This post came from a simple question from an athlete;
“What is the right cadence to be cycling at?”
A simple question indeed, but one that does not have a simple answer. I mulled over that question for several hours as I did not want to answer with the stock reply of “Generally cadence is individual.”
To start off we need to break power down into it’s constituent parts
Watts = Joules/Sec
When applied to cycling Watts is instantaneous power output. Joules is the muscular force applied to the pedals, and Seconds is our pedalling speed, otherwise known as Cadence.
So therefore to ride at a constant power, lowering cadence requires more muscular force.
Now, more force = more muscle stress = more fatigue.
Some could say therefore that riding at an excessively low cadence (less than 70 RPM) would increase the rate of fatigue in the muscles.
So why don’t we all ride at 120 RPM?
The stumbling block is that a higher cadence, generates a higher cardiovascular response. Meaning that at the same power at a higher cadence would result in a higher HR.
That is why most people recommend a cadence of 85-100 RPM, a nice mid-mid point that has a good balance between muscular fatigue and cardiovascular response.
Endurance sport relies on two major components. Muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance. More often than not, one of those elements will be your limiting factor. ie. your legs give up before your cardiovascular system, or your cardiovascular system gives up before your legs.
Once you have identified your limiting factor you can tailor your cadence to maximise your performance.
If your muscular fatigue is your limiting factor then a slightly higher cadence would reduce the muscular fatigue and help to balance things out.
The opposite would also apply, so that if your cardiovascular system was your limiting factor, lowering your cadence slightly would reduce the cardiovascular response and reduce HR for a given power at the expense of increased muscular fatigue.
Personally, I’d never want to be heading into a race with my cardiovascular system as my limiting factor. Muscular strength takes a lot of time and effort to develop, but gains in cardio can be made in a relatively short period of time.
I hope that has got you thinking, and maybe encouraged you to experiment with cadence. During this unique time, it’s a perfect opportunity to try new techniques as there is little risk in it effecting an upcoming event.
Everybody is different and everyone has a different riding style. I don’t believe that there is one optimum cadence for every single rider. Generally, a riders optimum cadence will sit between 80 and 110 RPM. But it would take some experimenting to find where in that range you perform best.