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Pedal Science Blog: High Cadence or Low Cadence?

Welcome to Pedal Science, the weekly bike fitting blog by Nick Thomas of The Endurance Coach. This week our resident bike fitter Nick Thomas discusses cadence.

Many people have cadence monitors on their bikes but how useful is this information and what relevance does cadence have in training? There are two types of cadence to consider when cycling:

  • Racing cadence:

Everyone will have an optimum cadence for performance i.e. the highest sustainable power with the lowest energy cost. For elite athletes this cadence can often be 90+ rpm as pedaling efficiency is very good and neuromuscular coordination is highly effective. These athletes can maintain a high cadence for long periods without a drop in power.

For most people a high cadence will result in a higher heart rate and unnecessary energy expenditure which results in fatigue and loss of power as the event progresses. In this instance a lower cadence would conserve energy and effort could be maintained throughout the ride.

  • Training cadence:

Training at racing cadence has its place but there are many physiological gains to be made by using a range of cadences in training:

High cadence:

By spending time at progressively higher cadences the body will become more efficient so energy cost becomes lower. This should have a knock-on effect as racing cadence feels relatively slower the more efficient you become. High cadence works also helps smooth the pedal stroke as an ineffective technique will lead to bouncing at higher cadences.

If your natural cadence is 80 rpm try holding 2-3 minutes at 85-90 rpm at regular intervals during flat rides. As efficiency increases you should find you’re able to hold the cadence for longer without any extra effort. You’ll then be able to return to 2-3 min at 90-95 rpm and then continually repeat the process over a period of weeks with a steadily increasing cadence.

Low cadence:

Using a hard gear with a low cadence is something you would try to avoid in an event unless climbing a very steep hill in the smallest gear: it’s inefficient, legs fatigue and overall speed is slower. However in training high resistance work is very advantageous for the following reasons:

Pedaling mechanics improve:

'Stamping' will cause a dead spot in the stroke, so circular pedaling is very important. Using a bigger gear makes constant, smooth, circular pedaling much easier.

Force production increases:

The higher the gear the more muscle fibres are required to work to produce more force. The higher your force potential the more force you’ll be able to sustain throughout an event at your most efficient cadence

Postural strength increases:

The temptation is to rock the upper body or stand when using a very high gear. By staying seated and keeping the upper body still with correct posture you’ll be developing your postural strength which will help you maintain an efficient riding position when racing and when fatigued

Conclusion:

Cadence shouldn’t be seen as being set in stone. By varying cadence in training you’ll increase force production, improve efficiency and therefore ride faster for longer.

Nick Thomas is the resident bike fitter at The Endurance Coach. He is a fully qualified bike fitter and expert in lower limb mechanics, holding a BSc (Hons) in podiatry. You can contact him using the email address: nickthomas@theendurancecoach.com or see more about his fitting services by GOING HERE.



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