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Should every cyclist attempt to change his or her current cadence?

By Earl Zimmermann, Peaks Coaching Group Elite Coach

Peaks Coaching Group

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Recently, there have been countless articles written about how to optimize cadence.  Several years ago one man (you know who he is) changed our perception of how to climb a mountain on our bikes by “dancing” on the pedals.  Depending on your racing experience you may have noticed that others are spinning faster or slower than you during a road race.  Different events such as track, time trials and triathlon require the athlete to spin the cranks at slightly higher or lower cadences for different reasons to be successful. Does cadence really make a difference in the athletes’ performance during a road race?  For one man it has made a significant impact on his results.  Lance Armstrong, changed how road racers at all levels think they should be spinning during a race.  His freely chosen cadence has increased by 14% over the years from 85 – 95 rpms to 105 – 110 rpms in the most recent Tours.  This didn’t happen overnight - it took many years of training intensely for up to 6 hours per day.  Lance has proven that a higher cadence does work for him. But does it work for every cyclist?  Three factors that have an influence on the athletes’ ability to spin at a higher rate per minute are: 1) gear selection; 2) muscle fiber type and 3) perception of effort all have an effect on a cyclist optimal cadence.

During a cyclist's first few years of racing they are learning many aspects of the sport with varying degrees of results. Due to the learning curve, they are spending little time on trying to optimize their cadence.  With that inexperience and body type they have a tendency to mash on the pedals with a relatively low cadence, 60 – 80 rpm, and as a result they have a have a hard time staying with their competition. I have seen this problem during group rides and at the local races, cyclists using the original cassette on their bikes for every race regardless of the terrain.  As a result, they mash the lowest gear (21 or 23 teeth) with a low cadence up and over every hill.  Their perception is that they will go faster if they push harder on the pedals, not realizing they are consuming more oxygen in the process.  There is a good chance that the athlete will not have enough energy at the end of the race to achieve their desired outcome.

The reason cyclists prefer a higher pedaling rate is closely related to the neuromuscular fatigue in working muscles rather than the economy for pedaling exercise.  Slow-twitch (ST; type I) muscles primarily burn fat for fuel and are an almost limitless supply of fuel for even the leanest athlete and are built to go all day.  Fast-twitch (FT; type II) muscles burn glycogen for fuel, which is stored in the muscles and is in relatively short supply, about 2000 calories for a well-trained athlete, and fatigue quickly.  An athlete with a higher percentage of FT muscle fibers has a better chance of developing a higher cadence for sprinting events.  A study conducted by Ahlquist wanted to determine whether the pedaling frequency of cycling at a constant metabolic cost contributes to the pattern of fiber-type glycogen depletion.  The results of his findings demonstrated that prolonged pedaling exercise at an intensity of 85% VO2 max at 50 rpm rather than 100 rpm resulted in greater fast-twitch fiber glycogen depletion and an increase in lactic acid.  This was attributed to the increased muscle force required per pedal revolution at the lower cadence.  Fatigue seems to be delayed when using a high cadence, compared to a low cadence. 

Only in last few years have more studies been conducted using elite cyclists who have a freely chosen cadence of 90 rpms.  One study out of Norway, Foss and Hallen, studied six elite road cyclists performing sub-maximal and maximal tests at four different cadences (60, 80, 100 and 120 rpm) on separate days.  Respiratory data was measured at 50, 125, 200, 275 and 350 watts during the test.  Based on the results of the protocol the best work economy or lowest oxygen uptake is 80 rpms at 350 watts and there was no difference in VO2 max among cadences.

Some studies have suggested that an individual’s perception of effort is an important factor when selecting a pedaling rate.  One study by Ekblom and Goldbarg stated that “muscle strain” might provide feedback to the central nervous system, which strongly influences perceived exertion. Athletes at all levels have the ability to tolerate different levels of pain during endurance events such as cycling.  That feeling we perceive in the legs during cycling leads us to select a pedaling rate so that we minimize the perceived effort of the task, even if we are using more oxygen.

A percentage of these athletes will push through the perceived pain while others will use this a signal to back off.  Think back to your last interval session and how your legs hurt, but with the proper length of recovery you could have done one more and you wouldn’t have died.  Could you have increased your cadence by a few percent and covered the same distance a few seconds faster and/or gone farther with less perceived effort?

Should every cyclist go out on their next ride and increase their cadence, absolutely not.  First, establish a benchmark by determining your current cadence. Use your watch to determine your cadence by counting the number of revolutions of one foot in a 10 second period then multiply by 6; for example 13 revolution of one foot x 6 = 78 rpm.  Continue to do this during all your rides and on various terrains so that you have a better “feel” of your cadence.  Where does your cadence fall in the range between 80 – 100 rpm?  If you fall into the lower range than try using one gear lower during your next training ride over the same terrain.  At the same time keep a smooth cadence and don’t bounce off your saddle trying to increase your rpm.  Then on your next training rides in the hills or mountain when your cadence falls below 70 rpm for a extended period of time, it’s time to consider purchasing another cassette.  I have reservation of using a compact (50 x 34) verses a standard crank (53 x 39) as it limits your top end speed for the finish, unless it is a mountainous road race.  If you have an interest to increase your cadence it may take more than one and to achieve this goal it may take longer than one season.  The key here is time, how much time will it take to increase your cadence and by what percent.  Or should you spend this time focusing on other areas that need attention and could have a greater impact on your immediate racing results.