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.
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.