This time of year, many triathletes are cycling indoors. The monotony of being fixed in one place lends itself well to paying closer attention to your cadence. It is also much easier to manipulate on a trainer. Elite cyclists have lead many to believe that a high cadence around 90+ rpms is optimal. However, scientific studies demonstrate that very low cadence pedaling is energetically optimal. In the middle somewhere is what is referred to as “freely chosen cadence” or “self-selected cadence.” So, what does it all mean and how do you figure out what cadence is best for you?
The Cadence Paradox
The cadence paradox refers to the phenomenon that a self-selected cadence (freely chosen cadence) is significantly higher than an individual’s energetically optimal cadence, especially at low to moderate intensities. This is true even among elite cyclists. Interestingly, even children and recreationally active adults also choose a higher cadence than is energetically uneconomical. It turns out that rhythmic movement patterns, especially of the legs, are mostly controlled by the central nervous system.
At higher intensities however, cyclists tend to choose a cadence that is closer to energetically optimal and also favorable for performance (Emanuele, 2012). That optimal cadence increases with work rate, but is usually closer to 80 rpms, not the 90-100 rpm range that we think of as efficient.
Factors that affect freely chosen cadence (Hansen, 2009)
- Age: Lower cadence with higher age. One study found cadence was 3 rpms slower for each decade for 25 to 63-year-old cyclists.
- Power output: Higher cadence with higher maximal aerobic power output. When maximal aerobic power output was 300-460, cyclists tended to ride at cadences 85-100 rpms. This makes sense because the force is spread out over more pedal strokes at higher rpms.
- Gradient: Higher cadence during level riding compared to uphill cycling.
- Speed/inertia: Higher cadence with higher speeds or higher crank inertial load. So, group rides at high speeds, fast time trialing, or spin bikes with heavy flywheels will result in higher freely chosen cadences.
- Duration: There is a decrease in cadence with prolonged cycling. Cadence decreased by 7-18 rpms when cycling was prolonged 1-5 hours.
There are many reasons to train at a range of cadences. Force pedaling at 60-70 rpms can develop cycling specific strength and translates to both uphill and level time trialing. Slow cadence pedaling at tempo intensities can equate to a similar amount of force and muscle activation that you will encounter at threshold intensities (with higher cadences). Conversely, faster cadence cycling can improve neuromuscular efficiency, allow muscles to recover, and lightly stress the cardiovascular system at low to moderate intensities. During tempo and threshold training, I like to suggest a self-selected cadence as long as it isn’t too fast. Keep in mind if you are doing indoor training on a spin bike or in ergometer mode, your self-selected cadence might be too fast. Keep a “real-world” cadence, especially if you are training for hilly races. As intensity increases beyond threshold power, cadence can also increase.
For short, fast time trials such as a sprint triathlon a faster cadence can be effective. This is still individual and has a lot to do with power output. If you are throwing down 450 watts for 30 minutes, then 100 rpms might be a good idea. For the rest of us, a cadence of 80-90 rpms is probably more realistic. High-speed group riding such as ITU racing it may also be optimal to adopt higher cadences due to drafting, high speeds (high inertial load), and the need to accelerate quickly. For uphill riding, such as XTERRA racing, a slower cadence is likely more optimal on sustained climbs. Interestingly, training with a slower cadence will translate better to uphill riding (Nimerichter, 2011) even if you don’t have access to long climbs. Mountain biking requires so many changes in cadences and gear changes to be able to maintain power output, maintain traction, and be able to accelerate quickly. Many long course triathletes are having success with slower cadences since intensity is lower and the race is much longer. Remember that energetically economical cadence is lower than self-selected cadences at low to moderate intensities, especially for longer durations.
- You should train at a range of cadences.
- Different distances and types of races require different cadences even for the same athlete.
- Practice race specific cadences.
- There is not a one size fits all for cadence.