Cadence on the Bike, and Why You Should Care

One question that pops up all the time at the Computrainer lab is, “what cadence should I be riding at?” Well, that depends. Let’s start by defining what cadence is. Cadence refers to how many revolutions per minute (RPM’s) you make for one leg while riding. Therefore, if your right leg goes around 90 times in 60 seconds, your cadence would be 90. If you don’t have a computer that reads cadence, you can always count one leg for 20 seconds and multiply by three to get an idea of where you’re at. So, let’s look at how cadence can be used in training and racing for optimum performance.

Often times during training, we’ll work at different cadence levels depending on the current training phase. Early in a training cycle, low cadence (~50-70 RPM’s) strength work will make up a considerable amount of the training volume. This helps build functional strength on the bike, and get your leg muscles ready for the higher cadence (~90-100 RPM’s) threshold work to come later on. If one were to dive straight into high cadence, high intensity intervals too early in a training cycle, it’s likely that your legs will fatigue before your cardiovascular system does, and the workout will be ineffective.

So, back to our original question, “what cadence should I be riding at?” In a race situation, you want to hold the highest cadence possible, while still maintaining efficiency. That is to say, even though you can physically spin your legs at 100 RPM’s, it doesn’t matter unless you can still put power to the pedals. Your ideal cadence will also vary based on the length of the event you’re competing in as well. Typically, in longer races (half and full iron distance), your ideal cadence will be slightly lower than in shorter races (sprint and international distance). The best way to determine this is to train with power and heart rate monitoring devices. At a certain point, spinning at a higher cadence will cease to net you more power, and will only raise your heart rate. Training with power and heart rate will allow you to monitor your ideal cadence as your fitness improves throughout the season. Once race day has arrived, your cadence will be one less thing to worry about.

Matt Wisthoff
Pro Triathlete
Coach Without Limits Cycle Center

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