If you’ve ever watched elite cyclists pedal, you’ve likely noticed how they glide along the road. Quickly, smoothly, efficiently. Their legs move in steady loops whether they’re going up a steep hill or riding on flat terrain. And a huge part of that ease is cadence.
Cadence is the rate at which a cyclist pedals. It’s the number of pedal revolutions per minute (RPMs). If you increase and train your cadence, you’ll improve your cycling efficiency, allowing you to pedal for longer, faster.
When you pedal faster, you put less strain (i.e. force) on your muscles with each stroke. You ride in a lower gear, and as a result, use your slow-twitch muscles. These muscles burn fat for fuel, are resistant to fatigue, and recover quickly when allowed to rest. Also, studies show a higher cadence means an increase in blood flow to the muscles – which in turn, means more oxygen in the blood and a higher aerobic performance.
On the other hand, a low cadence at a high gear is more taxing on the muscles. It uses fast-twitch muscles, which burn glycogen for fuel, fatigue quickly, and takes a long time to recover before they can be used again. In other words, muscle strength doesn’t last long, so you’ll start to feel the burn faster than at a higher cadence.
While you might think that pedaling faster would be harder on your cardiovascular system, but that isn’t the truth. The cardiovascular system is a highly efficient system. Unlike the muscular system, it doesn’t take long to recover, and it is only limited by its capacity – how much air it’s getting in at any given time – not by how much work has already been done.
So what’s the ideal cadence for a cyclist?
While there’s no one magic number, aiming for 90 RPM is a good goal to avoid leg fatigue and making the most out of those slow-twitch muscles. Average cyclists have a cadence of about 60 RPM; advanced and elite cyclists pedal anywhere from 80 to 100 RPMs.
All of that said, changing your cadence isn’t something you can do overnight – it takes months. Your body has adapted to your current cadence and changing it requires work from all of your body’s systems: neural, muscular, cardiovascular, metabolic, etc.
HOW TO DETERMINE + IMPROVE CADENCE
Regardless of whether you’re a recreational rider or a serious racer, practicing to ride at a higher cadence will make your pedal stroke more efficient. By maintaining a steady cadence throughout your ride, you’ll become a better rider. But remember, this doesn’t mean you need to pedal faster in the same gear. As you climb, adjust your gear, so it’s easier and keep your RPMs consistent.
Before you can increase your cadence, however, you need to determine where you currently stand.
There are multiple ways to determine your cadence. The most basic and straightforward – though not necessarily the most accurate – is to count the number of times your right knee comes up during a ride in 30 seconds and double it.
For a more exact number, the KICKR indoor bike trainer tracks your cadence as you ride and helps you stay within your target cadence. For outdoor cadence data try the RPM Cadence sensor or a power meter that also measures cadence.
In general, to improve your cadence, start off with shorter extreme efforts as well as longer more modest efforts. Why? According to Bike Roar, “By hitting cadence numbers beyond the norm, you’re training your brain to fire signals in the patterns required for your muscles to contract far more rapidly. Then when you hit normal numbers, it doesn’t seem as hard.”
Here are some drills to help you get a higher cadence:
This first drill is one of the simplest, most straightforward ways to improve your cadence. Lower your gear and increase your cadence by 5 RPMs for a portion of your next ride. Repeat on the following ride (and so on and so forth). That’s it!
To start this drill, begin by cycling on a low gear at your normal cadence, increasing your cadence until you “bounce” in the saddle. At this point, reduce your cadence slightly, so you no longer bounce. Continue with this cadence for one or two minutes before gradually slowing the cadence back down to your normal pace.
This is an hour-long workout you can do inside on a bike trainer, like the KICKR. First, warm-up with 10 minutes of easy spinning, then complete the following:
Single leg intervals: 3×5 min
- Minute 1: Right leg only
- Minute 2: Left leg only
- Minute 3: Both legs at as high a cadence as possible without bouncing
- Minutes 4-5: Recover
Progressive spin-ups: 2×10 min with 5 min recovery
- Start in a moderately hard gear with a comfortable cadence, around 75 RPM. Every 2 minutes, shift to an easier gear and increase the RPM by 5. Keep the speed or power the same as cadence increases.
Cool-down: 10 min easy spinning
For this drill, start at your normal cadence, and then shift to an easier gear two to three notches above what you would normally ride. Continue for five minutes at this new cadence (which should be between 90 and 120 RPMs) and return to your normal cadence. Try this several times during your ride during long flat sections.
While all these drills can be performed in or outdoors, training indoors on a bike trainer like KICKR can be one of the best ways to improve your cadence. You’ll be able to adjust and track your pedal power easily – without dealing with the unpredictability of the road. Also, a trainer also tracks your cadence for you – throughout your ride – so you won’t have to spend time estimating your RPMs on the road.
A few additional things to keep in mind while working on your cadence:
- Try to maintain the same speed or power as your shift to a higher cadence. This helps improve your cardio and provides a break for your muscles and joints.
- Keep your pedaling smooth, even as you start to get tired.
- If you start to bounce from pedaling faster, increase your gear slightly.
By regularly working on your cycling cadence, you’ll become a more efficient, faster, stronger rider. You’ll fatigue less and be able to go longer and harder.