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  • What is the Optimal Cycling Cadence?

     

    Q: Hey Gale—I'm hoping you can help answer a question. I'm relatively new to cycling and my cycling friends insist that my cycling cadence needs to be between 90 to 110 revolutions per minute (rpm). Looking at my cyclometer, I am usually around an average of 80 rpm. My friends tell me that 90 rpm is the optimal cadence, and that if I would train to spin at 90 to 100 rpm, I would be faster without changing anything else.

    But when I try to spin at a higher cadence, my heart rate skyrockets and I can't last very long. Do I just need to get used to the new cadence, or am I not built to spin that fast? Aren't there riders that have lower cadences than others? Can you tell me the optimal cadence that will make me faster? - J.W.

    A: You ask a good question, J.W., and it's one that has been the source of great debate for years. In Lance Armstrong's era of racing, a great amount of importance was put on high cadence. Lance claimed that his change to a higher cadence was key to his success. At the time, everyone jumped on the high cadence bandwagon. Given what we currently know about the other factors that affected Lance's extraordinary performance, cadence may or may not have had an impact.  

    Outside of a single individual claiming that high cadence is the key to success, what does scientific research have to say?

    What Makes the Bike Go Faster?

    Boiled down, there are two basic principles that affect power output and result in increased speed: how fast you can turn the pedals, or cadence, and the amount of force you can apply to the pedals. The combination of cadence and force to the pedals generates power. One or both of these variables can be changed to increase power production.

    For example, let's say you can generate 200 watts by riding at 90 rpm while applying a certain force to the pedals. You can apply less force to generate 200 watts if you increase cadence. On the other side of the scale, if you decrease cadence you'll need to increase force to the pedals to generate the same 200 watts. By increasing force to the pedals and cadence, power output increases above 200 watts.

    But What About Heart Rate?

    As you well know, given your higher cadence and resulting higher heart rate experiment, getting faster on the bike is not a simple matter of pushing on the pedals with more force or pedaling faster.

    What scientists have found is that a high cadence (defined as 90 rpm) reduces muscle force, neuromuscular fatigue and myoelectrical (the electricity generated by muscles) activity. High cadence reduces muscular fatigue, but drives up the oxygen expenditure and heart rate. On the other hand, when cyclists were asked to pedal at a constant power output, lower cadences resulted in reduced oxygen expenditure—or what science calls improved gross efficiency.

    Studies on Self Selection

    Cadence and its effect on overall performance is influenced by many factors, including fitness, cycling experience, age, muscle recruitment, muscle fiber composition, neuromuscular fatigue, metabolic fatigue, hemodynamics (blood flow), anthropometric measures, gear ratios, position on the bike, event duration, road gradient and intensity of exercise.

    Studies have found that when exercise is done at low intensities, cyclists tend to self-select higher cadences. In theory, this minimizes muscular fatigue. During high intensity exercise, cyclists choose a lower cadence that preserves energy output. In order to minimize both muscle and metabolic fatigue, cyclists will often self-select a combination of cadences during long events depending on the terrain and how far they are from the finish line.

    There have also been multiple studies conducted that have asked cyclists to ride at a given power output or percent of VO2max at various assigned cadences (such as 70, 80, 90, 100, 110 rpm) for a particular time duration. The final opinion for many of these studies was that no one single cadence will work for every cyclist, and that the optimal cadence is one that is self-selected by the cyclist.

    Is High Better Than Lower?

    Studies that looked at performance of cyclists at self-selected cadence found that metabolic output was optimized. Because of this, there does not appear to be a single optimal cadence for every cyclist in all conditions.

    Based on the results of these studies, it could be argued that if you force a particular cadence with a computer or a metronome rather than allowing a cyclist to self-select cadence, performance will decrease. You can play with this concept yourself by looking at a forced cadence, heart rate output and power production (if you have a power meter) during a workout.

    To answer your question more directly, the optimal cadence for you is the one that allows you to go the fastest for the least metabolic and muscular cost for the duration of your ride or event. Your optimal cadence will likely vary during the course of any long event such as a century.

    If you're looking for gross numbers that are a result of a research paper, scientists believe that using a higher cadence—perhaps around 120 rpm—works well for sprint performances. For long distance cycling, a lower cadence of 90 to 100 rpm is likely beneficial. For ultra-cycling events, cadences of 70 to 90 rpm may be appropriate for improved performance. If you mountain bike, optimizing performance on steep, loose climbs may require the selection of lower cadences, less than 70 rpm.

    Remember that these are general guidelines, and that to perform your best you should choose a cadence that feels comfortable to you.

     

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