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When you ride a bike, there are multiple factors at play that determine how fast, and how far, you go. Most notably, your effort, or power, on the bike is determined by the force you put on the pedals and how quickly you turn over those pedals. The latter is known as cycling cadence, measured in revolutions per minute (RPM).
Ideas about cycling cadence have changed considerably over the years. Some studies emphasize that riding at a lower cadence is more economical, because it’s less taxing on the cardiovascular system. However, riding with too low of a cadence can lead to muscular fatigue. On the other hand, high cadence requires less muscle activation, but comes at a higher energy cost.
What’s the ideal bike cadence? The answer is tricky. Experienced coaches explain that it isn’t so much about a preference of high over low, or vice versa, as much as it’s about having an efficient pedal stroke. Most importantly, triathletes need to train the full range, so they can call on different cycling cadences as needed.
Low vs. High: How cycling cadence affects the body
Pedaling with a low cadence (60-70 RPM) in a big gear allows a cyclist to push more power. However, this comes at a cost with more muscle strain. As cadence decreases, the torque on the pedals increases.
“As a rule, lower cadence recruits more muscles, but I find it’s actually possible to have a lower heart rate at the same watts,” said Greg Mueller, former pro, USA Triathlon consulting coach, and coach for Grace Norman, Paralympic gold medalist. “Lower cadence has an entirely different effect of muscling the pedals, whereas high cadence taxes the neuromuscular system and cardiovascular system.”
On the other end of the spectrum, riding at a higher cadence produces less torque, which means your muscles and joints don’t have to absorb as much force, but you will be working at higher heart rate and your breathing will be more taxed, said Simon Kessler, a former pro cyclist who has been coaching elite cyclists and triathletes for over 20 years.
Cadences below 40 RPM or above 120 RPM have been shown to decrease efficiency. Within that range, though, the ideal cycling cadence depends upon your riding style, sport, strengths, and goals. While the pro cycling peloton will often ride at 90-100 RPM (and even hit 120 RPM in a sprint), triathletes tend to average much lower. But riding with a cadence that’s too low will tax leg muscles for the run that follows.
“For a triathlon that’s 5-6 hours, riding at a higher cadence will help save your muscles a bit more for the last few hours,” said Kessler.
For triathlon (as opposed to road cycling where a higher cadence is optimal) the typical cadence range is 70-90 RPM, which maximizes economy, energy use, and sets you up well to run off the bike. For most people, the optimal cadence will fall in the 80-85 RPM range. “But there are those at either end of the spectrum,” Kessler said. “Some riders might prefer 75 or 95 RPM. Among the best pros in the world, you might see one rider winning a time trial at 80 RPM and another at 100 RPM. The reason why pros tend to ride at a much higher cadence is because they have such high VO2 max and big engines that they can really tax that system more than an everyday cyclist.”
“There’s definitely an optimal cadence, but you have to figure out what it is for yourself.”
An ideal cadence for every situation
In addition to personal preference and efficiency, bike cadence might change depending on terrain and type of event. For example, a lower cadence is preferred in situations where maximal power is needed, like during a time trial.
Rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is also something to consider. Because a higher cadence puts less strain on your muscles, but more impact on your cardiovascular system, a very high cadence or a very low cadence can feel harder, depending on your strengths and weaknesses. One study showed that among a group of cyclists, RPE (or how hard an effort feels) decreased when going from 50 to 65 RPM, was unchanged from 65 to 80 RPM, and increased from 80 to 110 RPM.
For triathletes, the ideal cadence is a particularly important consideration, because there must be a balance between maintaining power on the bike and conserving energy for the run.
Mueller trains his athletes so they’re prepared to use different cadences as needed. “For my pros, I want them to have the ability to function in both situations,” he said. “If I’m out in Kona going into a headwind, I’m dealing with more force and lower cadence. When you encounter a tailwind or downhill, you will need to use a higher cadence. While most people can manufacture a low cadence, it’s much harder to produce high cadence, successfully.”
One study showed run times averaged nearly a minute faster after a high cadence bike session than one with low cadence. Also, stride frequency after a high cadence bike was significantly higher. The authors hypothesized that triathletes might unintentionally begin running with a stride frequency similar to the cadence of their previous cycling session. Another study found no difference in the 3,000m running time trial after cycling at difference cadences—though higher cycling cadence did again correspond to higher stride rate and initial speed off the bike.
Tips for training your ideal cadence
Rather than trying to alter your bike cadence, both Mueller and Kessler suggest using cycling drills, as well as polarized cadence work, to develop an efficient pedal stroke.
A great way to start is with a low cadence, strength-focused workout on a day when you want to load your legs but not your cardiovascular system. This might look like riding at a cadence of 60-70 RPM for 4x 12-minutes, or even doing a 20- to 30-minute block. Kessler suggests operating between 70-80% of max heart rate or 75-85% of FTP. Afterwards, transition to a high cadence of 95+ RPM for 5-10 minutes.
“In an Ironman, you want to preserve your muscles for the run,” Kessler said. “Going into the last 2-3 weeks before the race, you can add in some high cadence riding at race pace, for 20 minutes, at a RPM just a bit higher than your race cadence. Try to get used to that while staying aero, because it’s something you have to learn how to sustain.”
Incorporating drills, like single leg drills, at the start of every ride can also help activate the posterior chain, said Mueller. If you’re adventurous, try riding on rollers. Mueller believes the practice is the “most forgotten and effective secret for cyclists.” Another drill to improve a natural pedal stroke involves alternating between leg intensity and relaxation, suggested Kessler. Count 8-10 pedal strokes and mentally push harder with one leg, while at the same time relaxing the other leg. Then, switch sides. This method can be used during particularly hard bike sets and helps clear lactate.
While there are certainly best practices for pedaling mechanics, cadence selection is something that happens naturally over time. By riding at a variety of cadences, you will teach your body to recruit different muscles and physiological systems.
“Research has shown that by trying to mentally change your pedal stroke, you can become less efficient,” Kessler said. “Lance Armstrong pedaled completely on his toes, while Chris Froome kept his heels completely down, but they were both among the top riders in the world. For me, improving pedal stroke isn’t about trying to do what somebody says you should do. It’s about doing specific drills to enhance your own natural pedal stroke.”