What Cadence Should You Run?
There’s a reason you have so many gears on the back of your bike and it’s time to ‘use ‘em or lose ‘em.’ We’ve gone from classifying bikes based on how many gears they have to triple chain rings on the front, to cassettes the size of dinner plates dominating high-end bicycles. All of these gearing choices have been developed to help you optimize performance. In other words, these gears are there to help you maintain the same cadence throughout any and all terrain that could come your way. But…if cadence should be relatively consistent, what’s the best cadence anyways and how can you practice it?
What is Power?
In order to understand how experts have found the optimal cadence range, it’s important to understand the role cadence places in making you as fast as possible.
In cycling, power is measured in watts. While many other factors contribute to speed, in general, the higher the wattage, the faster you will go. Watts are measured by multiplying force and speed. In order words, the speed at which you turn over the cranks times the force that you put into the crank arm will ultimately determine your power.
This means that if you turn over the crank arm very slowly, but put an incredible amount of force into it, you can have the same power as someone who turns over the crank arm very quickly with very little force. Luckily, experts have run the numbers and found the ‘optimal’ cadence to help you be as fast as possible, as efficiently as possible.
The Bottom Line
You may find a slightly different answer depending on what article you pick up, but the bottom line is that most people will find the best efficiency at a cadence between 80 RPM-90 RPM.
This is the perfect place to start when searching for your optimal cadence. Then, depending on your physique, riding style, as well as strengths and weaknesses you can dial it in even more to match your personal needs.
Benefits of High vs. Low Cadence
Low Cadence: You may find that a lower cadence will be your friend if you have bigger muscles, but a lower cardiovascular fitness. Maintaining a lower cadence utilizes less oxygen, but produces more muscular fatigue. If you find this description to fit you then you might be on the lower end of the cadence range at about 80 RPMs. You may be tempted to go below that, but try not to dip below 75 RPMs. A lower cadence may appear easier to start, but over time will result in tired muscles. Spend some time working on high cadence drills to increase your cardiovascular fitness.
High Cadence: You may find that a higher cadence is more preferable if you have a higher level of cardiovascular fitness, but you have yet to develop strong muscles or just have a leaner muscular physique. A higher cadence will require more oxygen and therefore may cause an increase in heart rate or breathing. If you find a high cadence fits your needs more, then aim more toward 90 RPMs. If you begin to increase much more than that, you risk bouncing on the saddle and losing efficiency in your pedal stroke. Work on low cadence drills to develop more muscular fatigue resistance.
Just like every other facet of cycling, there is a time and a place to focus on cadence. You should keep cadence in mind during your interval workouts, but the main goal is to practice cadence so that falling into your optimal rhythm is natural rather than a conscious focus. Cadence drills are especially great workouts for the off season. Whether you prefer a cadence on the higher end or lower end, all of these drills can have a place in your training routine.
High Cadence Drills: Perform several 1 minute high cadence efforts. These efforts should be on the extreme end of the spectrum. Aim for greater than 100 RPMs for the entire minute. The focus is to stay comfortably seated on the saddle, not bouncing, and staying efficient on the pedals. Power is not important during this drill. The high cadence is the focus. While you would not perform intervals or race at this high of a cadence, the extreme cadence will help train your efficiency and cardiovascular system. Begin with 5 x 1 minute @ 100+ RPMs with 5 minutes of ‘normal’ pedaling in between.
Low Cadence Drills: Low cadence drills can help work on muscular development and strength. Just like the high cadence drills, these low cadence drills are not designed to replicate a cadence you would actually maintain for a workout or racing. For the low cadence drills, maintain a cadence of 50-60 RPMs at a relatively strong intensity (7/10). Aim for 3-5 x 5 minutes intervals at 50-60 RPMs with 5 minute recovery in between. Try completing these intervals on an uphill.
High/Low Drills: Finally, a high/low cadence drill can help you understand the role that cadence places in power. Once again, this drill focuses on extremes. Pick a power or intensity that is uncomfortable, but doable such as tempo. Then complete an interval maintaining that same power, while shifting cadences. For example: Complete 5 x 4 minutes @ 200 watts. The first 2 minutes should be at 50-60 RPMs and the next 2 minutes should be at 90+ RPMs all while maintaining 200 watts.
The great thing about cadence is that you can change it at any moment. Don’t be afraid to shift up or shift down during one of your normal endurance rides just to see what it feels like. Have fun and don’t be afraid to try new things.