High Cadence Riding With Pick It Up!

Our thirteenth indoor cycle training title, Pick It Up! represents a little bit of a departure from our earlier titles. For one thing, Pick It Up! puts the focus on high-cadence, light-resistance tempo riding. This is the first Ride Fit title to focus exclusively on these cadences and it's designed to encourage users to strive for higher cadence levels for reasons that will be explained below. Secondly, the workout features "rolling-road" rather than first-person video footage. This happened a little by accident. We were scouting new shooting venues in Central California and came across the June Lake Loop just north of Mammoth Lakes off Interstate 395. Since the scenery was so stunning, we did not want to waste the opportunity of filming segments of this drive and without riders on hand, filming was done with a vehicle-mounted camera. A YouTube trailer for this title can be found below.

Cadence and Power
Before we discuss why you might want to consider riding with a higher cadence, let's define cadence and how cadence relates to developed power.

Quite simply, cadence is the number of revolutions of the crank per minute or put another way the rate at which a cyclist is turning the pedals. Further, it can be shown that the Power (measured in watts) required to move your bike down the road is defined as Power = Torque x Cadence, where Torque = Force x Distance; or how hard you press on the pedals multiplied by the number of times per minute you apply this force.

Now consider two identical cyclists (same weight, bikes, gearing, etc.) riding together on the same road under the same conditions at the same speed. If they're riding at the same speed, they must be doing the same work and therefore developing the identical power. If one cyclist is "grinding" away at 65rpm and the other is "spinning" at 95rpm, the cyclist who is grinding must be pressing much harder on the pedals with each stroke to make up for the fact he's doing it less frequently. The cyclist who is spinning at 95rpm is pushing the pedals with much lighter force but needs to do it much more frequently.

What Does This Mean?
So what does it mean for your leg muscles if you're the grinder or the spinner in the example above? Well to generate higher forces, your leg muscles must recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibers verses slow-twitch fibers. It has been shown that slow-twitch fiber:

  • Primarily burn fat for fuel - almost limitless for even the leanest athlete;
  • Are very resistant to fatigue: they are built to go and go, all day;
  • Recover quickly when allowed to rest.

Whereas fast-twitch fibers:

  • Burn glycogen for fuel - glycogen is stored within the muscles and is in relatively short supply (about 2000 calories for a well-trained, well-fueled athlete);
  • Fatigue quickly and are not built to go all day;
  • Take a long time to recover before they can be used again.

This explains that, while typical recreational and club cyclists pedal around 60-80rpm, pro cyclists typically pedal at around 90-110rpm during flat and long group stages and at or above 70rpm on all but the steepest of climbs. Clearly, there's a good reason to pedal faster - you're using muscle fibers that don't fatigue so easily. What the pros do is a testament to the fact, that in general, cycling in a lower gear and pedaling with a higher cadence can yield better overall performance than grinding away with a slower cadence and bigger gear.

Higher Cadence Requires Good Technique
So why aren't we all pedaling with higher cadence - for sure we all want to feel less fatigued?

The challenge with riding at a high cadence is it requires good riding technique. Further, there are limits above which even the best rider will not be able to maintain the excellent form required and therefore there's an upper limit to where you can be comfortable. Again, taking our cue from pro's that's likely to be around 90rpm on long tempo stages.

Below are some tips on improving your high cadence riding performance:

  • Make sure your bike is correctly setup - your local bike store or spin instructor can help you with this;
  • Watch your pedaling action on the bike - your legs should go straight up and down like pistons and not be varying from side-to-side;
  • To boost your cadence and ride at higher cadence levels you need to start with an efficient pedal stroke. Aim to have equal pressure for the entire 360 degrees of your pedal stroke - don't let your powerful muscles dominate the downstroke;
  • Single leg drills, isolating either the right or left leg, can be very effective for learning a full and complete pedal stroke;
  • Next, make sure you don't bounce on the saddle - it's very important to keep your hips as still as possible, Relaxation is one of the keys to pedaling at a high cadence without bouncing;
  • If you start bouncing back-off 5rpm, regain your form and then when ready try again;
  • Once you've developed an efficient pedal stroke and don't bounce then begin to focus on boosting pedal speed and thus increasing cadence;
  • Watch experienced professional cyclists pedal - you will get a real feel for the fluidity of movement needed and the correct ride position you should be maintaining.

If you're really serious about getting the best from your pedaling stroke seek professional help. As well as working on your bike setup, best body position, a professional will be able to video your pedaling action and make suggestions for change.

Optimum Cadence

In addition to using the Pick It Up! workout video to determine what cadence feels most comfortable for you, you can also perform some simple tests to determine your optimal cadence.

The easiest way to determine your optimal cadence is by performing a time trial multiple times, using a different cadence each time. After a suitable warm-up, use your turbo trainer or spin bike at a set speed or power for ten minutes in a gear/level that allows your cadence to be approximately 75rpm. When finished record your perceived exertion (definition of perceived exertion can be found here http://www.cyclingscience.org/borgrpe.htm). Ride easy for 15-20 minutes and then perform another time trial, selecting a gear/level yielding a cadence around 90rpm for the same speed/power. Again, at the end of your ten-minute session note your perceived effort.

A couple of days later, perform the same test again but this time do the first time trial at a high cadence and the second time trial at the lower cadence. Now you can compare the data. Whichever cadence produced lower perceived effort values is closest to your ideal cadence.

Repeat at different cadence pairs until you find your optimum RPM.

In Summary
While there's no cadence "magic number", there is a wide consensus that higher cadences around 90rpm can help you reduce leg fatigue. Since most of us typically ride with a lower cadence, use Pick It Up! to help get more comfortable with higher cadence riding and define your optimal RPM number.

Remember the "right" cadence will be different for everyone, and you'll probably vary your cadence depending on the terrain, so you don't have to panic maintaining an exact number all the time. If you can't seem to pick a favorite RPM, err on the high cadence side, just below the point where you can't breathe steadily.

Tags: indoor cycling, spinning, spin, turbo trainer, cadence, high cadence, RPM, cycling power, cycling technique, cycling instruction, winter training