Legs of a woman wearing cycling shoes and colorful socks on grass

A lot has been written about cycling cadence. Nevertheless, most articles on the subject tend to recommend, compare, or defend one type of cadence over another (e.g., “higher” vs. “lower”).

In reality, there is no one “ideal cadence.” All cadences are important and have a place in cycling. As such, cyclists of all levels should incorporate training at various cadences for optimal performance. After all, the goal is to ride faster while conserving as much energy as possible by using the appropriate cadence for the circumstances.

In this post, we will discuss:

  • What is cycling cadence and how to measure it
  • Importance of cadence training
  • Types of cadence
  • “Ideal cadence” is a misleading concept
  • Benefits of training all cadences
  • Sample cadence drills

What is cadence and how do you measure it?

Cycling cadence is the speed at which a cyclist pedals. In other words, it is the number of revolutions of the crank per minute when pedaling, and it is measured in RPM (revolutions per minute).

The most common way to measure cadence is by using a bike computer such as Garmin and Wahoo. Alternatively, you may count your cadence with a stopwatch, by counting the number of times your foot reaches the bottom of the pedal stroke in a minute.

Importance of cadence training

Cadence is one of the basic skills in cycling and one that is often overlooked by the amateur cyclist. In a sense, what can be so complicated about pedaling a bike?

Even though pedaling appears simple, effective pedaling skills that translate into efficiency and economy are complex and must be developed. Several leg muscles, big and small, fire and relax during cycling. The key to pedaling economy lies in the pattern in which the muscles contract – the so called muscle coactivation.

If the muscles do not contract in a way that optimizes leg movement, the cyclist will waste energy, resulting in lower power output to the pedals. Most importantly, the only way to achieve the desired muscle firing pattern, or coactivation, is through neuromuscular work, such as pedaling drills, high and low cadence intervals, etc.

Hence the importance of cadence training in cycling.

Types of cadence

The typical range of cadences cyclists use are between 50 and 110 rpm. Within that range, I will use the following unscientific categories of cadences to facilitate the rest of the discussion:

  • 50-70 rpm: low cadence
  • 80-85 rpm: medium cadence
  • 90-100+ rpm: high cadence

In general, new and untrained cyclists tend to favor low cadence and have difficulty raising it. Well-trained and elite cyclists are better versed on all cadences.

“Ideal cadence” is a misleading concept

What’s the best or ideal cadence for me? That is one of the most common questions athletes ask me. The answer is… it depends and… all of them. There is no one ideal cadence. In fact, the opposite is true: training or using only one cadence or cadence range (low, medium or high), will slow you down and increase your risk of overuse injuries.

In a nutshell, athletes should use different cadences to increase, decrease or maintain speed depending on:

  • Type of terrain (flat, rolling, climbs, hills, descends, road, gravel, grass, etc.)
  • Changes in wind direction
  • Group ride or race dynamics

In other words, using cadence changes is just as important as changing gears, and it is possible to change your speed using cadence changes in many scenarios. In doing so, a cyclist is able to react quickly without losing momentum or having to put out more power than necessary to absorb surges and accelerations in a group, for example.

Benefits of training all cycling cadences

By incorporating all ranges of cadences in your training, you will be able to efficiently use them when needed. In addition, an ideal training program will incorporate intervals that simulate real-world scenarios with cadence changes, in addition to isolated cadence drills.

Benefits of training all cadences include:

  • Development of new neuromuscular pathways that will allow you to apply more power to the pedals without wasting energy at any cadence
  • Strengthening of the various leg and hip/gluteal muscles
  • Learning when to use a certain cadence and for how long
  • Efficiently transitioning between cadences to preserve or maximize power output and speed

Examples of how different cadences can be used:

  • Lower cadences are good for climbs, steep hills and for maintaining speed in downhills. Also good for transitioning to decelerate after a surge (for example when coming to the back of the line after rotating in the front). These are in the range of 50-70 rpms.
  • Higher cadence (100 rpms) is good for accelerating on flats or “flatter” sections of climbs/hills, also great for starting an attack at higher power as part of a strategy to drop riders.
  • 80 rpms is a great transition-type cadence and might also be a good choice on not-so-steep climbs where you are looking to maintain power at tempo/sweet spot. Also great for maintaining speed on flats after gaining momentum from a high cadence surge/pull.
  • 85-95 is the “everything else” bucket

Sample cadence drills

Below are some examples of simple, cadence-focused drills to get you started. Remember to include a warm-up and a cool down.

Single-legged

3×9 minutes single-legged pedaling set, alternating:
– Left leg only – 1 min
– Right leg only – 1 min
– Both legs – 1 min (easy)

Low cadence

Two sets if 3×3 minutes at 60-70 rpms, at 95% of FTP.

High cadence

10×2 minutes high cadence 100+ rpms at 85% of FTP, with 1 minute rest between intervals.

Mixed pedaling

Repeat this sequence 3-4 times (rest 2 minutes between sets):
– Left leg only – 2 min
– Right leg only – 2 min
– Both legs (easy) – 2 min
– High cadence 100+ rpms at 85% of FTP – 2 min
– Easy pedaling – 2 min
– Low cadence 60-70 rpms at 105% of FTP – 2 min

Our training program incorporates the important concepts discussed in this post. Drop us a line and we’ll be happy to answer any questions related to cadence training.

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