What's Cool In Road Cycling

Optimal Cadence – How to Increase It?

Sharp-eyed Toolbox readers have followed our mantra and analyzed the science behind the science, coming back with lots of questions and comments about the strengths and limitations of studying optimal cadence. We address some of these comments and also start thinking through ways to raise preferred cadence…

Limits of Science
Following our updated article on optimal cadence last week, the hamster responsible for processing Toolbox mail was spinning its wheel at extra high cadences itself trying to keep up with the flood of mail. The primary theme of the reader response has been the correct observation that the lower efficiency (in terms of peak wattage during the test, wattage at ventilatory threshold and possibly lactate threshold) at 120 rpm may simply be a testing artifact.

Specifically, the preferred cadence for the trained cyclists in both the Norwegian (1, 2) and Spanish (3) studies was at about 90 rpm, or smack in the middle between the tested cadences of 80 and 100 rpm, but quite a difference from the 120 rpm used. So ultimately, the 120 rpm can be seen to be quite “unnatural” from a motor learning and neuromuscular perspective. In other words, they were less efficient because they’re not used to riding at that cadence. However, maybe a group who had a preferred cadence of 110 rpm may see 80 rpm as being less efficient.

This is definitely a valid point, which I hinted in the final sentence of my last article. Maybe the next step is to do exactly such an “after” study, finding perhaps a group of trackies used to spinning at high cadences and testing them. Better yet but nearly impossible, take these subjects from the three studies above, train them to attaining a preferred cadence of 110 rpm, then repeating the study. Scientifically perfect, but practically unlikely.

Moral of the Story
• First off, bonus marks for everybody who wrote in with the above comment! It shows that you’re taking scientific studies with a grain of salt, evaluating their arguments and conclusions within their limitations. That’s been one of the key Toolbox philosophies from the beginning!

• As I’ve also argued before, no one study will ever answer the question of optimal cadence (or indeed almost any question) conclusively. Good thing, as it keeps scientists like me employed!

• Training to alter preferred cadence can take a very long time, months if not years. Which leads to the second half of this article…

Recipe for Revving?
So the fundamental question remains – assuming you do want to elevate your preferred cadence, what are the best paths towards that goal? As you may have guessed by now, there is no single correct or even guaranteed path. There certainly have not been any scientific studies examining different training methods to elicit a higher cadence.

Below, however, are some possibilities that I’ve bounced through my head over the past week, along with some considerations that would be relevant. By no means is this an exhaustive list or even close to it, and some of the ideas may germinate into future Toolbox articles.

1. The “Just Do It” Approach
The simplest way to rev up your preferred cadence (PC), of course, is simply the steamroller approach of making a conscious effort to ride every single ride or workout in one gear lower and 5 rpm higher while going at the same speed as before. Doesn’t matter if you’re climbing, sprinting, endurance rides, whatever, just get a cadence monitor and always work to achieve a 5 rpm higher cadence.

2. Onto the Boards
Trackies and fixed gear devotees are famous for their buttery smooth pedaling, especially at high cadences. That’s because they’re not trying to roll over massive gears, but emphasize rapid acceleration of a relatively small (compared to road) gear. With that in mind, from a training perspective, I think the enforced gearing (can’t go back to old habits) and constant motion (i.e., no freewheeling) of a fixed gear bike, whether on the track or rolling roads, is ideal for elevating PC. If that’s not a good excuse for trying out a new cycling discipline, I don’t know what is!

3. Specific Drills
This is where the Toolbox community needs to contribute! If you’ve got a favourite workout or trick for increasing your preferred cadence, please write to me. If there’s enough response, I’ll post a compilation as a future Toolbox article!

Things to Consider

4. Crank Length
The optimal crank length, just like optimal cadence, remains one of those questions that are annoyingly difficult to pinpoint for any individual. There have been endless studies over the years testing power output in groups of subjects using different lengths of cranks. But like cadence, every subject is adapted to whatever they have settled upon, and the results in large confirm that you’re “best at what you usually use.” Whether they could become more efficient or powerful at another crank length after months or years of adaptation is the same impossible-to-answer question as with cadence.

Keep tuned for what will likely be a continuing story…

Optimal Cadence Revisited: analysis of articles by Foss & Hallen and Mora-Rodriguez et al.

Josh Horowitz’s Season 3 intro to PowerCranks, with links to all our other PowerCrank articles

We examine Lance’s improvements in pedaling efficiency from 1993 through his first Tour victory

We analyze another Spanish study that finds pedaling efficiency much more important than what your VO2max is

An article by Bruce Hendler on pedaling efficiency and training drills

1. Foss O and Hallen J. Cadence and performance in elite cyclists. Eur J Appl Physiol 93: 453-462, 2005.
2. Foss O and Hallen J. The most economical cadence increases with increasing workload. Eur J Appl Physiol 92: 443-451, 2004.
3. Mora-Rodriguez R and Aguado-Jimenez R. Performance at high pedaling cadences in well-trained cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc 38: 953-957, 2006.

About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University, with a research specialization in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. His typical cadence dropped to <70 rpm in his initial riding with PowerCranks but is now happily spinning at a preferred cadence of 90+. He can be reached for comments at [email protected].

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