By Chris Carmichael, Founder and Head Coach of CTS
Cyclists tend to associate work on pedal stroke with winter training, but it is much better to focus on your pedal mechanics now, in the late summer and early fall. This is a unique time of year because you have a full season’s worth of elevated fitness and power, but if your goal events are behind you then you are free to shift your training focus to be less event specific. The best time to work on your cadence is when you can pedal both fast and with high power output!
When cyclists focus on pedaling technique during the winter it is often because they can shift into easier gears and increase cadence while keeping their overall intensity at the EnduranceMiles or Zone 2 level. And there are some good reasons to continue doing that. It gives people something to focus on during longer, easier aerobic conditioning rides and prepares people to maintain smooth pedaling technique when they start ramping up the power output for event-specific training.
At the other end of the season, however, you have the power and aerobic fitness from a summer’s worth of training and events, and your pedal stroke is likely quite smooth because of the increased hours you’ve spent on the bike during the summer. Remember, power output is the product of force and cadence and right now you’re good at both. So, use these factors to drive adaptations to your pedal stroke before your fitness starts to wane during the transition phase of the year.
How to do it
Another reason this is a good time of year to focus on high power, high cadence work is that it doesn’t require a lot of structured interval workouts. Although we coach athletes who train year-round, we recognize it’s important to have periods of the year when athletes can ride without counting the minutes and seconds. While you can construct interval workouts aimed at accumulating prescribed time-at-intensity at a given cadence range (and I’ll provide such a workout later in this post), you can also do it less formally.
I tend to go the less formal route. Like many of you, I have been riding the same local roads and paths for many years and I have a good sense of my “normal” cadence and power on specific stretches during endurance rides. To work on pedal stroke at the end of the summer I aim to maintain my “normal” endurance ride power output on those routes while keeping my cadence between 100-110rpm for as much of the ride as possible.
Now, there’s nothing special about 100-110rpm, nor is there a perfect cadence to shoot for. The notion of high vs. low cadence varies significantly from person to person. For me, maintaining 100-110rpm for prolonged periods of time creates a challenge. Others may experience that challenge at 95-100rpm or, for people who are very well adapted to high-cadence pedaling, a cadence of 115-120rpm might be necessary. The goal is to pedal at a rate that is faster than normal for you, a rate you must think about to maintain, and that you can maintain while keeping your upper body relatively still and stable.
High Power High Cadence Workout (The Structured Version)
Where some athletes find a period of reduced training structure to be a helpful break mentally, other athletes find they actually become more anxious or stressed without structure. This is part of the reason coaching will always be a mixture of art and science; we have to figure out what works best with physiology and your personality. If structure is what you need, then for high power, high cadence work I recommend targeting your Tempo, SteadyState, and ClimbingRepeat intensity ranges (Zones 3-4, or intensities up to lactate threshold power output). Anaerobic capacity and VO2 max intervals and sprints are typically done with high cadence already, so for this work we want to target the challenging aerobic and lactate threshold intensities.
During the height of the season you may have done longer Tempo and SteadyState/ClimbingRepeat intervals to maximize time-at-intensity. With the elevated cadence at the same power output, and given the time of year, we can shorten the individual efforts. At Tempo intensity, complete three 15-minute efforts separated by 5 minutes of recovery. If you bump up the intensity to complete these closer to lactate threshold (SteadyState/ClimbingRepeat power), then go with a workout of three 10-minute efforts separated by 5 minutes of easy spinning recovery.
Take Advantage of Your Gains
A mistake athletes often make is to start and stop purposeful training like an on/off switch. They get to their goal event or past an arbitrary date on the calendar and just flip the training switch to “off”. There is absolutely a need for periods of mental and physical recuperation, but the best-case scenario for long-term progress is to shift focus instead of turning off. Many of you are in the best shape you’ve been in all year – or in your entire life – right now. It’s normal for fitness and performance to fluctuate. You can’t stay at peak fitness year-round. But there is still productive work you can do as you pass that peak.