What's Cool In Road Cycling

Optimal Cadence: Reader Suggestions

Our running series examining optimal cadence and whether a higher cadence at any power output is necessarily better has provoked a lot of comments. The scientific jury is still out on whether higher cadences are a panacea for all cycling ills. However, the mailbox has continued to flood with reader suggestions for workouts aimed at elevating preferred cadence…

Today’s Toolbox is going to feature a series of reader comments and suggestions on workouts that they have used to work on elevating their cadence. First off, thanks to all who wrote in for sharing information and advice, as such openness is the cornerstone of science! Things to note while reading through these suggestions:

1. Please keep in mind that there isn’t any clear and conclusive scientific evidence that riding at a higher cadence is going to be “better” for you. That’s not to say that it isn’t going to be better, simply that it’s incredibly difficult to do a definitive research study. Take special note of the comment by Frank Day, inventor of the PowerCranks.

2. As mentioned previously, it will take a LOT of time and perseverance to elevate your preferred cadence. This is a year-long (if not longer) project. So if you’re going to do it, you can’t make your mind up on its worth after only a week or two.

3. Because there isn’t any definitive evidence one way or the other, I’m going to leave the comments pretty much verbatim and avoid directly responding to them. So take them for what they’re worth and keep me posted on your progress and comments!

Alex Simmons
As a trackie and a roadie I have a different preferred cadence on the track vs road. I would regularly ride track at an average of 15 rpm faster. If I ride road cadence on the track I feel like a slug. On the road, I’m just happy to cruise along at 100-105 rpm. Fixed gear is excellent for cadence work, provided you choose the right gear – e.g. we have a triathlete training with us who’s just taken up the track – we’re riding 86″ while he’s on 102″! And for him this is spinning!

Not sure if has been mentioned – while higher cadences may be less efficient, you will recover from efforts much faster and be able to repeat them more often with less recovery time in between. Just ask any points racer, too big a gear and you will not be able to manage the repeated accelerations after a while. So being able to improve efficiency at high rpm is a distinct advantage.

Drills – slight downhill, stay seated low gear spin faster until you start to bounce in saddle, try to relax the toes – it’s weird but it works to smooth out the stroke! Repeat often and do 1 set / week for 5-6 weeks.
Rollers are good as the resistance is low but technique is needed motor pacing also, keeps the resistance down but enables speed when doing a set of intervals, do one or two of them in a lower gear than normal. I find this good when doing cruise/tempo level work as you are not going so hard as to need to fall back to natural cadence just to put out the power.
On group rides, try to average 10rpm higher than normal, the over spinning will eventually lift your natural cadence.
If doing weights, then mix in spinning work to balance out the high force work

Generally though, cadence changes need to be gradual – with new riders I generally try to get them to increase overall average by say 5rpm/year. It is mostly neural in my view and require hundreds of thousands of repetitions for lasting changes.

Ellis Organ
I did the 53×12.com training camp with Dr Michele Ferrari in Mallorca this spring specifically because of his reputation for being able to increase climbing speed through cadence. It was a great camp – not only did we get personal training from probably the best cycling coach in the world, but we got to ride with his pro clients at the same time (Tom Danielson, Patrik Sinkewitz and Enrico Gazparatto) – its frightening how fast these guys can climb!

Anyway, there are some fairly straightforward drills that we learnt with the aim of climbing faster, with a higher cadence. These mostly work by variation of cadence between low (50-60 rpm) and high (80+), which seems to vary the muscle tension such that when you go into the higher cadence sets, it seems much easier. Examples – all done on long(ish) hills, but can be done on the flat;

1. Climbing/seated pyramids – 1 min standing 50-55 rpm then 1 min seated 80+ rpm (or higher if you can do this), 2 mins standing & 2 mins seated, 3 mins standing & 3 mins seated, then back down (if hill is long enough). All done at “medio” heart rate, which is about 10-20 beats below LT
2. Seated low/high rpm pyramids – 1 min seated 60 rpm accelerating up to 80+ rpm for second min, then 2mins each, three mins each and back down. Again @ medio HR
3. Seated medium/high effort intervals – 1 min @ 80-90rpm in gear for medio HR, then accelerate through gears to maintain cadence and get HR up to “solio” rate ie between 10 beats below LT and LT, then 30 seconds at same cadence/lower gear to allow HR back to medio. Repeat 5 times. As strength builds you can increase the proportion/length of solio effort aiming to get to something like 5 mins solio followed by 1 min medio and also the number of repetitions

These seem to work. I’m doing the GF Marco Pantani (goes over the Gavia and the Mortirolo) this month and the Etape du Tour (Col [email protected] and Alpe d’Huez) in July, so I’ll find out how good my climbing is!

Michael Milani
One technique that I use to increase my cadence and smooth out my pedal stroke is what I call “builds”. I start out in a mild gearing, at around 85 rpm. Over a set time interval (usually 30 or 60 seconds), every 10 seconds, increase your cadence, while staying seated. By the time you reach the end of the interval, you should be reaching close to your maximum cadence without bouncing out of the seat, keeping a smooth pedal stroke.

For example:
30 second build: At start, jump to 90-95; At 10 seconds, jump to 95-100; At 20 seconds jump to 100-110.

Repeat 3-5 times with 30 seconds rest between intervals. Gets you warmed up for the ride to come.

Paul Hurdlow
I train with Carmichael Training Systems, and during the “Foundation” period in their training protocol (typically, Winter), they prescribe a number of drills designed to elicit neuromuscular adaptations. These include “stomps” (overgeared fast-twitch 12 second efforts), “muscle tension intervals” (low cadence overgeared climbing – 60 rpm) and, later in the period, “fastpedals” which are a repeat series of 1 to 4 minute efforts (at least in my case) at a minimum 110 rpm (goal is highest rpm possible without “rocking” in the saddle). I have found that even doing these fastpedal drills a few times in a couple of weeks enables my legs to feel more “snappy” as I ride and — without really trying — I notice my cadence starts to come up for similar efforts on my usual training circuits. It drops off again after the racing season, but a few fast pedal sessions helps start to bring it back up.

Woody Cox
I am a Masters Track racer (multiple national and world champs and records). I’m really not a spinner on the track as much as many of the younger track racers that grew up on fixed gears. BUT having said that I still have to spin well enough to do sprints, points, pursuits, madison’s etc. I agree with you about the fixed gear riding – that will help. I also think that the fixed gear can make you lazy in that you don’t have to pull up in the back….

One of the best drills that I do is very high speed spinning (either in a fixed gear or on my road bike) on rollers. I will accelerate to a max speed for maybe 30 sec. I will note the max speed and then do it again trying to beat the max speed. The logic behind this is that I feel what ever your max cadence is will dictate what your “normal” cadence be. I believe that your “normal” cadence will be a % of your max cadence…so a few drills of going for a higher cadence will up your comfort at a “normal” cadence. There is another benefit to this type of training. The first time you try to ride at very high rpm’s you will be all over the rollers and not smooth at all. But with each effort you will be forced into getting smoother. (if you don’t you will fall off of the rollers – another good reason for riding rollers – it forces you to ride smoother) As you get smoother you get faster rpm’s also…

This is also true in a different way for the Pursuit on the track. What ever your max speed is on the track – your Pursuit speed will be a % of that max speed. If your max speed is 35 mph on the track you are not going to be able to hold 33 mph for a Pursuit race. If your max speed is 38 mph you can at least start building up your laps at 33 mph.

So my suggestion is that if your max cadence is 130 rpm’s – then it will be very difficult to ride for any length of time at 110 rpm’s. If a person builds up their max rpm’s they eventually will feel more comfortable at a higher racing rpm.

Robert Coleman
I used to be a bicycle messenger (after being a racer for several years) and found that the option of riding a fixed gear at work and on rolling training rides was the best for training a high cadence. On flat roads, I would have to spin with load at relatively high rpms to keep up on group rides, and on downhills, the idea was to just follow through as smoothly as possible as cadences rose upwards of 150. It really does work.

Arthur Carter
I’ve used the following drill to get used to high cadences. The goal is to keep the effort manageable and speed is not significant. Can also be done indoors. How many steps you perform depends on where you are starting from and how high you can go while still maintaining a solid, non-bouncing spin. It helps to increase resistance a bit (bigger gears) as the rpm goes up, but then you have to be careful not to redline it. That’s not the point.

I start with a gear that would be less than tempo riding on the flats. This works well with a fixed gear bike with an easy gear. Note no “off” time on downward side. Can increase recovery interval on upward side if HR is getting out of control on the upward side of the ladder. Another key here, especially as the cadence goes up is to focus on good pedal motion. It gets hard at the higher rpms and at least for me requires a lot of focus. For this reason, I make sure I have a nice, flat, low-traffic area with lots of room when doing this drill. Don’t want to drift into traffic while concentrating on pedalling.

Warmup at “normal” cadence.
1 minute +10 rpm at same speed.
1 minute normal
1 minute +20 rpm
1 minute normal
1 minute +30 rmp
1 minute normal
1 minute +40 rpm
1 minute normal
1 minute +50 rpm (Sometimes I can get here sometimes I can’t starting from 90 rpm)
1 minute +40
1 minute +30
1 minute +20
1 minute +10
recover at normal
By the time you are working back down the ladder, +30 will seem absolutely slow. When this gets easy go to 1:30 then 2:00.

Bod Chekoudjian
Thanks for your great articles and investigations into the mechanics and physiology of cycling. They are a great help and serve, at least, to keep me conscious of what I’m doing when I’m riding.

Here’s my tip to help increase cadence. During the off season (and in season as a tune-up if I notice my cadence dropping), I tend to ride mainly in the small chainring, regardless of what I’m going, with occasional bursts into the big ring. I find a comfortable cadence, get warmed up and spinning smoothly then downshift one gear. I try to maintain speed and position within the group using the increased cadence and not upshifting. I get regular compliments on the smoothness and speed of my cadence. I’ve also gotten quite a few props for inspiring others in my riding group to raise their cadence speed. I’m by no means an expert nor do I possess any special attribute. Just use a disciplined steady approach to increasing my cadence and try to be conscious of it as much as possible to keep me on track.

Caveat #1 – Frank Day
Just because lots of people write in with rationalizations as to why they want to keep riding at higher cadences than “optimum” doesn’t mean that optimum cadence can be increased by riding at higher cadence.

As you know, PowerCranks quickly expose to the new user how much energy it takes to ride at high cadences, whether any energy is going to the wheel or not. This energy is all “wasted” energy as none of it goes to the wheel, although it is necessary as one cannot get any energy to the wheel at a cadence of zero. What is important is to minimize this loss while maximizing the amount of energy that goes to the wheel. The one thing I believe I have learned from the PC experience is this optimal cadence in any one individual most probably increases with increased power (Ed. This was a highlighted point in the Foss and Hallen studies and discussed in my original cadence article). That is why Lance can ride extremely high cadences but these cadences are not optimal for most everyone else, but they all think if Lance rides that way, I should also. In my opinion, if they want to ride like Lance they need to train like Lance, otherwise, they should do what is optimum for them and the way they train.

Anyhow, enjoyed your taking on this controversial issue. Looking forward to seeing the PowerCranks study data that is underway by your colleagues.

(NB. Frank Day is the inventor of PowerCranks, which I have been using since early 2005)

Caveat #2 – Scott Grimshaw
I enjoy reading all your articles in Pez. Nice Job!

Regarding cadence and some sources which maintain that it takes years to take over – well, I don’t buy it:) I think its more like about 3-4 weeks!

I have been a weight lifter for over 20 years (I’m 49) and have seen the effects of low rep – high resistance , high rep-low resistance, medium rep-medium resistance training, etc on my physique. I have also taken note of the adaptation time. Inevitably changing from one regimen to the other takes less than a month. There is a period of a few weeks that my strength for a given rep range seems lower than expected, but then it quickly bounces back.

I also am a long time cyclist (I race Cat 3) and see the identical response. I push big gears early in the season, in an attempt to build some peak force after a winter of wind trainer work. When the true racing season is upon us here in the Syracuse area, mid to late May, I switch to high cadence, moderate gears. My experience has shown that I can climb with the pack by doing that, whereas the big gear regimen leaves me “dead” on the climbs. The first week or so of switching makes me feel out of sorts, but then the change comes on a few weeks later and all is well.

I do believe that perhaps the ultimate physiological adaptations may take years, but I’ll never know. I find changing gear and cadence regimens periodically keeps me from going stale and does have a beneficial effect on my sprint and accelerations.

My initial thoughts on general paths towards increasing cadence.

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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