I Don’t Know, But I’ve Been Told…

Oatmeal Running

I was running with two co-workers when one of them told me that they needed to find their “cadence.” They had recently signed up for a running workshop, and the teacher had given them this assignment. I was perplexed, as I had never heard the word “cadence” associated with running, but I decided not to ask about it right away. Instead, I asked about the workshop. I had never heard of a “running workshop,” either. They explained that the workshop, which convened once each week under the tutelage of an athletic physical therapist, was intended to teach the participants how to train properly train for a marathon. They were learning about proper leg positions, striding, posture, etc. I have completed four marathons, but I’m guessing I did so improperly. Instead of a workshop, I relied on books about running and the advice of other runners with more experience. I concede there is something incongruous in learning how to engage in a physical activity by reading a book, but I feel good about the advice I got from people who had actually run marathons. The idea of attending a weekly workshop is antithetical to my tendency towards sloth. Running in and of itself is as much physical exertion as I am willing to muster. I certainly can’t be expected to attend a class, too. When I’m not running, I’m sitting on the couch watching TV, writing a blog post, or reading a book, but never attending a class.

Having decided that the running workshop wasn’t for me, I went on to ask about the “cadence” assignment. My friends told me that to find their cadence, they were to count the number of times their right foot hit the ground while running for 30 seconds, then multiply the number by four. They had been told that the ideal cadence is 180, which I found fascinating. I’ve been running for twenty years and have never come across this concept. That’s not to say I’ve never heard about timing your running pace, but I’ve never heard about running cadence, let alone an “ideal” running cadence. Out of curiosity and an occasional obsession with numbers and simple math problems, I calculated my cadence. Mine is 156, which, apparently, means I’m 13.3% below the ideal. I can live with that. Especially since I think it’s poppycock.

According to the handy definition “look up” feature on my laptop, “cadence” can mean a number of things, including: tempo, rhythm, lilt, falling tone, intonation, rhythm in language, and musical sequence. All of those terms appear, to me, to be associated with music. I don’t associate any of those terms with running, at least in a non-military sense. According to the military movies I’ve seen, whenever people in the army run, they sing a highly rhythmic call and response song to keep the soldiers moving at the same pace. As far as I know, all cadence calls begin with, “I don’t know, but I’ve been told…” or, if Bill Murray is leading the charge, “There she was just a walking down the street…” I haven’t done the math, but I suspect those military cadences are a bit slower than the ideal 180. If the United States Army hasn’t figured out the ideal cadence, I don’t know if I can trust a physical therapist teaching a running workshop.

If I were to teach a running workshop, which, again, I wouldn’t given the amount of effort involved, it would be a short class. Here’s the curriculum:

Just run.

Running is a time to stop thinking. No analysis required, no measurements needed aside from noting how long it takes you to run whatever distance you’re going. If you’re running a marathon, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to doubt your abilities and wish you had opted to sit on the couch and watch TV. There’s no need to add to your anxiety by evaluating your performance against arbitrary cadence metrics and leg position standards. Only two things matter:

  1. Keep going. You may be running, walking, or crawling, but keep moving forward. For us, as T.S. Eliot wrote, there is only the trying.
  2. Finish and wallow in the satisfaction of crossing the finish line. Whether it takes you a world-class two hours and ten minutes or more than six hours, finishing a marathon is pretty cool, and no one will ask you about your cadence.

Of course, my workshop would have assigned reading. I’ll take any opportunity to sell more books. I’m lazy and shameless.

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2 thoughts on “I Don’t Know, But I’ve Been Told…

  1. I never thought about the technique of running until my daughter was in the Army. She was not a good runner, and struggled with it. She told me about the time her sergeant at the time told her to run with her and try to match her stride. It was amazing to her how that helped her to even out stride and run better.

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