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What cadence should I be targeting ?
Any cyclist who has been in the sport for a decent amount of time is pretty savvy when it comes to cycling efficiency. Optimal cycling cadence however, is a bit more complicated than simply high vs low cadence.
When we set out for a casual ride or training session, the cadence we set is likely correlated to where we are in the session (interval or recovery) , our specific goal, physiology, riding style and even within the macro-periodisation picture.
The general rule of thumb states that a higher cadence optimizes power output, whilst simultaneously minimizing neuromuscular fatigue. This form of fatigue may occur in numerous locations along the pathway that generates power.
In the 1970’s to 1990’s professional riders basically mashed and grinded in big gears and the mindset was that the individual who could maintain the grind for the longest duration.
Since then, we have seen a change to high cadence riding by numerous professionals from Armstrong to Froome separate themselves from the pack with a cadence occasionally exceeding 100 RPM.
In this article, we will describe cadence as:
- Very slow: 50-70 RPM
- Slow: 70-80 RPM
- Moderate: 80-90 RPM
- Fast: 90-100 RPM
- Very Fast: 100-110 RPM
- Extremely Fast: 110+ RPM
Scientific studies originally highlighted that a low cadence was more economical for riders ( less oxygen for the same power output). These studies however, assumed a power output well below what you’d expect in the final stages of a race.
Other studies concluded that as power output increased, the most economical cadence also increased.
This likely explains why it feels more natural to execute VO2 intervals at 90 >100 RPM, but uncomfortable to maintain that high cadence in an endurance event.
The same study concluded that muscles fatigued less at 100 RPM as opposed to 60 RPM whilst pedaling at 360 watts.
A Japanese neuromuscular fatigue study found that at the end of a long ride, the nerves sending impulses to active muscles became fatigued. This in turn, minimized the muscles ability to contract as powerfully.
Although low cadence may require less oxygen,it generates increased neuromuscular fatigue, reduces the ability to clear lactate, and increases the dependence on fast-twitch muscle fibers. On the other end of the spectrum,high cadence requires less muscle activation, but often requires more energy at lower power outputs.
The general populace likely lies in the middle as we can all assume.
The correct cadence is completely correlated to the objective of the rider.
Numerous metrics could be considered,including:
- the purpose of the specific ride
- experience of the rider
- solo or group session
- topography of the ride
- How the rider feels on the day of the ride
It is common to see powerful riders grinding out with a lower cadence at the expense of an increased neuromuscular cost, hoping to equate the power generated to increased economy.
It seems apparent that most riders prefer a higher cadence to limit muscular fatigue, increasing the cardiovascular demands required.
As lower cadence creates higher fast-twitch muscle fiber demand, sprinters who favor a lower cadence, will benefit by practicing higher cadence sessions (90 >100 RPM) to enhance economy of motion and save power for the end of the race.
Climbers on the other hand, tend to be exceptionally lean, carry less musculature, and have a higher Vo2.
Due to these physiological parameters, they are likely well accustomed to a higher cadence riding style which fatigues muscles less.
Reciprocally, these riders may not be economical in maintaining a low cadence, so incorporating low cadence interval sessions will ultimately enhance overall economy for these riders.
Fatigue is caused by the inability of the active muscle to contract.
Athletes may wish to include short, maximal low cadence sprint intervals at the end of long rides. These have been shown to train the body to source new energy reservoirs when fatigued, enabling a “second wind”.
Triathletes will be well advised to leave 5 – 10 mins of high cadence, light gear space after this to prepare for the brick run.
Ultimately, triathletes will want to mimic their target running cadence in the final 5-10 minutes prior to arriving at T2.
In a nutshell, athletes should strive to include a wide variety of cadences to enhance economy, proficiency. This can and should be executed continually and especially on the specific race bike.
How to optimally test cycling cadence ?
One of the most common methods to determine optimal cadence is by time trial.
This involves conducting multiple time trials and using a different cadence each time.(800)
This is best done on a suitable road that you are very familiar with and can continually use for each time trial. It should enable you to ride 10-15 minutes uninterrupted.
It is advisable to execute each individual time trial on separate days and at the same portion of your ride, on the same bike, similar conditions and record usual personal metrics on the day.
The initial time trial can be at your normal cadence.
Record the time, heart rate data,rate of perceived exertion(RPE), time of day, weight,direction traveled, wind(if any) and any relevant information.
The following time trial can be at 80 RPM. Record the same results.
The following time trials can be at 85, then the next at 90, the next at 95 and the final at 100 RPM.
Record all of the results.
When comparing the results,the cadence that enabled the fastest times with lowest correlated RPE, is likely the ideal cadence.
These tests can be performed numerous times to provide a better data sample. The “course” can also be changed, to rolling hills perhaps, if the initial course was flat, or a 10 minute hill climb.
This helps us to understand what cadence we perform optimally at within differing topographies.
In many ways, like our heart rate, fingerprints, walking and running form, we are all made up differently.
Good luck, and most importantly, ride safe !