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Tell Me Tuesday: How To Run With a Metronome

Watch out: I might break out the sweater vest on a run soon. (Image from triediksi.deviantart.com)

As Boston-palooza continues—SBS' race report will run on Wednesday—I'm briefly interrupt to speak on behalf of my lovely metronome, a plasticy, made-in-China, beepy thing that has become my go-to running gadget for the past 8 weeks. I have been running three times a week since I started running again in late February, and I haven't left home yet without my 'nome.

I guess that's 25+ runs with it, so I'm no expert for sure, but I wanted to share a few things that have worked for me with it. Because it's been a long day and I'm not capable of making fluid transitions with my sentences, I'm going to turn this into a Q+A, with me doing both the q'ing and the a'ing.

Q: What is a metronome?
A: You might know the tick-tock metronome from your piano days, as I do--I could never keep rhythm very well--and a running metronome is the same idea, only it clips onto your belt or can fit in the palm of your hand. You set it to beep every time one foot--either right or left--hits the ground. You can use a real metronome, as I do, and there are also metronome apps for smart phones, like this one for an iPhone.

Little, silver, beeping. Dare I say I love this thing?

Q: Why do I need a metronome?
A: You may not. I didn't for about 20 years of my running, and then when I got all injured and out-of-whack, I turned to Chi Running, which promises to run injury-free for life. I have not seen that beautiful nirvana yet, but I will say that once you get past the dork factor of the 'nome, it is an amazingly helpful tool.

A quick cadence--or small, plentiful steps--are key for staying injury free. You land lighter on your joints, you put less force on your muscles and you kind of get a circular motion going with your feet. (Running barefoot gets you to a similar point, because you don't want to land as lightly as possible on those bare treads.) When I'm on the metronome, I think about my feet just tapping the earth and it rotate with every footfall. When I'm not, I overstride and land with such force, I could actually be stopping the earth. (Another Chi Running visual that I find really helpful: pretend like you have no lower legs when you run, so you're "landing" on your knees. That brings your landing under your body and promotes a quick cadence as well.)

Q: What's an ideal cadence?
A: The experts all say 90 steps per minute (SPM), which means hitting the ground with your left or right foot 90 times a minute. (Sometimes people will say 180, which just combines the two feet.) Taller people with crazy inseams get off the hook a bit, and can aim for a cadence of 85. I say, if you know you don't have a quick one, just try to make it faster than what you have now.

Q: How do I get to that ideal cadence?
A: Glad you asked. Like most things in life--and all things in running--you have to start where you're at and gradually build from there. No short cuts, unfortunately. Head out and run for five minutes without a 'nome on, then start the beeping and adjust the metronome up and down until you get to the point where one foot is touching down as it beeps, but you haven't changed your stride at all.

So you play with it a bit and realize your everyday, natural cadence is a 79. Spend a week running at a 79 just to get used to the rhythm; do all your regular workouts, but keep your cadence at a 79. (And it goes without saying: you have to commit to the 'nome. Run with it as often as you can.) The following week, bump that bad boy up to 80. Ditto: get all your miles in at 80 steps per minute. Repeat until you get to the cadence that feels good to you; hopefully somewhere between 85 and 90.

That's an ideal situation. Truth be told, it's taken me longer than a week to get my cadence moved up a beat. I started at 81, then hung at 84 for about four weeks, and am finally at 85, but it feels hard.  One more note here: it is really hard to go out and run at 85 or 90 when your body isn't there. I tried on a long run last fall to just go at 86. I was quickly tired and frustrated and turned it off--and put it away.

Also, know that you have to go on solo runs and concentrate to get there. Kind of obvious, but I brought mine on a group run and tried to get the other interested ladies on the beat. It didn't work very well.

Q: So does a quicker cadence mean I'll go faster?
A: Not necessarily, but there is definitely the possibility that you'll increase your MPH as you increase your SPM. I haven't found that to be the case yet, but speed hasn't been my priority. In Chi Running, they introduce four gears, which range from warm-up to speedwork. (Here's a video that demonstrates them; check out the book for a much better explanation.) The key is this: no matter what speed you're going, your cadence stays the same.

Little anecdote: Grant saw me running up the street after a four-miler. I asked him if he could tell if I was using the metronome. "You look like you're really running and not just dragging, like you usually do," he replied. I took it as a compliment.

Q: Isn't the beeping annoying?
A: I was really concerned it would be. And when I was trying to go straight to 86 and skip the baby steps necessary to get to a higher cadence, it was. I resented the beep.

But now, I actually like it. When I'm in line with the beep, everything else seems to be going well: my posture is good; my focus is forward; my core is engaged; my legs are light. When I'm crossing a street or otherwise get distracted and am no longer coordinates with the beep, I feel like my body kind of caves and I revert back to old habits.

It's obviously not music or an, ahem, entertaining podcast, but I am not missing either of them right now. I'm not missing my Garmin either. I'm good, just running to my own beep.

Have you run with a metronome? Have questions about it? We want to hear.

34 responses to “Tell Me Tuesday: How To Run With a Metronome

  1. Hi Dimity,
    I just bought a metronome, and was about to use it when I found out that I have a tibial stress fracture 🙁
    Anyway, while I am healing, I am reading Chi Running. I was wondering if you got personal training on the method, or did you just read the book, watch the DVD’s, and figure it out for yourself. I’m having a hard time how this is going to work for me. Do you think it’s worth going to a $250 workshop with a Chi Running instructor?

  2. I tried a metronome for the first time today. A couple of things were different. First, I’m used to my shuffle which is tiny and clips on to my waistband. Instead of that I brought my iPhone with me that I put in my amphipod. I don’t really like the amphipod because it doesn’t stay put. That was the first issue. I thought, being a musician and music teacher that the metronome would be really good for me. I figured out my cadence and had it going (88 for me!) and then I was off. After 10 minutes the beeping in my headphones was driving me crazy. So, I put some music on in the background just to have something else going. It was quiet enough that I could focus on the beeps but loud enough that there was something else to listen to. That only lasted another 10 minutes. After that, I had to turn the beeping off. It was driving me crazy. I do feel like the rest of my run was better because I had more consistent cadence, however I think that my cadence changes as I run. Part of the reason for that is that my cadence changes with my music but sometimes I just like to slow down or speed up a bit. Is that bad? Looking for any suggestions. Thanks!

  3. And give up AMR podcasts!
    I so wanna try this though. I long for running “light”. I wonder if it might help quiet the mind too? like a form of meditating. Or if the beeping would get irritating? Anyways, Chi running is my next book after TLAM 🙂

  4. I have always loved running too “Ain’t goin down till the sun comes up”. Always felt like it had the perfect beat to keep me on a good pace – just checked and I think it’s about 86-90 spm! However, I always feel like its a bit of a pushing-it pace for me. Have to play around and see if I can learn to keep the same cadence at a slower pace. I generally try to think about keeping my feet under my hips instead of out in front, and find that automatically speeds my cadence somewhat.

  5. I definitely need to work on my cadence, it is typically around 165 at the mo, I have also found certain songs are better to run to for speeding up but the thought of having to listen to those couple songs over and over….and over….and…..over……….zzzzzzzzzzz
    The metronome thing looks like it may b e worth a try, I can be pretty anal so it may work….then again I DO like listening to my music, I may just need to find more songs which help me get to the correct cadence for me….

    1. There isn’t really a scientific way I use, Jacqui: sorry. When I fall off, I just concentrate on putting one foot down with the beep, and if I’m not on the rhythm for the second beat, I speed up my cadence (shorten my stride) and try again. Really just hit and miss for me, but there may be a better way.

  6. As a novice runner, I still need my music when I run, to keep me going. I’ve been looking into apps that will either play music with a given BPM, or will adjust my music to the BPM that I want (I think the one I’m thinking about getting is Music Runner). Has anybody tried one of these apps? I also like the idea that I can play it through my headset, and not bother others. 🙂

    1. There is an app on iPhone called PodRunner. They have a lot of hour long podcasts that play at different beats. The original PodRunner is free and there is an upgrade that costs money (not sure how much).

  7. Thrilled that according to my Garmin foot pod, my cadence is between 86 and 90 every run. Is it ok to rely on the foot pod as an accurate reflection of your SPM.?

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