Cadence: Art or Science?

by Earl Zimmermann

Several years ago one man (you know who he is) changed our perception of how to climb a mountain by “dancing” on the pedals. Since then countless articles have been written about how to optimize cadence. Lance Armstrong changed how road racers at all levels think they should be spinning during a race. His cadence increased by 14% over the years, from 85 – 95 rpm to 105 –110 rpm in his most recent Tours. This didn’t happen overnight, it took many years of training intensely for up to 6 hours per day. Lance proved that a higher cadence works for him; will it work for you?

Each endurance event such as road racing, criterium racing, track pursuit and points race, mountain bike racing and triathlon demands its own optimal cadence for the specific event. Several factors that have an influence on an athlete’s ability to spin at higher revolutions per minute include gear selection, muscle fiber type, perception of effort, bike fit and cleat position. All have effects on a cyclist’s optimal cadence.

A cyclist’s first few years of racing are most often spent learning many aspects of the sport with varying degrees of results. Some racers have a tendency to mash on the pedals with a relatively low cadence, such as 60 –80 rpm, and as a result they have a hard time staying with their competition. Their perception is that they will go faster if they push harder on the pedals, not realizing they are putting further stress on their muscular system than if they relied less on strength and more on their developing aerobic system. There is a good chance that the athlete who mashes the pedals will have difficulty responding quickly to attacks and pace surges and will not have enough energy at the end of the race to achieve their desired outcome.

More experienced cyclists prefer a higher pedaling cadence, which is dictated by the neuromuscular fatigue in working muscles rather than the economy of pedaling exercise. Slow-twitch (ST: type I) muscle fibers primarily burn fat for fuel for even the leanest athlete and are built to go all day. Fast-twitch (FT: type II) muscle fibers burn glycogen for fuel and fatigue rapidly. Glycogen is stored in the muscle and is in relatively short supply, about 2000 calories for a well-trained athlete. An athlete with a higher percentage of FT muscle fibers has a better chance of developing a higher cadence for sprinting events, which are usually contested around at least 130 rpm. A study conducted by Ahlquist (“The effect of pedaling frequency on glycogen depletion rates in Type I and Type II quadriceps muscle fibers during submaximal cycling exercise”) examined whether the pedaling frequency of cycling at a constant metabolic cost contributes to fiber-type glycogen depletion. The results demonstrated that prolonged pedaling at an intensity of 85% VO2 max at 50 rpm rather than 100 rpm resulted in greater fast-twitch fiber glycogen depletion and an increase in lactate. This was attributed to the increase muscle force required per pedal revolution at the lower cadence. Fatigue is delayed when using a high cadence near 100 rpm, compared to a low cadence near 50.

In the last few years more studies have been conducted using elite cyclists who typically have a freely chosen cadence of 90 rpm. One study out of Norway, Foss and Hallen (“The most economical cadence increases with increasing workload”), studied six elite road cyclists performing sub-maximal and maximal tests at four different cadences (60, 80, 100 and 120 rpm) on separate days. Respiratory data was measured at 50, 125, 200, 275 and 350 watts during the test. Based on the results of the protocol the best working economy or lowest oxygen uptake occured 80 rpms at 350 watts and there was no difference in VO2 max among cadences. Though working economy is not the variable of greatest importance for most kinds of racers other than Ironman triathletes, it definitely weighs into the equation.

Some studies have suggested that an individual’s perception of effort is an important factor when selecting a pedaling rate. One study by Ekblom and Goldbarg stated that “muscle strain” might provide feedback to the central nervous system and strongly influence perceived exertion. Athletes at all levels have the ability to tolerate different levels of pain during endurance events such as cycling. The feeling we perceive in the legs during cycling leads us to select a pedaling rate such that we minimize the perceived effort of the task, even if we are using more oxygen. A percentage of athletes will push through the perceived pain while others will use it as a signal to back off. Think back to your last interval session and how your legs began to burn. With the proper length of recovery you could have done one more and you wouldn’t have died. By increasing your cadence could you covered the same distance a few seconds faster and/or gone farther with less perceived effort?

Wenzel Coaching has drills that can be incorporated into your existing program to begin the adaptation process of efficiently increasing your cadence over time. Talk to your Wenzel coach about incorporating them into your program.