Let’s talk about some cycling history and recent research.
The topic of cycling cadence started gaining attention in the mid 1980’s as science searched for techniques to cycle faster. Much of the research attempted to find the optimal pedaling cadence, which allowed the cyclist to maximise economy (cost of movement) and output.
It was however in the early 1990’s that further research revealed that proficient cyclists freely choose their own most efficient pedaling cadence. Since then it’s now widely accepted that if you let a cyclist ride at whatever cadence they want they will naturally choose the most efficient; 80-100rpm.
This has also been shown in triathletes. During a 30 minute ride performed at a habitual competition pace, triathletes chose a cadence that is close to the energetically optimal cadence (Brisswalter et. al. 2000).
But why is this?
The two main factors that determine the cost of movement are central and peripheral. Central refers to the to the heart and lungs ability to take in and deliver oxygen to the muscles and are the main determinants of cardiovascular fitness/VO2max. Peripheral refers to the components that occur in the working muscles such as their ability to produce muscle force/strength, and neuromuscular control.
However, one question did remain. Why are pedalling rates freely chosen by cyclists (80-100 rpm) higher than metabolically optimum cadences (50-70 rpm)?
Recent research investigated this question by modelling joint, pedal, crank and pedal forces across a range of power outputs (100, 200, 300 and 400 watts) and cadences (50-130rpms) in an effort to determine optimal cost function (economy of movement) of cycling (Palmieri and Legnani 2016).
Results of the study indicated that optimal cadence can be identified as a compromise between a minimum peripheral muscular force and a minimum metabolic cost, and cyclists instinctively minimise the muscular stress by cycling at higher cadences (80-100rpms).
So, do you need to specifically train cadence? If you naturally ride between 80 and 100rpms then the answer is no. However, if you don’t (esp. under 80rpm) then I would suggest dropping the resistance and increasing your cadence. It may also be worthwhile working on your cardiovascular fitness as a naturally lower cadence may indicate a reliance on muscle force.
However, due to its influence on muscle activation patterns, muscular stress and metabolic cost, cadence can be used as a training method.
Fast pedalling cadence (100+ rpm) at a low resistance results in low muscular stress and higher demands on the cardiovascular system. Contribution from power producing muscles (glut and quads) will be low and there will be an increased demand on the muscles crossing two joints (calf and hamstrings), due to the greater need to control joint movement and forces at higher pedalling speeds.
At a slow pedalling speed (
In summary, target a cadence of between 80-100rpm, and use higher cadences to improve your cardiovascular fitness and lower cadences to improve muscle strength and power.
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Images – Kristof Ramon & Mitchelton Scott (Premax a proud supplier and sponsor)