Match your optimal cadence to your effort using these guidelines.
Which cadence should I ride for my event? There is no such thing as a perfect cadence, but cadence is an important piece of the overall cycling puzzle. This is a common question from new cyclists who only use miles per hour and cadence to measure their performance. Here are a number of factors to consider in cadence selection.
Spinning faster won’t get you very far.
Many beginners believe that a faster cadence is always better. While it is true that if you keep a constant force on the pedals and pedal more revolutions per minute (RPMs) you will technically go faster. If it were that simple, though, getting fast on the bike would be a lot easier. If you’ve been to a spin class lately, you’ve seen what focusing on only cadence looks like—people bouncing all over the saddle at extremely high RPMs with little to no resistance. They may be burning calories, but they’re not improving their ride performance.
Is higher always better?
Long-time advocates of high-cadence cycling will point to the classic example of Lance Armstrong vs. Jan Ulrich. Lance rode away from Jan with his higher cadence compared to Jan’s preferred lower RPM style. The truth is, Lance was just a better cyclist overall, one who happened to prefer a higher cadence riding style. The same is true with you—your best cycling performance may be achieved on a range of “normal” (commonly cited as 80–100 RPM) as opposed to always pushing for higher cadences.
Put cadence in context.
If you’ve trained with power, you know that the same watts can be achieved with 60 RPM, 80 RPM or 100 RPM. Which way of getting to X feels the easiest to you is what varies. As triathletes we have the additional factor to consider of how our cadence selection and overall force application impacts the run.
Low vs. high.
Power (watts) is torque (force put on the pedal) times rotational speed (cadence). A low cadence equals high force, which requires more fast-twitch muscle recruitment, while a higher cadence means lower force and more slow-twitch fiber recruitment. To explain further, a higher cadence “burns fewer matches” and tends to stress your cardiovascular system more, while cycling at a lower cadence stresses your muscular system more.
Cycling at a lower cadence also recruits more muscle fibers overall as well as more fast-twitch fibers. As far as your cardiovascular system goes, lower-cadence cycling costs less in terms of oxygen consumption but is more taxing on the muscles from a strength perspective.
Saving it for the run.
Higher cadence advocates may point to studies performed showing that study participants performed better on a subsequent post-cycle run than subjects who cycled at a low cadence. The truth is that there are conflicting studies that show better running success after cycling at various cadences. What matters is that you train yourself to run well after cycling at race-pace intensity by practicing adequately during training efforts.
Cadence selection overall is not an either/or proposition. Your personal strengths, weaknesses, physiological makeup and comfort preference determine your optimal cadence. And the terrain often dictates a necessary change in your RPMs. A rider who is training regularly at a variety of cadences will eventually find his or her optimal cadence for training and racing.
You should train at various cadences to increase your comfort level and to improve your fitness. Over-gearing, or big gear work, can help you develop strength, and practicing pedaling with a higher cadence at a range of intensities can help improve pedaling efficiency. Form work such as one-legged pedaling drills and spin-ups can also help improve your pedal stroke.
Don’t let a preoccupation with cadence cloud what’s really important: making sure you develop the ability to maintain your goal power through your most efficient application of cadence during your goal event.
External Reasons For Low Cadence
Is your cadence below the “normal” range (80–100 RPM) and you just can’t seem to change it? There could be other external factors at play.
Proper gearing: Your strength as a rider plus the terrain you’ll be facing dictates proper gearing. If you’re not sure of your chainring size or find yourself looking for another gear on hills, you might visit your local bike shop to see if a cassette swap is in order.
Appropriate crank length: Do you know your crank length? If you have the wrong size and are thus “reaching” each pedal stroke, a crank change could increase your cadence and efficiency by opening your hip to relax and therefore engaging more of your glute muscle, says fitter and Podium Multisport owner Matt Cole.
Proper fit: If you have an improper fit, your body angles could be forcing you into a certain RPM range.