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Friday, February 16, 2024
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Cycling Cadence Matters

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What is Cadence?

In cycling, cadence is a measure of the rotational speed of the bicycle’s crank.  Cadence is expressed in revolutions per minute, or rpms.  Simply put: Cadence is the pedaling rate at which the athlete is turning the pedals; it is how fast or how slow the cyclist is pedaling.  Cadence is related to and directly proportional to wheel speed, but cadence is a distinct and separate measurement, and it changes depending on which gearing the cyclist selects

The gearing changes the crank’s rotational speed (the cadence) so that it matches the rotational speed of the drive wheel .  The drive wheel on a bicycle is the rear wheel, since that’s where the gears are and thus that is what is connected to the cranks and other components of the drivetrain.  There are two main ways to generate power on a bicycle: Muscular Force and Cadence.

What is a “Normal” Cadence?

There isn’t necessarily a “normal” cadence, as cadence is actually highly individualized.  It depends on quite a few factors, including the type of riding that the athlete is doing and on their physiology, to include their personal distribution of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers (these are the two types of Skeletal Muscle Fibers).  

Slow-Twitch Muscle Fibers, also known as Type I muscle fibers, are fatigue-resistant muscle fibers that are utilized for sustained, smaller movements and postural control.  Slow-twitch muscle fibers are more aerobic in nature (meaning that they use oxygen to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the energy that drives and supports many of the processes in our cells and bodies, to include exercise).  These muscle fibers support long endurance activities, such as distance running and long-course triathlon.  (This is why the endurance sports online forum “Slow Twitch” named itself this.)

Fast-Twitch Muscle Fibers, also known as Type II muscle fibers, provide bigger and more powerful forces than their slow-twitch counterparts, but they can only produce those bigger and more powerful forces for shorter durations and these fibers fatigue quickly.  They are more anaerobic in nature (meaning that they produce ATP in the absence of oxygen).  These muscle fibers support quick, powerful movements such as sprinting or weightlifting.

It’s important to note that all skeletal muscles in the human body contain both slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers, but the ratios of how much of each an individual person has can differ depending on a variety of factors, including muscle function, athlete age, training age, type of training, etc..

The data I’ve looked at over the years (and I’ve looked at thousands of files from hundreds of individual athletes) has shown me that most endurance athletes will default to or self-select a cadence in the range of 60-80 rpm.  While the ideal cadence can vary depending on the type of event that the athlete is training for, it is beneficial if athletes can train themselves to have a self-selected or default cadence that is in excess of 80 rpm.  For endurance athletes, 70-90 rpm is efficient, but is relatively weak.  

For this reason, I usually recommend 80-90 rpm for long course triathletes (70.3 distance or longer) so they are in the higher end of the range, but not fatiguing their legs out too much before their run.  Several studies have shown that run time to fatigue is reduced in a lower cadence (sub-90 rpm average) bike leg.

Like all things, there’s a Goldilocks “sweet spot” and there is balance; the ideal cadence for long course triathletes is still higher than the average self-selected cadence, so triathletes should still work on improving this skill.  90-100 rpm is a better range for shorter (triathlon and cycling) racing and time trials.  100-120 rpm is the most effective range when the highest power is needed for a short period of time (for example, during attacks, surges, passes, and sprints)

There is literature out there that accurately states that lower cadences (around 60 rpm) are the most metabolically efficient because the rate at which oxygen is consumed is decreased compared with higher cadences.  However, there is more to riding a bike than being metabolically efficient.  At lower cadences, the muscles contract at speeds well below the rate at which they are actually strongest.  This means that as the power you’re trying to create rises, the cadence at which your muscles are most effectively able to produce it increases as well.  While pedaling slowly has the overall lowest metabolic cost, it effectively limits an athlete’s ability to produce high power.

Why is Higher Cadence a Good Thing?

Most athletes who have been doing an endurance sport that involves cycling for more than a season generally understand (or at least have heard of) that pedaling at a higher cadence is a good thing.  Even though they understand that this statement is true, I’ve observed that many athletes do not understand why it is true.

As previously mentioned, we have two ways to generate power/create forward motion on a bicycle:

  • Muscular strength (aka “force”)
  • Pedal speed (aka “cadence” or “torque”)

These two tools - muscular strength and cadence - can be blended at both high and low intensities to generate speed:

  • High Force/High Velocity
  • ~This is when the athlete has high muscle contractions and high cadence.
  • ~This combination uses both muscular force and torque/cadence to generate power.
  • High Force/Low Velocity
  • ~This is when the athlete has high muscle contractions and low cadence.
  • ~This combination primarily relies on muscular force to generate power.
  • Low Force/High Velocity
  • ~This is when the athlete has low muscle contractions and high cadence.
  • ~This combination primarily relies on torque/cadence to generate power.
  • Low Force/Low Velocity
  • ~This is when the athlete has low muscle contractions and low cadence
  • ~Not really utilizing muscle contractions or torque/cadence to generate power

Out of all of these, High Force/Low Velocity and Low Force/High Velocity are the two most commonly deployed methods.  Both methods generate power/speed; they only differ in how that power/speed is produced.

There are three main reasons why utilizing a higher (80+ rpm average) cadence is effective

  • Increased performance/endurance
  • ~A higher cadence reduces strain on leg muscles, which produces a longer duration of stronger and more powerful efforts and/or results in a higher percentage of the ride having stronger/powerful efforts.
  • Greater utilization of the cardiovascular system
  • ~The cardiovascular system has a greater ability to produce power when compared with the muscular system.  (Remember that the heart is the strongest muscle in the human body; it even has its own type of muscle cells!  (There are three total types of muscle cells present in the human body: Cardiac (which are just in the heart), Skeletal (the muscles that are attached via tendons to our bones), and Smooth (which is present throughout other organ systems such as the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and urinary systems).  Slow muscle contractions utilize both the aerobic and anaerobic system; speeding up these contractions decreases reliance on the anaerobic system, which therefore increases endurance.
  • Decreased muscle glycogen consumption
  • ~We use less fast-twitch muscle fibers when we spin at a higher cadence.  Fast-twitch muscle fibers consume larger quantities of muscle glycogen than slow-twitch muscle fibers do.  Glycogen is the name for the stored form of glucose (aka sugar, which is the body’s main source of energy - it is actually the most important source of energy for all organisms); in this case, muscle glycogen means the energy stored in our muscles.

Actually Training to Ride at a Higher Cadence

I think we can agree that we now understand why training to spin at a higher cadence is advantageous.  Even though it’s advantageous, it is often a challenging skill to change/train because for many athletes it requires changing the percentage of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers, and this takes time.  Not only does it take time, but it takes a long time.

In my experience, it takes at least six months of consistently targeting and paying attention to cadence for a higher cadence to feel more normal.  In many cases, it actually takes longer than six months; it can take years.  As a personal example: I spent a year actually, truly focusing on this back in the early 2010s, and for the last 10 years my self-selected/default cadence has been 20 rpm higher than it was in the late 2000s.

This long timeline means that this is a hard skill to develop, and this long timeline is something that a lot of athlete’s don’t have patience for.  In many cases, if athletes do not see results quickly, they get bored quickly.  Additionally, if they don’t see results quickly, they assume (or talk themselves into thinking) that the skill or thing being worked on doesn’t matter.

My experience has shown me that if athletes think something seems “easy” and then they discover that it’s not and/or that they won’t see gains for awhile, they get frustrated with the hard thing and shy away from doing it.  However, doing something that is challenging is good for us.

Training your nerves and how they communicate with your muscles to work in a way that is different than what 

  1. You've done for a long time and/or 
  2. (Related to #1) Is different from what your default/self-selected "setting" is (aka what your physiology on a cellular level likely lends itself to)

is always going to be work (and likely difficult work.

When seeking to change one’s self-selected/default cadence, strength isn't the limiting factor; the communication pathways on the neural level are.  We’re not just aiming to change the percentage of fast-twitch/slow-twitch muscle fibers; we’re seeking to train the neuromuscular system.  The neuromuscular system connects muscles and nerves, which control body movements and functions.  Training the neuromuscular system is challenging because we essentially are seeking to “rewire” ourselves on some level.

It often feels "easier" to athletes to go at a higher cadence when there is a higher resistance force (aka higher gears, more power output) because the higher power output "naturally" recruits more of those fast-twitch muscle fibers.  This is also often the default neural pathway.  These pathways are like deer paths or hiking trails in the woods; the neural pathways that are used the most are the clearest and most worn-in, so it’s easiest to default to them.  

It takes time to develop new neural pathways/to forge new trails.  However, once these new neural pathways are forged, they are long-lasting for all of the aforementioned reasons.  All of this makes cadence or anything that involves retraining neural pathways absolutely worth taking the time to work on, because it’s not necessarily something that “goes away” easily once it is trained.

The Ignored Quadrant

Training to spin at a higher cadence has been called by some The Forgotten Quadrant.  I think it’s actually more accurate to say that it’s The Ignored Quadrant.  My humble opinion after all of these years is that many athletes have heard about the reasons why it's good to train this system, but since it's hard, they choose not to and to pretend like not training it won't be a big deal for them.  Humans are extremely excellent rationalizers and can generally talk ourselves into just about anything, including opinions and thoughts about what we can and should be doing in our endurance sports training.

Many of the athletes I’ve coached over the years have worked with me for four or more consecutive years.  The long-standing relationships have allowed me to get a front-row seat to athlete behaviors and to how things evolve over time.  I have some athletes who I’ve encouraged to work on this and who have successfully changed their default cadence.  And then there are other athletes who I’ve encouraged to work on this and who - for one reason or another - have chosen not to and still have the same default cadence as when they started coaching with me.

These athletes are not focusing on improving their cadence averages, and they are not thinking about this for the prolonged periods of time that are necessary to bring about this change. They may think that they are focusing on cadence, or they might hope that they are focusing on it, but the fact that their default average cadence is the same indicates that they are not.  They may not think that cadence is an important skill to focus on.

Conversely, I have other athletes who took my advice seriously, focused on this for a long period of time, and saw not only improvements in their cadence averages, but compounded performance gains over time stemming from that body of work.  They saw their performance improve as a result of these new neural pathways that they forged.

In essence, yes, (and I get that this is hard to hear) I’m saying that a lot of why athletes don’t work on increasing their average cadence or thinking about their cadence or at least considering changing  their cadence boils down to a combination of a lack of willingness to do it and perhaps a bit of ignorance of why it’s so important to.  That being said, that is exactly why I’m talking about this; I want to help explain why this is so important to consider working on and to actually work on.

The Cross-Pollination Effect is Real

By removing the higher power output (usage of higher gears/faster speeds), we're aiming to train the neuromuscular connection itself, which can lead to less fatigue and less glycogen depletion .  While this does benefit an athlete’s cycling ability and performance, training this neural connection via cadence is very advantageous for triathletes to do before the run leg of a triathlon starts, because it sets the athlete up for a better run performance.

Perhaps paradoxically for some athletes, sometimes the biggest gains athletes see by working on cycling cadence are in their run (whether they are triathletes or runners).  This is because we are training the neural pathways, and training these has cross-pollination effects into other forms of movement.  Triathletes should always be aiming for strong performance across all three disciplines.  With multisport athletes (or even single-sport athletes, sometimes we get creative and we use one discipline to make gains in another.  This is something that I don't think a lot of folks fully appreciate.  That being said, it opens a lot of possibilities for how to see those improvements, which is really exciting.

While I’m (strongly) advocating for athlete’s to train in a way that gets them to have a higher default average cadence, athletes should train at a variety of cadences, because there are always different situations that will require different cadences such as:

  • Hill climbs
  • Passes
  • Descents
  • Flats

So sometimes it’s useful to train at lower cadences, and other times it’s beneficial to train at a higher cadence.  The biggest thing athletes should avoid is always riding at the same cadence.  This is because training a variety of cadences helps athletes be stronger for when they do encounter different situations on training rides or in races.

The Bottom Line

Cycling cadence matters, and it matters in more than just cycling. It is something that is challenging to work on, but it is worth working on. Yes, it takes a long time to see results, but once those results are in place, they are long-lasting. I encourage you to take a look at your own cycling habits and behaviors and ask yourself if you could benefit from putting in focused work in training your cycling cadence.

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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