From the Coaches: Why does cadence matter?

Hi Coach,
I read your post last Tuesday. This morning, I did Cadence Build while remembering your words, and achieve a new cadence max of 209 RPM, and other three build of more than 200 RPM. In the past cadence workouts, I didn’t try achieve a very high cadence, didn’t seem to be useful on the road so thank you for this precious and motivating information.
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Really interesting insight and brilliantly explained to the average joe!

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It’s traditionally considered that 90rpm is an ideal cadence for time trial and triathlon … so, yes, I agree - there’s a sweet spot to be found

eurgh, cadence drills :sunglasses:

I’m finding that the more I practice holding a given power level at high cadence, the less it raises my heart rate above what it would be at a lower cadence. In other words I’m getting more efficient at pedalling a higher cadence. At the same time I’m feeling less muscle fatigue, which really makes a difference on century rides.

Obviously there is a tipping point where too high a cadence raises HR to exhaustion, but it does appear to be a trainable point. My strategy on long rides is to pedal a relatively high cadence for as much of the time as possible and only pedal a relatively low cadence to either bring my HR down after a hard effort or when forced to grind on steep slopes.

If nothing else having a wide cadence range in my arsenal seems to be very helpful. I have a friend who can only really do low cadence and it seems to limit his options out on the road. Once muscle fatigue sets in he has nowhere else to go.

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Really interesting read, thanks. Question - what is the most efficient cadence to ride at? I’ve always aimed for 90-95 rpm on the road, someone above says this is good for time trial and triathlon, but how about regular road riding?

After reading the article I would say that this is individual and up to your neuromuscular coordination level. It looks like there is no such thing as an optimal cadence for everybody.

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I also think it’s an individual thing. If you ride without thinking too much about it then you will tend to automatically gravitate toward your own most efficient cadence, whatever that may be.

But I do think it’s worth training with progressively higher cadence and over time you may find that your preferred cadence automatically Increases as you learn to pedal more efficiently.

I really like the SUF cadence drills. After pedalling at 100+ dropping back to 85 feels like slow motion.

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I have a really hard time with riding with a high enough cadence without running the watts up. Probably related to how I have my bike geared, massive chain ring for flat Minnesota.

I agree it’s an individual thing, but while we all have different size/shape bodies, levels of fitness, NMC etc, there must be a rule of thumb that says above a certain cadence things like improved NMC show diminishing returns. This is the line that really prompted my question:

Why 80-90? Personally I’ve been riding at about 90rpm for years, but only as a result of training myself to do so. And I came to that number because of an article I read long ago. So at what RPM would, say, an intermediate level cyclist see their optimal power output? Should I focus on taking my average rpm to 95, 100, …? At 130 rpm am I generating more heat than power?

Another way of thinking about it - you don’t see the pro-peloton chugging away at 140rpm. They are all different physiologically, yet I’d guess they all ride within about 5rpm of each other. Is that because if they spin faster it becomes more uncomfortable, or have they reached the most optimal rpm in terms of power output?

Probably most people fall into that 80-90 rpm ball park range. But there are plenty of people spinning closer to 100 at the top end or closer to 70 at the lower end. It’s a very broad range. I believe tests have shown that self-selected cadence is the most efficient, although what an individual might self-select will depend to some extent on how they have been training. For example I used to pedal around 80-85 rpm as a default, but since I’ve been doing cadence drills etc for a year I’m now automatically pedalling 85-90 rpm in cruise mode. Is that more efficient or not? Well it seems to help reduce fatigue on longer rides, but I don’t stay at the same cadence for hours on end. I will tend to mix it up, sometimes pedalling slower down below 80 rpm and sometimes I’ll be up around 95-100.

I think the big benefit of cadence drills is training yourself to ride smoothly and efficiently at a wider range of cadence.

Edit: As an example I did a 4DP test recently and did the first 10 mins of the FTP section at 95 rpm and then dropped to 85 rpm for the second 10 mins (in a higher gear at the same power level). The first 10 mins I was stressing up my cardio system and then I gave that a break midway and loaded up my leg muscles more instead. I doubt I could have maintained the same overall power level at a single cadence unless I chose precisely the right cadence from the start. Having that range allowed me to adjust on the fly.

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In my case it is the opposite. Doing FTP test I usually start 90-95. At the second half, if I drop to 85-ish rpm I would not be able to keep the power, on the other hand I can increase a bit further the power going up with cadence a bit higher than 95 rpm.

You probably just have a naturally higher cadence than me. At threshold power my cardio and muscular strength seem most balanced in the mid-high 80s cadence. I’m still working on increasing my cadence, but I think 95 rpm at threshold was just a little too much for my cardio system to cope with for 20 mins, hence why I geared up to drop cadence midway through my effort. I could still hold the power at the lower cadence and it helped to get my breath back. But I could certainly feel the extra torque through my legs toward the end!

Yes, these aspects vary. I have a natural low HR (LTHR: 155-157, max: ~175, rest: 46 according to Garmin Sport, but showing valleys below 40 bpm), so I think it is harder to stress my cardio. On the other hand, for sure I don’t have that extra torque left at 85-90 rpm. And it is not the lack of “absolute” strength, I can go higher than 1300W in sprints and my NM relative power (5s) is probably higher than 18 W/kg.
I can tell you more tomorrow morning, I will face FF again.

Food for thought.

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Tempo Fast Cadence: 4 x 3 was on my plan this weekend. It’s a great workout for cadence and feels quite different to doing cadence builds/builds and holds due to the longer interval length. It took a lot of willpower to complete the last 30 seconds of the final interval!

I think that article makes a lot of sense. I think Coggan has been saying this for years ie big gear super-low cadence work has no scientific benefit. Yet some pros appear to do it regardless. Personally I still think road race bikes are under-geared for steep climbs and so being forced to pedal below 60 rpm is fairly common and therefore it makes some sense to train for it.

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Another point to consider is that your optimal cadence actually changes with your power output. It’s not a fixed value throughout your power range.

Just to throw some numbers out, you might find that your optimum cadence is 70 rpm at 100W, increasing to 90 rpm at threshold and 100+ rpm at max 5 sec power. You don’t see track sprinters putting out 1500+W at 50 rpm and you don’t see endurance riders spinning at 115 rpm for hours on end.

Ultimately it’s a balance between your aerobic efficiency (lower cadence = higher efficiency) and the ability to generate your target power (higher cadence = higher power limit). I think the trick here is to train yourself to pedal with a higher cadence more efficiently, which in turn increases your power for the same net cost in energy. This is probably most critical when riding close to or above threshold power.

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Yes. From what I’ve been reading, low cadence work doesn’t seem give you the specific strength benefits that people claim it does. However, like you said, it may prepare you mentally for the steep climbs where you have to use low cadences to grind it out. It’s good practice for those occasions, even if it doesn’t give you actually muscular strength benefits.

Yes, I think it’s better to think of low cadence work as good practice for climbing when under-geared rather than pseudo “weight training”.

*Coggan demonstrated that even at very low cadence (<50), pedal force is still far too low to represent a significant muscle overload. It would be like going to the gym and doing 1000+ reps. Coggan showed that “big gear” training is more like stair climbing or step-ups in terms of muscle force exerted. I think it’s fair to say he’s not a fan of the claims some coaches make about big-gear, low cadence training i.e building muscular strength, enhanced recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibres etc. There appears to be a disconnect there between the science and cycle training culture.

Again, my own take on this is that it’s good to train within the cadence range that you will actually encounter on the road (for me that does include some sub 60 rpm climbing) and strive to improve your top-end cadence efficiency, which is why I really like the SUF cadence drills!

*re: Training and Racing with a PM

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