Cadence basics and why it's important
Picture this. You’re on your bike and you’re at the bottom of a 10 minute climb in your local neighbourhood. It’s a sweatfest but you always feel accomplished when you reach the top. Now picture yourself in two scenarios.
#1 is you ‘grinding’ up the hill in a low (hard) gear so that your pedals are only turning at around once a second.
#2 is you ‘spinning’ up the hill in a high (easy) gear so that your pedals are turning much quicker.
It's possible to be going the same SPEED with both styles described above... the difference in the two scenarios described above is cadence! It’s the speed at which you’re turning the pedals, not the speed you're travelling forward.
So, the next question: why’s that important?
Well, it’s a complicated subject, but essentially part of it has to do with the work your muscles are doing, and part of it has to do with your cardiovascular fitness.
It’s generally accepted that a higher cycling cadence (for the purposes of this article, we will say that a higher cycling cadence is 90 or above) will optimise your power output (how many watts you create by turning the pedals) while minimising neuromuscular fatigue (the exercise-induced decrease in your muscle's ability to create power).
If this all sounds like mumbo jumbo, a great place to start is this question: when you’re riding, what normally gives out first – your lungs or your legs?
If your answer is your lungs (as in, you struggle to keep your HR under control or catch our breath) then you may benefit from lowering your cadence a touch so that your cardiovascular system can improve slowly – instead of forcing it to perform at a level that’s not right for you.
If your answer is your legs (as in, you get dead legs that are heavy and hard to turn over, but you otherwise feel fine) then you may benefit from raising your cadence so that your leg muscles aren’t being asked to carry a load that’s too much per pedal stroke.
The truth is, yes there are lots of articles and recommendations for cyclists that are great if you’re someone who is already pretty familiar with your bike, your body and your ability. But if you’re newer, or returning back to exercise after a break, a great first step is figuring out what’s right for YOUR goals, physiology and style of riding.
Here’s a good example.
I might look fit, but I have a heart condition which can cause my heart muscle to quiver instead of beat properly if I exercise too hard or when it reaches a certain heart rate. You can’t tell from the outside, but I can’t tolerate a lot of ‘high intensity’ exercise as it can be dangerous for me.
That’s why if you ever go for a ride with me, I stick to a low cadence (generally 70-75) while riding. Why?
For me, riding at a social pace but with a low cadence requires less oxygen and I can keep my heart rate lower. On the flip side, a low cadence creates neuromuscular fatigue more quickly (and an increased dependence on my fast-twitch muscle fibres). In essence, what this means is my heart and lungs aren’t working as hard, but my muscles will get sore and tired faster. It’s not textbook, but it’s right for me.
For you climbers out there, or those who are generally pretty fit and healthy, you might naturally ride at a higher cadence, like 95 or even 100 RPM and that’s cool too. Each style has its pros and cons. A high cadence requires less muscle activation (and you’ll fatigue your muscles less quickly than me), but it usually requires more oxygen and a higher energy cost.
Next time you go for a ride, try and take notice of where your natural cadence is at. Without thinking too much about it, just turn the pedals over and keep a watch on your cadence. Notice how your breathing is. Do you feel your breathing is overly laboured for how fast you’re going? Do you feel like your legs are tired too soon?
By examining your tendencies and your event goals, you can identify what type of cadence is best for where you’re at right now and then look at what cadence will be most effective for your goals. If you are just wanting to be able to keep up with your roadie mates, that’s cool. If you’re wanting to be able to jump up a grade when you’re next able to race your mtb outside, that’s cool too.
A well-rounded training plan will incorporate a wide spectrum of cadence training to create proficiency on all types of terrain. Remember that training indoors is really different to the undulating terrain you’ll ride on IRL. It’s certainly worth taking some time to think about your strengths and weaknesses as a rider, and how you can use cadence training to more effectively prepare for your goal event.
Next time you go out for an outdoor ride on a hill, take a look around at others. Are they grinding or spinning? How do they seem to be coping?
PS, if you’re a more experienced rider, you may want to try this on your next ride out on the road.
One thing that causes fatigue at the end of a long ride is your nervous system’s ability to contract active muscle—and as a result, your muscles will fire less powerfully. Incorporating short, maximal low cadence sprint efforts and muscle tension intervals at the end of a long endurance ride can help to activate these neuromuscular pathways.
This sort of training can teach the body to tap into these pathways even when fatigued, giving you ‘extra muscle’ at the end of a race.