A lot has changed in the world of professional cycling in the last 30 years, from faster bikes and new technology, to smarter training and better nutrition.
If you watch an old Tour de France stage (and I mean old, like circa 1990), you’ll notice a big difference in the riders’ cadence—practically all the guys back then would slap it in the biggest gear possible and grind away. It was thought that if you could ride the biggest gear for longer, then you’d go the fastest. But the 65 RPM smash fest of yesteryear seems almost quaint after watching Chris Froome pedal away from the pack at 100 RPM on Mont Ventoux.
The first prolific rider to adopt a high cadence was Lance Armstrong, and over the years, most elite riders have followed suit. But what is it that makes a high cadence more effective? And is it really more effective for every rider?
High vs. low cadence
For many years, scientific studies showed that a low cadence was actually more economical (meaning that the riders consumed less oxygen for a given power output). But most of these studies assumed a power output well below what you’d expect in the final of a race. One study found that as power output increased, the most economical cadence also increased—which could explain why it feels more natural to do VO2 intervals or sprints at 90 to 100 RPM, but uncomfortable to maintain that cadence at an endurance pace.
The same study also found that the muscles were far less fatigued at 100 RPM than at 60 RPM while pedaling at 360 Watts. This finding corroborates a Japanese study addressing the “neuromuscular fatigue” experienced by cyclists. What they found is that at the end of a long ride, the nerves sending impulses to active muscle become fatigued, and this causes them to become less excitable so the muscles are unable to contract as powerfully.
Low cadence may require less oxygen, but it creates more neuromuscular fatigue, reduced lactate clearance, and an increased dependence on fast-twitch muscle fibers. High cadence, on the other hand, requires less muscle activation, but it usually comes at a higher energy cost at lower power outputs.
Cadence and rider type
So what is the right cadence for you? It depends both on what type of rider you are, and the goals you’re trying to achieve. A powerful, muscular rider will typically select a lower cadence. This rider accepts the higher neuromuscular cost in exchange for the metabolic economy when he or she pedals. Other riders may have a very high VO2 max, but less resilient muscles. These riders will prefer to pedal at a higher cadence in order to limit muscular fatigue, yet they also put more demand on the cardiovascular system. Of course, many of us will fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
Implications for sprinters
If you consider yourself a sprinter, it may be worth examining your preferred cadence. As we discussed earlier, a lower cadence creates a higher demand on the fast-twitch muscle fibers essential for sprinting. If you tend to grind a lower cadence, practicing spinning a higher cadence will help save your sprint legs for the end of the race.
What does this look like? Spinning is the name of the game. Going out for a flat endurance ride and riding at a cadence of 90 to 100 RPM will help make this second nature. This familiarity will translate into racing and help you save those precious fast-twitch muscles for when they are needed most.
Implications for climbers
In the cycling world, it’s typically the climbers and GC riders who have the highest VO2 max. Climbers also tend to be slightly less muscular than other riders. Because of this, a climber may feel more comfortable at a high cadence because it’s less taxing on the muscles — but if the rider is not proficient at holding a low cadence, they may not be able to generate power for long periods on a decisive climb. Training the muscles to become more resilient at low cadences can help to improve this area.
How can climbers practice this? These riders can benefit from low cadence muscle tension intervals. Longer intervals of five to 10 minutes at 75 to 85 percent of threshold and 50 to 60 RPM can help build the foundation. Shorter intervals at or above threshold can be performed as race-specific intervals during the season.
Low Cadence For Sprint Training
Since low cadence is more demanding on fast-twitch fibers, it can help to improve sprint performance. If you are a sprinter who naturally spins a higher gear, incorporating low cadence work can be used to train your sprint. Low cadence, regular weight lifting in the gym, and sprints on the bike is a great way to improve your sprint performance.
Improving Neuromuscular Endurance
One thing that causes fatigue at the end of a long ride is your nervous system’s ability to contract active muscle—and as a result, your muscles will fire less powerfully. Incorporating short, maximal low cadence sprint efforts and muscle tension intervals at the end of a long endurance ride can help to activate these neuromuscular pathways. This sort of training can teach the body to tap into these pathways even when fatigued, giving you ‘extra muscle’ at the end of a race.
By examining your tendencies and your event goals, you can identify what type of cadence training will be most effective for your training plan. A well-rounded training plan will often incorporate a wide spectrum of cadence training in order to create proficiency on all types of terrain. It’s certainly worth taking some time to think about your strengths and weaknesses as a rider, and how you can use cadence training to more effectively prepare for your goal event.
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