Whether you have a lot of time to train on the bike or just a little, optimizing your pedaling cadence1 will help you to finish gran gondos both faster and stronger. This is because the main moment-by-moment determinant of fatigue during cycling is peak muscle tension, which depends on cadence.2
90-105 RPM is Ideal Fondo Cadence
A cadence in the 90-105 rpm range allows quick response to changes in pace in a group and delays fatigue whether you ride in a group or alone. There are exceptions of course: riding up steep hills when you are already in your lowest gear you may not be able to maintain 90+ rpm without riding unsustainably hard, and riders with extremely long cranks – over 180 mm – will do better with slightly lower cadences. But in general, on flats and mild hills, riding 90-105 rpm lets you maintain the highest average speed with the least fatigue so you will be freshest for the timed climbs and the final miles.
Don’t Be Fooled By Lower Heart Rate at Lower Cadences
Admittedly, most riders can maintain a higher speed for a given heart rate at a cadence below 90, but there is no shortage of heart beats on earth. Heart rate is a poor indicator of fatigue rate unless cadence is held constant, and cadences below 90 increase muscle tension, leading to a greater loss of power and speed later in a ride.
Avoid Spinning Out
Cadences above 110 become inefficient again, as you start putting more muscular effort into keeping your feet moving in circles compared to the amount that goes into pushing the cranks around.
If your go-to cadence for long rides is already above 90 rpm, great. Do that for most of your riding but include some lower cadence training to build power and prepare for steep climbs. If your most comfortable cadence is above 85, make a point of riding one gear easier than your most comfortable gear for a few weeks and you’ll find 90+ quickly becoming comfortable.
How to Boost Cycling Cadence
If your normal cadence is much below 85 rpm and you try to immediately jump to 90+, you probably won’t see much benefit. It takes time and practice to develop a coordinated, high-cadence pedal stroke. Chasing the pedals with no resistance can make you a better pedal chaser, but won’t help much with actually making power at higher cadences. To achieve that goal, make use of the coordination drills below as part of your warm up for each ride and, more importantly, habitually ride one gear lighter than your most comfortable gear. If you feel like you are spinning, but pressing slightly on the pedals rather than chasing them, you are in the right gear. Ride that way any time you are not specifically working on other pedaling skills. You should find your go-to cadence rising by 3-5 rpm per week until you can stay over 90 rpm most of the time when pedaling, except on steeper hills. If you make the effort but your cadence is not rising, consider getting your bike fit checked. Poor bike fit is the most common cause of intractably low cadence.
Just riding to log miles can be beneficial, or not. Training with specific goals in mind is more likely to help. Getting comfortable pedaling 90-105 rpm all day long is one way to improve your cycling no matter how much or how little time you have available for training.
DRILLS FOR PEDAL STROKE COORDINATION
(Do one or several of these as part of your warm up for every ride until you have developed a smooth, high-cadence spin. Mix them to pass the time on indoor trainer rides.)
- Isolated Legs: This drill will teach you to unweight the back foot, which is one key to smooth, high-cadence pedaling. Once you are partway warmed up, put one foot on the trainer behind you or just let it hang at the side of the bike. Pedal with one leg at a time for a minute on each side. If you can’t do a whole minute at first, just do what you can. Pedal with both legs for one minute between single leg efforts. 3-5 sets on each side is enough.
- Stroke Drills: This drill helps you develop any missing segments of your pedal stroke. Once you are partway warmed up, continue pedaling a comfortable cadence while you focus on pushing down on each pedal for ten strokes on each side. Push with the balls of your feet as you punch the pedals mildly. Then focus on pulling your foot back for ten strokes on each side, like scraping mud from your sole. Next, focus on lifting the back foot with the ankle relaxed for ten strokes on each side. Then kick forward over the top of the stroke ten times on each side. Follow up with half strokes: down and back, back and up, up and over, over and down. Finally pedal for two minutes at low enough cadence that you can drive the pedals all the way around the circle. Do 3-5 sets of quarters, halves and whole strokes.
- Cadence Pyramids: This drill challenges you to pedal smoothly at the highest possible cadences and helps you become aware of weak parts of your stroke. Once you are partway warmed up, do one minute at your most comfortable, or ‘home’, cadence. Then increase cadence by 5 rpm for one minute and return to your comfortable cadence for one minute. Continuing in one minute blocks, add 10 rpm and return to your home cadence. Then add 15 and so on only so long as you can pedal smoothly. When you start bumping or bouncing, finish out that minute doing your best to smooth it out and then start going back down in 1 minute, 5 rpm increments. One or two pyramids are plenty unless you are trapped inside and need something to pass the time.
Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching manage all aspects of our athletes preparation for racing and other cycling endeavors. Our programs cover fitness, skills, technique, psychology and weight management for optimum performance.
1 Cadence is the number of full pedal circles you make in one minute. Many modern cycle computers and power meters will report your cadence, but if you don’t have one of those, you can determine your cadence easily with a watch simply by counting full pedal strokes for 15 seconds and multiplying by four.
2 Redfield, R. and M. Hull (1986) On the relation between joint moments and pedaling rates at constant power in bicycling. Journal of Biomechanics. 19(4): 317-329