What do New Running-Watch Metrics Really Mean to Triathletes? (Part I)

“Metrics” has been one of the fancier new buzzwords to grace the triathlon scene in recent years. Athletes want proof that the payment in suffering they’ve footed will recoup dividends in return. And why shouldn’t they? Visual evidence of improvement is a confidence booster and a predictive tool of what to expect come race day.

For the triathlete focusing on his or her run training, an advanced running watch capable of providing advanced metrics makes a lot of sense. This is direct feedback related to the triathlete’s running form and provides confirmation as to whether or not the athlete is improving in technique or declining.

But what do those metrics really mean? Over the next two posts we’ll look at the main three running-watch metrics and discuss their value.


The most important running metric for triathletes is, of course, cadence. In running, cadence is the measure of how many strides each leg takes, or touches the ground, during one minute of running. The average American long distance runner averages somewhere between 160-170 strides per minute (SPM). While not a hard and fast rule, this type of “slow” cadence is usually indicative of overstriding.

This is because studies have shown that the majority of runners and triathletes who have a cadence of under 180 SPM are typically landing heel first in front of their hips. As I’ve said in previous blog posts, heel striking is not necessarily a negative thing. But on the other hand, landing in front of your hips, outside your center of gravity, definitely is. Not only does this put the brakes on your stride, but it also positions your knee in a temporary locked status. As a result, you’re putting a tremendous amount of force on your joints that simply is not necessary.

The reasons for why overstriding is so detrimental are much more far reaching. However, let’s now consider why a proper stride length is more beneficial. As I’ve said, my concern is not so much which part of your foot touches the ground first, but rather where are you contacting the ground relative to your body. Directly under the hips allows for much more fluidity. Remember that in running the only time you’re actually moving forward is when you’re airborne. When your foot is on the ground you’re not actually moving forward during this brief period of time. So the question becomes how do we best encourage the transition into flight?

By way of analogy, think about what your feet do on the pedals of your triathlon bike. Unlike running, cycling is always fluid. Your motion never needs to stop and neither do your legs. But your legs do need to rotate in a specific direction relative to your forward motion. When you’re at the top of your pedal stroke it’s only natural to push downward in order to reach the bottom of the stroke. If your stroke were clockwise, you wouldn’t try to push down at 10:00 o’clock. That would be counterintuitive. Only at 12:00 o’clock would you be allowed to use the aid of gravity.

Landing in front of your hips is kind of like trying to use gravity at 10:00 o’clock on the pedal stroke. It’s jarring and inefficient. Foot placement directly underneath your center of gravity is much more akin to switching to your downward stroke at 12:00 o’clock on the pedals. This is the most ideal place to transition into taking flight, which, once again, is the only way to move forward when running.

You may have heard that a cadence metric of 180 SPM is the magic number that allows all runners, triathletes included, to achieve this result. In reality, it has simply been noted that the most elite runners are running at over 180 SPM when running at far superior speeds than most athletes are capable of. In fact, nowadays many elite runners are hitting a cadence of 190 or more!

The question for you is, “Is it possible that my cadence is dangerously low?” If it’s under 170, especially at race pace, then chances are it is and you’re overstriding. Use your running watch metrics to try to increase your cadence gradually. Start by shortening your stride, striving for only a 3-5% gain in SPM until you feel comfortable. Use a metronome and increase the beat from your 165 SPM to 170 beeps per minute. Then run to the beat until that feels comfortable. Once it does, you can increase the beat of the metronome ever so slightly until the same goal is achieved.

Running drills are also a great way to capture the feel of shorter strides. A-skips and B-skips are fast leg movement drills intended to improve the motion of your primary muscles responsible for forward propulsion and encourages landing directly underneath your center of gravity.

And, of course, use your running-watch metrics to track your cadence improvements after each run. Which direction is your cadence trending toward as you attempt to take shorter strides? What is the trend at the start of your run versus the end of your run?

In the next post we’ll cover the remaining two running-watch metrics to pay attention to: ground contact time and vertical oscillation.


Triathletes should be aware of what their fancy running watch technology is capable of. Most important is the ability to track the metric of cadence. Cadence informs you of your stride length and your overall running efficiency.


Do you have a running-watch capable of tracking cadence? If so have you used its technology to help improve? What were the results?

JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels

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