What is Bike Cadence?

September 16, 2022

As endurance athletes, we are training our bodies to be the most efficient as they possibly can be. A big part of efficiency is our cadence. While most athletes are familiar with running cadence, you might be wondering what exactly bike cadence is. By the end of this blog you will understand, what bike cadence is, whether high or low cadence is best, and how triathletes should properly gear their bikes for an ideal cadence.

What is Cadence?

Cadence defines how many cycles per given period of time your body completes a repetitive motion. Therefore, bike cadence is how many times your legs rotate around the crank in a given period of time. We use RPM to measure bike cadence, meaning rotations per minute. Run cadence, on the other hand, is how many foot strikes you have in a given period of time. We use SPM, meaning steps per minute. As endurance athletes, we are training our bodies to be the most efficient as they possibly can be and cadence is a key factor in completing the puzzle.

Cycling Success is Determined by Two Importal Factors:

1) Neuromuscular efficiency: The ability to ride at race-specific RPM, under appropriate load.

2) Aerobic Power: Underlying factor for success in all cycling disciplines.

The Long-Lived Debate: High vs. Low Cadence

For many years, scientific studies have shown that a low cadence was actually more economical (meaning that the riders consumed less oxygen for the given power output). But most of these studies assumed a power output well below what you’d expect in the final of a race. Low cadence may require less oxygen, but it creates more neuromuscular fatigue, reduced lactate clearance, and increased dependence on fast-twitch muscle fibres. High cadence, on the other hand, requires less muscle activation, but it usually comes at a higher energy cost at lower power outputs.

So What’s the Best Cadence? It Really Depends.

For many athletes, a cadence between 80-90RPM is ideal. This mixes in muscle recruitment while balancing energy costs. By examining your tendencies and your event goals, you can identify what type of cadence training will be most effective for your training, often it’s a wide range. It’s worth your time to spend time thinking about the cadence in training. Honing in on leg speed will better adapt your body and keep you at your most efficient.

Proper Gearing for Bike Cadence

Gearing is one of the most important aspects of a successful race, but the chaos and overstimulation on race day may cause new riders to neglect the correct usage of their gears to have their best bike performance. That is why practicing in training is so important. For uphill and headwinds, it’s more effective to use the small front chain ring and bigger rear cogs. The goal is to find a smooth cadence and pedal turnover that equals a good effort to speed ratio. A typical cadence when climbing hills is 70-85 RPM. Below 70 RPM may require out of the saddle work.

For downhills and flats, use the large front chain ring and a smaller rear cog. A good general guideline for flat roads is 80-100 RPM. Many athletes will find the 80-90 range most efficient. This allows you to achieve less force per pedal stroke, and the ability to easily adjust to changing road conditions. Anticipate changes in grade so you are ready to shift. The right combination of shifting and cadence minimizes muscular fatigue, so ultimately you can go faster and longer with less effort (and have a stronger run off the bike as well!)

When to Get Out of the Saddle

Anticipate your race terrain. If you are doing a race with steep (over 5%) grades that may force you out of the saddle it’s best to practice this in training. If you are a very small athlete that requires a higher cadence you may find yourself getting out of the saddle on steep grades to get over the hill. If this is you, practice getting out of the saddle will be beneficial.

Indoor Training: Race-Specific Cadence

Very few courses have no variability, so training should always have variability. If you primarily ride indoors make sure to slightly vary cadence during longer Z2/3 work. This will help with the efficacy of muscle fibers and energy recruitment.

Preparing Cadence from Indoors to Outdoors

If you ride on a smart trainer and are using programs such as Rouvy and Zwift. Turn ERG mode off for your long rides and choose routes that are similar to your race. If your race has 1000m of climbing with lots of small climbs – choose a similar route. Using zwiftinsider.com to find routes will have similar profiles or if on Rouvy your race could already be there to ride.

Article is taken and edited from Organic Coaching

Stuart has competed in triathlons from Sprint to Ironman distance. As a qualified Triathlon Australia, Australian Athletics Run Coach, and a certified Ironman coach, he is aware of the importance of balancing training with lifestyle, thus complementing other important aspects of an athlete’s life (family, work, study commitments, etc.).

Contact Stuart at rdytotri@gmail.com

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