One of the most important aspects of a cyclist’s control during competition is cadence. Cadence is widely accepted as a critical component in cycling that determines the economy of movement, power output, and fatigue development during competition.
So what is cadence in cycling?
Cadence is the rate of revolutions of the pedal crank, usually expressed in revolutions per minute, or RPM. This is distinguished from the RPM of the bike wheels - the ratio of pedal cadence to wheel RPM is controlled by the gears of the bike.
The typical cadence for most cycling sports is between 60 - 100 RPM. Cadences of as low as 40 RPM and very high cadences such as 120+ RPM substantially decrease mechanical efficiency.
The ideal cycling cadence is an area of extensive research in sports science. To put it simply, there is no ‘best’ cadence for cyclists. This article will discuss the effects bike cadence has on your musculoskeletal, nervous, and cardiovascular systems during cycling performance, and even how bike cadence can affect your perceived exertion during training and competition.
We will then explore how to determine the most energy-efficient cadence range for your cycling style, and we’ll provide three example cadence drills based on the optimal cycling cadence for different events discussed in the research literature.
How Cadence Affects the Systems of the Body
Changing your cadence will have different effects on the various systems of your body during exercise.
In terms of the cardiovascular system, an increase in cadence leads to an increase in oxygen uptake and cardiac output. This results in a more effective skeletal muscle pump that increases the blood flow to your muscles and increases the venous return of blood to your heart.
This may sound as though a higher cadence is better, however other systems are affected differently when we increase to faster pedal rates.
The best cadence for you may also be determined by the muscle fiber types that your body is made of. For athletes with more slow-twitch muscle fibers, a slightly lower cadence may be more beneficial and mechanically efficient. For those with a higher percentage of fast-twitch fibers, a higher cadence is energetically more optimal for power output.
In a study by Foss and Hallén (2004) using experimental data finds that:
The results showed that the lowest oxygen uptake, i.e. the best work economy, shifted from 60 rpm at 0 W to 80 rpm at 350 W ( P<0.05). No difference was found in maximal oxygen uptake among cadences ( P>0.05), while the best performance was attained at the same cadence that elicited the best work economy (80 rpm) at 350 W ( P<0.05). This study demonstrated that the most economical cadence increases with increasing workload in elite cyclists.
For muscle strength, while some research shows a minimal effect of cadence on force reduction in the knee extensor muscles post cycling testing, other studies have shown that these highest cycling cadences have an increased energy cost in the peripheral muscles and the central nervous system.
For triathletes who need to perform a running leg after cycling, this energy cost can lead to diminished running performance post cycling.
Cadence and Perceived Exertion
A big factor that will determine your cadence is your rate of perceived exertion - RPE. One study showed that speeding your cadence up a little can decrease the feeling of fatigue in your legs.
The RPE will decrease when speeding up the cadence from 50 - 65 RPM. From 65 - 80 RPM, the exertion felt the same for the subjects in the study, and RPE increased when the cadence increased from 80 - 110 RPM.
A Cadence for Every Occasion
Another element that will determine which cadence might be best for you is the nature of your event or sport. The current research shows that a high cadence of 100 - 120 RPM can improve sprint cycling performance by maximizing power output.
This output clearly cannot be maintained over prolonged periods. In middle-distance events, cyclists may perform better with a cadence of around 90 - 100 RPM.
Finally, during ultra-endurance events where an athlete may spend several hours on a bike, and possibly have to run or perform some other activity immediately after, a cadence of 70 - 90 RPM has been shown to result in the best cycling economy and require less energy to maintain. However, be aware that these slower cadences do increase the pedal forces necessary to maintain a given power output.
A cadence of around 70 RPM is also commonly used during hill climbs on the bike. Experiment with a balance of RPM and the right gear that works for you.
So, now you know what factors to consider when deciding on the optimal cadence for your activities. Now here are a few drills to incorporate into your training to experiment with what feels best for you!
3 Cycling Cadence Drills to Improve Cycling Performance
The following drills can be added into your training schedule as separate sessions, or you can simply add a few intervals of these into your distance rides and see how it affects your times, exertion levels, and your average power output.
Sprint Cycling Cadence Drill
When to use: For shorter distance events or for times when you need a burst of speed in a race
Instructions: After your regular warm-up and once you have settled into your ride, reduce the gear or the resistance moderately and ramp up your cadence to between 100 - 120 RPM for 10 - 20 seconds. Perform for 5 - 10 repetitions with 1 - 2 minutes rest between bouts.
Alternate: Try to perform this drill without reducing the resistance for a high-intensity hit to your legs! For this variation, increase the rest breaks to 3 minutes.
Road Race Cadence Drill
When to use: For middle distance training to reduce leg fatigue and increase blood flow to the legs.
Instructions: Again once you are warmed up and riding at a steady-state, determine your cadence through a device or by counting your knee raises on one leg for one minute. Then, increase your cadence by 5 - 10 RPM for one minute. Return to your regular cadence for the next minute, and repeat this interval for the duration of your ride, before your cool-down.
Alternate: To progress in this drill, each workout increase the time spent at the higher cadence for 5 seconds and / or reduce the lower intensity interval by 5 seconds.
Workout 1: Regular RPM 1:00, Increased RPM (by 5 - 10 RPM) 1:00
Workout 2: Regular RPM 1:00, Increased RPM 1:05
Workout 3: Regular RPM 0:55, Increased RPM 1:00
And so on…
Iron Man Cadence Drill
When to use: For very long-distance events, and for sports such as triathlons which require running after the bike leg.
Instructions: After the same warm-up conditions as above, get settled in for one of your long-distance training sessions. Determine your regular self-chosen RPM for whatever split time you are aiming for. Increase this by 5 RPM and compare your rate of exertion on a scale of 1-10 over the ride.
You can work your cadence up to around 90 RPM, a cadence used by many professional cyclists. Experiment and see if you notice improvements in performance or simply just feeling better on your longer rides!
Combining Cadence with Respiratory Training
Increasing your body's oxygen uptake can help you to a better cycling performance. Whether you are a professional race cyclist, triathlete, or sports amateur, the goal for you it to get the most out of your workout sessions.
Prepare your muscles through respiratory training using a breathing trainer that is designed to better your lung muscles where you need support. Combining breathing training with your regular training program will prevent muscle fatigue during workouts. Gaining greater resistance your muscles become stronger, faster, and more efficient.
Read: How Oxygen Affects Muscle Performance When You Exercise
We hope this article gave you some new insight into how your cadence can affect your cycling, so give these drills a try and see how you go!