proxy to the breath. Focus on the clicks of the metronome. Feel your foot landing, gracing the ground with each click. Feel the rhythm of the stride, the evenness of your run. As unwelcome thoughts enter your consciousness, gently wave them away and go back to the metronome. Legs aching, back to the metronome; belly grumbling, back to the metronome; running down a long, boring, traffic heavy road, back to the metronome.
On long runs, 180 gives you focus. In the battle of attrition you sometimes feel on long runs, it keeps you going. 180 becomes the mantra which gets you through, that keeps your form on track, keeps your pace consistent. It’s the mantra which stops the demons clouding your mind, that stops you feeling bored, or in pain, or hungry, or like you’re losing or winning.
Don’t stop at 180, run faster if it works for you. Work up to it slowly if you find it difficult. If the metronome is too intense, try 180 work out music. If you prefer something more gentle, and more musical, Simon and Garfunkel, Dylan and Nick Drake all do a mean line in 90bpm music. And of course remember that 180 is the minimum, not the optimum. You’re plateau-ing at 180? Pitch it up a notch.