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The simple answer is yes, but does higher cadence equal better cadence? I would argue no. For me, improving cadence means increasing the whole range of cadences over which you can effectively produce power in the TT (time trial) position. A broader range is what will allow you to manage the varied terrain and conditions you will likely face on race day, rather than have them manage you and put you off your race plan. Targeting cadences above and below your preferred pedaling rate in training will also unlock improved muscular strength, fatigue resilience, and neuromuscular adaptations that will better position you to run well off the bike.
The Bike Leg Is Not a Bike Race
While we may see elite cyclists on TV with relatively high cadences, it is important to remember that the high peak power demands and frequent micro changes in power output riding within a peloton require a different optimal cadence for pure cyclists than the often lower and much more steady power output required for most non-drafting triathlon events. Faster cadences consume energy at a greater rate, elicit higher heart rates and have a higher rate of perceived exertion (RPE) for a given power output, all of which can make them a less economical choice for triathletes on race day who do not have a follow car full of snacks or a comfy team bus waiting at the end of their ride. Instead, triathletes need to come into the GI-limited run topped off with motivation and as close to a full fuel tank as possible. To put it simply, pedal too fast and you burn through too much energy and will power, pedal too slowly and the muscular load from pushing a big gear becomes a different kind of limiter. Either can lead to problems on the run. You are always looking for the sweet spot between the two and there is no one cadence that is ideal across all conditions and terrain for a given athlete. It is always changing, so you need to be able to change seamlessly. On hills and headwinds, you may need to push a bigger gear, while flats, tailwinds and downhills, with less resistance, will generally find you spinning faster.
What Is the Goal?
The TT position requires you to be able to produce force for long periods while essentially folded in half. Doing some training at both higher and lower cadences in the TT position addresses these problems from the muscular strength, range of motion, and neuromuscular coordination angles.
Training higher than your preferred cadence will help increase your efficiency of movement and remove that resistance you feel in the cramped TT position. The easiest way to think about this is: Pedaling quickly challenges your body’s communication system to improve the coordination of muscles activating and relaxing during the pedal stroke so they are not fighting each other. Like speed drills for a musical instrument, if you can pedal fast without resistance you will be even more effective at your normal rate.
You must then balance the high cadence work with lower than your preferred cadence work. This usually makes more intuitive sense to athletes. Lower RPM means more resistance and you can feel the muscles working, as with weightlifting, but in this case, you are building specific strength at the more extreme ranges of motion required for the TT position. It does not matter how flexible you are for a super aero position or how much you can squat—in triathlon you must be able to do both simultaneously to be effective.
How Do We Do It?
Two of my favorite workouts for working on cadence are Slow Frequency Revolutions (SFR) and Hour of Power, the latter you’ll see featured as tomorrow’s One-Hour Workout, but here’s the SFR set:
After a good warm-up, pick a 5-6% grade incline or use a smart trainer to set a power or resistance that puts you in zone 2-3 while pedaling around 40-50 RPM in the TT position. Start out by pedaling for two minutes and then relax while spinning easy back down the hill for two to three minutes between each as recovery, repeating four or five times. Over a couple months work up to doing five or six reps of four minutes in this position with the same rest. Follow this low cadence work with five-minute blocks of work, done in zone 2 at 100-115 RPM in the TT position. Shorten the time and lower the cadence if you’re struggling and extend the duration as you get better. Do not force it or practice bad form.
The off-season is always a great time to work on technical skills and technique, which is especially true when COVID-19 is likely going to force a longer off-season than usual. This year presents a rare opportunity for an extended period without the distractions and deeper fatigue of race-specific training to put more fundamental skills like a broader cadence range in your racing toolbox.
Jesse Moore is the owner of Moore Performance Coaching. He has a graduate degree in exercise physiology from UC Davis and is a USA Cycling certified coach with more than 15 years’ experience helping athletes achieve their goals. He has raced at the Ironman World Championship, finishing in the top 10 in his age group, and also enjoys ultra running, gravel riding, and SwimRun racing.