Who Controls Your Cadence – You or the Laws of Nature?

July 29, 2013

The natural law of the conservation of energy suggests that humans naturally choose to be intentionally lazy – to use as little energy as possible during most movement. This leads to each of us following our natural cadence – the strides per minute that our body The Law of the Conservation of Energy SMALLchooses to be efficient, to conserve energy. Exercise scientists have been measuring cadence for decades hoping to optimize performance and yet they struggle with overcoming the law – the law of the conservation of energy.

Recent research suggests that tools like cadence-matched music on your iPhone coupled with conscious effort such as “coached workouts” can lead to some positive changes in your natural walking or running cadence. In one important study, physiologists at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia used motion capture technology to determine how many steps each runner or walker was taking per minute. You may know this, but your pace is dependent on two factors: frequency or the number of strides per minute (SPM) and step length or how far you travel with each stride or step. The researchers, after establishing each the runner or walkers preferred step frequency, then increased and then decreased the belt speed of the treadmill and measured how each volunteer adjusted for these changes in speed. Simultaneously, the researchers measured the physiological changes in the muscle cells, breathing responses, and other measurements. They discovered that the runner’s adjustment in SPM (strides per minute) to the belt speed occurred within two seconds – almost instantly – suggesting that the the adjustment was a response of neural signals from the brain. The researchers now believe that our brains store huge libraries of preset paces that we learn and then when needed adjust to them to be as physiologically efficient with our step cadences for each given speed or situation. That is, we default to our body’s most efficient pace automatically.

Next, these same Canadian researchers tried to trick the volunteers brains by showing them virtual reality scenes in front of the treadmill manipulating their sense of speed. They discovered that the fundatmental law remained intact – the walkers and runners weren’t fooled and their cadence didn’t match the fake virtual speeds. Conclusion: Pacing is not affected by false visual cues.

There is one signal that the researchers found that did challenge the law of conservation of energy – matching cadence to the beat of strong rhythmic music. The runners and walkers automatically adjusted their pace to match the bpm, beats per minute, of the metronome. Like the UpBeat Workout for Runners iPhone app that you use (if not then snag it) music may be one of the best ways to affect the pace of your running or walking. And, if you want to change that pace, scientist have now shown that using a strong tempo is probably your only and best way to do so – even if it feels awkward at first.

The take away lesson from this research for most of us is to load your iPod with uptempo music, set the app on “Fixed Cadence”, increase the value by 5-10 SPMs from your natural pace, and slowly re-train your brain to adjust to a faster stride rate. UpBeat has two settings to choose from: fixed cadence or auto mode which matches the music to your pace hands-free, automatically. But of course, if you’re comfortable with your pace as it is, then Upbeat will match your stride rate with your music tempo automatically, hands-free if you select “Auto mode”.

It’s almost impossible to overcome fundamental laws in nature. That’s why they are called laws. The conservation of energy law states that naturally your body will almost always choose the least energy demanding pace for you. But what this new research suggests is that with a little help from your iPod/Phone and with a little help from the app UpBeat, you can be more active, have more fun, and burn more calories.

Sally Edwards, Developer and Founder
UpBeat Workouts for Runners

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