Home Cycling Tips 5: how to find the best pedalling cadence

Why is the answer to the question of the ideal cycling cadence a difficult equation to solve? The difficulty is inherent in the number of variables there are to consider in order to solve the equation; let's list some of the most important variables:

  • Slope of the road
  • Maximum cyclist force
  • Cyclist's resistant strength
  • Physiological parameters (anaerobic threshold and oxygen consumption)
  • Degree of muscle fatigue

From this list, even if reduced, it is evident how the ideal cycling cadence cannot exist, being conditioned both by the subjective abilities of the cyclist (physiological parameters) and by conditions that by their nature are variable, such as inclination and fatigue.

Certainly cadence is a fundamental factor in influencing both the economy of the gesture of pedalling and the perceived effort and we could therefore say that cadence should always be chosen with the aim of producing a certain power at the lowest possible metabolic cost.

The cadence of pedalling is determined by several factors
Others, on the other hand, show that efficiency is quite similar when pedalling at rates between 60 and 100 RPM only when you are between 80% and 90% of the maximum oxygen consumption. At lower percentages of oxygen consumption instead (when you go slower) high cadences (around 100 RPM) would be less efficient than at medium low cadences (between 60 and 80 RPM).

The whole thing seems to be very complex, especially if you take as a reference the professionals who seem to adopt very high cadences in many race conditions.

Certainly cadence is a fundamental factor in influencing both the economy of the gesture of pedalling and the perceived effort and we could therefore say that cadence should always be chosen with the aim of producing a certain power at the lowest possible metabolic cost.

The efficiency of pedalling is the basis

As the frequency increases, efficiency tends to decrease
Considering therefore a determined speed (or a determined power expressed in Watts) the ideal is to spend as little as possible to maintain that speed/power. It is therefore a question of being efficient.

But what is the general rule to follow? The studies conducted to date are contradictory because some show how, with the same expressed power, if the cadence is increased, the efficiency tends to decrease.

The ideal cycling cadence does not exist in absolute but it is conditioned by the subjective abilities of the cyclist.

5 tips for determining the ideal cycling cadence

But let us try to give some general rules that can serve as a guide.

Cycling flat at high speeds with very agile and low power ratios is totally inefficient.

This is demonstrated by a very interesting study conducted by a researcher from Oxford (Formenti et al. 2015), which shows that in this case you spend a lot of energy in internal work compared to that which is transferred to the pedals. So pedalling at high cadences and low power is useful only if you want to do agility exercises and not to be efficient.

Cycling uphill with very high cadences is only for PROs

Often we see the PROs grinding their legs at high speeds uphill. They can do this because they are efficient at those cadences. From physiology we know that muscle efficiency depends on the speed at which the muscles contract; if you pedal at a rate corresponding to about one third of the maximum contraction speed the muscle can be efficient for a long time. Well, the PROs have muscles very different from those of the amateur both in terms of maximum force and in terms of the speed of contraction, for this reason they can select certain ratios and cadences. For an average trained amateur, pedalling uphill at a rate of more than 90 pedals per minute risks being inefficient for both neuromuscular (muscles become tired) and metabolic reasons (heart rate tends to rise).

Better not 'burn' your muscles at very low rates

If very high cadences are demanding from a neuromuscular point of view, excessively low cadences used with hard ratios lead to premature fatigue of the muscles. The muscles are made of different muscle fibers, some are strong but fatigue quickly, others express less strength but resist more fatigue. If you mill very hard ratios with low cadences, you use strong but rapidly fatiguing fibers; this is what happens to us uphill when we select a hard ratio: for a while it seems to us to have little effort and so we go even harder, then inevitably comes fatigue and we falter. So be careful not to frequently go below 60 pedals per minute.
In big stage races, cadence is fundamental in flat stretches

Let's get used to the variations in cadence

We have understood that there are fibers that fatigue quickly, others that are less strong but more resistant. That's why we have to make our own another important concept: the muscles of the lower limbs must be trained to improve all the fibers. Using a reduced cadence spectrum in training (e.g. between 70 and 90) is not ideal for training all types of fibers, but it is important to alternate exercises that train strength (such as repeated uphill performed at low cadence) to others that act more on the neuromuscular component and that provide a high cadence.

Beware when cycling uphill not to go below 60 pedals per minute.

The training of all muscle components is one of the objectives of TNT (Technogynm Neuromuscolar Training),  consisting of a training program with sessions that always provide stimuli between different places in logical sequence.

We don't always do time trials

The only situations of competition, but also of training, during which the variations in cadence are reduced are the chronometer. In these cases, also because the gradient variations are limited, a nearly constant cadence is maintained for the entire duration of the race/session. It is therefore essential to choose the cadence that, at the same power/speed, allows us to be more efficient; a useful parameter for assessing efficiency is given by the trend of the heart rate: often, if the cadence is too high you can see a perceptible increase in heart rate at the same power, a sign that you are less efficient.
Cycling with the right cadence uphill is the best way to get results
However, time trial is not the most common situation for an amateur who trains or races on the road, so here we go back to more general advice: it is good to train using a fairly broad spectrum of cadences, without focusing the muscles to always work in the same narrow range of pedalling.

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