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QOTW: Which Cadence Should I Target?

What cadence should I ride? This is a common question from new cyclists faced with a host of new data, when before they may have just been focused on mph and cadence as their only two metrics for measuring their cycling performance.

Cadence alone won’t get you anywhere. If you’ve been to a gym spin class lately, you’ve seen what focusing on cadence alone looks like, folks bouncing all over the saddle at extremely high rpms with little to no resistance. They may be burning calories but they’re not improving their real ride performance. Power you produce and ultimately the speed at which you ride is determined by two things in combination- the force you’re putting on the pedals times the speed at which the pedals are turning.

Is higher cadence always better? A typical triathlon mantra is ‘spin to win’ but is high cadence really the best solution for everyone? Long-time advocates of high cadence cycling will point to the classic example of Lance vs. Jan Ulrich, Lance rode away from Jan with his higher cadence compared to Jan’s preferred lower cadence style.The truth is, Lance was just a better cyclist overall, one who happened to prefer a higher cadence riding style. The same is true with you, your best cycling performance may be achieved on a range of normal, as opposed to always pushing for higher cadences.

But doesn’t cycling at a high cadence save your legs for the run? Higher cadence advocates may point to studies performed showing that study participants performed better on a subsequent post-cycle run than subjects who cycled at a slow cadence. The truth is that there are conflicting studies that show better running success at various cadences. What matters is that you train yourself to run well after cycling at race pace intensity by practicing adequately during training efforts.

How does power work with cadence? Power (watts) is simply torque (force put on the pedal) times rotational speed (cadence) Low cadence= high force= more fast twitch muscle recruitment while a higher cadence= lower force- more slow twitch fiber recruitment . To explain the differences further, a higher cadence makes the work performed more tolerable to the muscle. It recruits less high twitch fibers and ‘burns less matches.’ Cycling at a higher cadence also tends to stress your cardiovascular system more.

Conversely, cycling at a lower cadence stresses your muscular system more. Cycling at a lower cadence also recruits more muscle fibers overall as well as more fast twitch fibers. As far as your cardiovascular system goes, lower cadence cycling costs less in terms of oxygen consumption. In fact, studies have shown that cycling at an ultra low cadence (40-60 RPMs) uses the least percentage of v02 max for a given effort.

Cadence selection overall is not an either or proposition Your personal strengths, weaknesses, physiological makeup determines your optimal cadence The solution- Someone who is training regularly at a variety of cadences will eventually find their optimal cadence for training and racing. But you should also train your non-preferred way to increase your comfort level at various cadences and to improve your fitness. Over-gearing, or training at slower cadences can help you develop strength while practicing pedaling with a higher cadence, at a range of intensities, can help improve pedaling efficiency. For beginners, form work such as one legged pedaling drills and spinups can also help your pedal stroke.

Don’t let a preoccupation with cadence cloud what’s really important, making sure you develop the ability to maintain your goal power through your most efficient application of cadence, during your goal event.