How to Improve Cycling Cadence for Amateurs

By Chris Carmichael, Founder & Head Coach of CTS

Early in 2019 there were headlines saying “High Cadence Cycling Offers No Benefits to Amateurs” and asking “Is High Cadence Cycling Actually Slowing You Down?” They – and others – were referring to a Feb 2019 study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine that showed pedaling efficiency and muscle oxygenation decreased when cyclists rode at higher cadences. So, should we go back to mashing the pedals at 60 revolutions per minute?

No, we should not.

The study by Federico Formenti1 and colleagues does indeed show an increased metabolic cost and reduced tissue saturation index (an indicator of skeletal muscle oxygenation) in the vastus lateralis muscle of the thigh. However, the study involved just nine subjects, two of whom were regionally competitive triathletes, six who “regularly engaged in moderate and vigorous exercise”, and one was active occasionally. Researchers had subjects pedal at 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90rpm for 4 minute stages, each at ventilatory threshold.

Not surprisingly, the figure above shows pedaling faster at ventilatory threshold led to increases in heart rate, VO2, VCO2, and RPE; and a decrease in peak pedal force. Increasing cadence increased metabolic work to do the same mechanical work, which means a decrease in efficiency. Reduced tissue saturation index also meant muscle oxygenation declined, meaning muscles were using oxygen faster than freshly oxygenated blood could perfuse the muscle, as cadence increased from 40 to 50 to 90rpm.

Cycling media took this information and said amateur cyclists shouldn’t bother with high-cadence cycling. For me, the fact there were 9 subjects means there might be cause to conduct a similar study with a meaningful sample size of experienced cyclists, even if they’re not highly fit. It also indicates cadence is trainable. If most subjects don’t ride bicycles regularly, I would expect them to have trouble maintaining a 90rpm cadence for four minutes at their ventilatory threshold.

However, there’s a large body of research2 that shows trained cyclists freely select higher cadences (80-100rpm), even though the metabolic cost is higher. Although oxygen demand is lower at lower cadences (55-65rpm), research in trained cyclists (not just elite) shows their power outputs, time trial performances, and race performances are improved at the higher cadence range.

It is important to realize efficiency isn’t everything; there are advantages to periods of inefficient pedaling, like stomping on the pedals to accelerate from a slow corner or spinning a light gear to surge on a climb. You can create high or low power at high or low cadence, and there’s a time and place for each.

In addition to the gradual adaptation to more efficient pedaling at higher rpms, I recommend proactively including the following cadence-oriented drills into training.

Tour de France 2019 – 106th Edition – 13th stage – Julian Alaphilippe (FRA – Deceuninck – Quick Step)

FastPedal

It’s exactly what it sounds like, the caveat is to use a light gear to keep resistance low, but not so light there’s no resistance at all. Keep your upper body calm and pedal as fast as you can without bouncing in the saddle. Start with three to five 1-minute efforts separated by two minutes of moderate-cadence recovery. Progress to 3-minute efforts with five minutes recovery between them. Your heart rate will increase (as demonstrated in the study above), but RPE should stay at about 5-6 out of 10.

Tip: You already know how to push down on the pedals. To smooth out your stroke so you can move your feet faster without bouncing, think about kicking your foot forward over the top of the stroke and scraping it back through the bottom. As you improve these areas you can slightly extend the effective portion of your pedal stroke at all power levels.

Seated High Speed Sprints

Find a downhill section of road where you can sprint safely. In a medium gear (big chainring, middle of the cassette), get rolling to about 15-20mph. You want to be going fast enough to pedal about 90rpm with only light resistance. Stay seated and sprint for 20 seconds. If you spin out the gear, start in a bigger one the next time. Rest five minutes between sprints and complete 5-8.

Tip: These seated accelerations work in races, too. Standing up and swinging your bike around is a dead giveaway you’re attacking. If you can powerfully rev up your cadence while keeping your upper body calm, you may ride people off your wheel before they realize what’s going on.

PowerStart

At the opposite end of the cadence spectrum, accelerating against a heavy resistance helps reinforce the mechanics – particularly the kick over the top and scrape through the bottom – that help you smooth out your high cadence pedaling. They’re also great for developing high power to accelerate from slow speeds. Roll to a near standstill at 2-3 mph in a big gear. Focus on keeping your core stable and preventing your back from rounding, and accelerate as powerfully as you can without changing gear. Continue for 10 seconds or until the gear is spun out. Rest five minutes between PowerStarts and complete 5-8.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from study above is that faster isn’t always better when it comes to cadence. The goal of cadence drills isn’t to have the fastest cadence possible; it’s to increase the range of cadences you can use effectively to produce power in different situations.

References:

  1. Formenti, Federico, et al. “The Effect of Pedaling Cadence on Skeletal Muscle Oxygenation During Cycling at Moderate Exercise Intensity.” International Journal of Sports Medicine, 2019.
  2. Vercruyssen, Fabrice, and Jeanick Brisswalter. “Which Factors Determine the Freely Chosen Cadence during Submaximal Cycling?” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, vol. 13, no. 2, 2010, pp. 225–231., doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2008.12.631.
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