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Why runners can't cycle quickly (PART 2)

Cycle Training Articles The Endurance Store

So last week we posted a blog titled, 'why runners can't cycle quickly'. The basis of the blog was that cycling requires a certain amount of leg strength, which is not the case for running. Our observations were that many runners who take up cycling prefer to ride in easier gears and 'spin' rather than push bigger gears. As a result, they tend not to be able to match the same power as cyclists on flat courses or short sharp incline, but are able to perform on longer gradual climbs. You can read the article in full by checking last week's post.

There’s a lot of confusion and poor advice regarding the best cycling cadence, which has lead to confusion regarding the physical requirements and training for a fast bike split. People get told every day that they should ‘spin a higher cadence’ when cycling, which is misleading at best. In many cases, it makes people slower cyclists and fails to tackle their prime weakness. Let's discuss a little further and clarify some of the misleading advice.

1. There are different kinds of cycle racing. In triathlon events, the cycle stage (unless you're elite) is a time trial. It's you against the clock and there's no drafting allowed. Time trials require a high power output which is consistent throughout. There's no repeated accelerations or 'attacks', it's just you, riding at a constant power output and you have to hold that level for a long period of time without rest.

2. Cycle road racing, crit racing, sportive riding (in bunch) or elite triathlon (in bunch draft legal) is not a time trial, it's a bunch ride. It's much easier to ride in the draft of the bunch and riders will therefore cycle at higher cadences in easier gears, whilst still maintaining their position in the group. Bunch racing will often include changes in pace, accelerations, attacks and chasing. It's impossible to accelerate / change pace well, if you're pushing a 'big gear'. For that reason, bunch racing tends to favour higher cadences and easier gears.

3. Triathletes who ride with cyclists are often told 'it's better and more efficient to ride at higher cadences'. That is true for cyclists who ride in bunch races, so whilst the advice is correct for their specific circumstances, it doesn't mean it's right for age group triathletes, as they are riding a solo 'time trial' and not a bunch race.

4. Pretty much all research on the subject show that slower cadences and bigger gears uses less oxygen, results in lower heart rate and require less fuel than pedaling at higher cadences. If you are racing longer distances such as Ironman, higher cadences will use a lot of fuel and cause fatigue much earlier.

5. Whilst the above is true, you cannot simply switch to lower cadence / bigger gears. You will need to incorporate into your training and develop specific conditioning. We would generally suggest a cadence of 80 is optimal, although some people can ride at lower cadences with great effect. People who race at the highest levels can often sustain very high cadences for long periods of time, but this isn't feasible for most amateurs.

6. If you don't have basic leg strength / muscular endurance, then riding slower cadences and bigger gears will be very difficult. Hence runners who convert to cycling will favour higher cadences in easier gears, as per last week's blog.

7. You may have heard that cycling with higher / faster cadence will help your running performance. A cadence of 90rpm is favourable as this will encourage you to run at the same cadence (90 foot strikes per minute). There is absolutely no evidence to back this up and doesn't really make any physiological sense. It's a myth which has been carried forwards for many years. For many people, if you try to hold 90rpm for the full bike leg, you'll be exhausted at the end and unable to run quickly.

8. Pedal technique is better at a slower cadence. Many people have used a watt bike and understand the 'peanut' shape, which shows you how effectively your pedal stroke is. Are you pedaling in circles or stomp... stomp... stomping? It's far easier to pedal in circles at slower cadences.

9. You may have heard that when climbing hills you should keep the cadence high and 'spin' up the climbs. It's important to understand the difference and interaction between cadence and gearing. If you reach a hill and immediately change into a very easy gear, then you won't have any issues spinning a high cadence. The issue is that the gear is so easy, you'll be riding at a very slow speed.

It's all very well 'spinning' up hills, but if you're choosing to do that because you lack basic leg strength and therefore need to select a very easy gear, then that's not a positive thing. Triple chain sets and compact chain sets have become very popular as they accommodate this lack of leg strength and allow you to spin very easy gears, but your speed will suffer as a consequence.

Whatever your preferred cadence, there is only one way to get faster and that is to use a bigger/harder gear, whilst pedaling at the same speed. It really is that simple, if you want to go faster, you have to use a bigger gear.

What do I need to do?

1. If you race triathlon and you're not convinced, go on your turbo and ride a block of intervals 4 X 5 minutes, or go and do the same on a flat road. Ride at 95 rpm and monitor your speed and heart rate. Switch to 75/80 rpm and hold the same speed, watch your heart rate and breathing drop.

2. You need to practice, so include lower cadence work in your training.

3. When you hit the hills, don't automatically reach for the 'shifter'. Stay in a slightly bigger gear and force yourself to keep going, to build strength in your legs. Don't 'give in' and switch to an easier gear, then justify it by thinking that 'spinning' is effective.

4. Do some accelerations in a big gear. Slow down to an easy pace, select a big gear, then sit still and accelerate hard for 10 seconds.

5. Ride a fixed wheel through the winter, then you have no choice!

If you disagree with any of the above or would like to ask any questions, post them below this article on The Endurance Store Facebook page and I will be happy to respond.

If you'd like a more accurate assessment of your personal strengths and weaknesses, you can book a sports science assessment. We also offer personal coaching from £40 per month. For more info email

Marc Laithwaite
The Endurance Store

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