- Recreational cyclists often believe spinning their pedals faster will actually make them faster.
- But research shows that when nonprofessional cyclists pedal with a high cadence, they ride less efficiently and may end up tiring themselves out.
- You can produce the same wattage and go the same speed at a variety of cadence levels—it all depends on what you can sustain and what feels comfortable to you.
High cadence cycling—spinning your pedals in excess of 90 revolutions per minute (rpm)—came into vogue during the Lance era, when Armstrong famously spun like a centrifuge to drop the his arch nemesis Jan Ulrich, who by comparison pedaled like a potato masher.
We’ve learned much about racers of that era since that time, but the “high-cadence-is-the-best-cadence” thing stuck. As a result, new cyclists and recreational riders often believe that faster is always better.
Well, if you’ve been forcing yourself to keep your feet flying, you can relax your rpms.
A new study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine shows that amateurs don’t get any added benefits from high cadence cycling. In fact, it may just tire you out, especially when you’re riding at high intensities.
To test how cadence can affect performance, an international team of scientists led by King’s College London recruited a group of nine recreationally active men and women ranging in age from 21 to 55, and had them pedal hard enough to hit their ventilatory threshold (the intensity where your breathing becomes labored) using cadences ranging from 40 to 90 rpm. The researchers measured their pedaling force, heart rate, and thigh muscle oxygenation, or how much oxygen your cycling muscles are getting to make the energy you need to keep going.
As the volunteers pedaled faster, the force they exerted with each pedal stroke decreased, which is to be expected. The whole idea behind high cadence cycling is that your muscles contract more frequently, but not as intensely. At the same time, their heart rate increased, which meant the same intensity required more energy, making it less efficient.
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By the time they hit the highest cadence, the riders, which included two amateur-level triathletes, had pushed past the point of diminishing returns into counterproductive territory. At 90 rpm, their heart rate had increased by 15 percent, their efficiency decreased, and their muscle oxygenation dropped. They weren’t able to keep up with their oxygen consumption.
“Pedaling at cadence greater than 90 revolutions per minute is advantageous for professional cyclists, but appears inefficient for recreational cyclists,” lead author Federico Formenti, Ph.D., said in a press release.
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That’s not to say you can’t train yourself to be efficient at high cadences over time, as professionals and elite level riders often do, Formenti told Bicycling. He suspects that people who are not well trained in cycling as their primary sport may just be wasting energy trying to stabilize themselves and coordinate their muscle contractions pedaling at higher rpms than they’re accustomed to.
“If one is not trained at cycling and tries to spin very, very rapidly, there could be contraction of stabilizing and postural muscles to contain the ‘wobbling,’” Formenti said. Firing more muscles means higher oxygen demand overall.
As anyone who’s ever ridden with a power meter knows, you can produce the same wattage and go the same speed by pedaling 60 rpm, 100 rpm, or any other cadence. It’s all about the work you’re producing, what feels comfortable, and what you can sustain. That varies from person to person.
If your legs are giving out before your lungs, go to an easier gear and increase your cadence. If you’re gasping for air, but your legs are fine, switch to a harder gear and bring it down. Practice switching back and forth and pay attention to how you feel. It’ll help you find the right rpm for you to ride stronger longer.