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By Coach Yan Busset
Understanding the Right Cadence in Cycling
The right cadence is not the one that you might think. We all have heard someone say that you need to spin at 90rpm or 100rpm to be efficient. But is there a number that fits everyone? Should you mimic the rpm of world tour pro riders? Is there an ideal cadence to aim at? Let's check that together.
Firstly, let's frame the discussion. There isn't one ideal cadence but several cadences that we need to talk about:
Your theoretical ideal cadence
Your natural cadence
Your actual race ideal cadence
Your training target cadence
Why such a division? Because we all have different natural predispositions, different motor skills, and muscle fibers types ratio that will make us prone to organically choose to have a high or lower rpm. Secondly, studies show us there is such a thing as an "ideal rpm" versus the targeted watts (you will see it’s a simple linear match). Then, there is the compromise between your natural abilities and the ideal rpm that you will apply on race day. And to improve your long-term performances, there are the cadences that you could apply in training to improve your motor skills and power so that you will get better at producing watts.
Theoretical Ideal Cadence: What Studies Show Us?
The Science Behind Pedaling: The work and publications* (A.V. Hill, Coast JR, McMahon…) on the force-velocity relationship in muscles tell us that muscle power decreases as the speed of contraction increases. This principle is crucial for cycling, where finding the sweet spot between pedal force and speed can optimize performance. So, in theory, there is a direct relation with watts target and optimal RPM which is simply linear (check graph). These studies suggest also that the "best" cadence varies, influenced by an athlete's fitness, muscle strength, and physiological characteristics.
Our Natural Cadence
For the same wattage, some of us are naturally pedaling with higher or lower rpm. This is due to differences in how well and fast we "fire" muscle fibers to create the torque necessary, and also how long we can sustain it. This is due to motor skills, mitochondria density, and fibers types of the individual. We are not born equal, and that's great like this; otherwise, life would be boring and races even more.
Your IRL Ideal Race Cadence
It will be where your natural cadence meets or is the closest to the theoretical recommended one. You should start to check your race target watts based on your physiology: At what % of your Threshold will you be able to sustain the race distance for optimal performance? At what % will you be able to bike as fast as possible on a Time trial, or on Triathlon that you will still be able to have a great run behind? Once you define this wattage. You can check on the graph what is the matching RPM. For triathlon age groupers, you will find out that the RPM are probably way lower than what you thought. The 110RPM of a Froome or Armstrong would be inefficient to produce, let’s say, 200watts, but makes sense for a pro at 500w... So useless to try to mimic the pro when it comes to cadence. Once you know your optimal cadence, if it’s not close to your natural cadence you will need to compromise and change your training. With time, you will get closer to it.
Your Training Cadence Targets
So we saw that there is a theoretical ideal cadence but that your natural abilities might limit you to get there. Also, we saw that RPM is directly related to watts. So, in order to progress to get stronger and faster on the bike, you will need to learn to increase your RPM, therefore, your watts for the same gear ratio. So, there are three ways to leverage your cadence at training to progress:
Max velocity: Having some training where you go well beyond target Rpm will help you develop motor skills and muscle and cardiovascular adaptation to improve your pedaling economy. (Example set: 4-8x30sec of an all out max RPM effort with 2-4.5min rest)
Low cadence workout: Low cadence/high torque is one method to increase the demand, for the purpose of lowering the VLamax, so to ameliorate the aerobic capacity of a petrol heat type of athlete. Also, you can take it as "strength training" on the bike. (Example set: 1-4x10-20min at sweet spot, targeting 40-50rpm max, rest= 2-5min)
Race target training: When having more race-specific block of training, make sure you learn to pace yourself not just at the right wattage but also at the ideal race rpm target.
Bonus: a notable advantage of adopting a lower cadence for your targeted watts is a reduction in saddle soreness and discomfort during long rides. A lower cadence reduces friction and, by applying slightly more force to the pedals, it takes some pressure off the saddle. Also, research indicates** that a higher cadence may increase airflow turbulences, suggesting that a lower cadence improves aerodynamics.
Coaches and athletes should embrace a nuanced but systematic approach to cadence. Start with your potential ideal target cadence and see if it works for you and integrate these insights with personalized training strategies to improve your cycling performances.
Hill, A.V.: "The heat of shortening and the dynamic constants of muscle." Proc. Roy. Soc., B 126: 136, 1938.
Hill, A.V.: "The effect of load on the heat of shortening of muscle." Proc. Roy. Soc., B 159: 297, 1964.
Coast JR, Welch HG. "Linear increase in optimal pedal rate with increased power output in cycle ergometry." Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1985;53(4):339-42. DOI: 10.1007/BF00422850. PMID: 4039261.
**Fitzgerald, S. (2022). Understanding the Aerodynamic Environment in Track Cycling. Doctor of Philosophy thesis, School of Mechanical Engineering, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
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