Anyone that’s watched the Tour de France will have noticed that some cyclists turn their pedals much faster that others. Scapegoat for a generation, Lance Armstrong, was notorious for spinning a low gear with lots of revolutions. Chris Froome is the modern day spinner. At the other end of the spectrum, Jan Ullrich, always pushed a big gear. For our younger readers, Frenchman Damien Gaudin is the quintessential big gear pusher, with pretty good effect (just watch some footage from this year’s Tro-Bro Leon to see what we mean…)
So why do different riders favour different cadences, and does it matter to the everyday triathlete looking to maximise their performance in the local club race? (The answer’s yes).
What is cadence?
Quite simply, cycling cadence is the number of revolutions of the cranks per minute and is expressed as revolutions per minute (rpm). Put your bike in a lower gear and you will need to spin the pedals more times to achieve the same distance than if you were riding a bigger gear. In the higher gear, less revolutions will cover the same distance but more power will be required.
Of course, there’s a lot more to efficient pedaling than finding the right cadence.
We don’t really want to get in to the finer details of pedaling efficiency and technique here. There are lots of studies and advice pages and forum posts and on and on and… that cover this subject and for now we’ll leave it at that. If you’re interested, have a look here or may be even here!
Finding the right gear for you
No two cyclists are made alike. That’s why it’s important to find the right cadence for you rather than trying to emulate your personal hero (even if your hero is still Lance…)
There is no perfect cadence. A cadence of 80-100rpm is usually quoted as the normal range. And most cyclists will spend the majority of their ride time in that window.
In the example below, you’ll see that one of our FSA-coached athletes completing an over/under gear session was working 3-4bpm harder for the same normalised power at a cadence of 75-77rpm when compared to a cadence of 95rpm. Keeping a lower heart rate to achieve the same power output is obviously the goal here so efficiency-wise this athlete is going to do better at the higher cadence.
Experimenting in your training to see what works best for you is the best way to work out the cadence range that suits you best. Having power, cadence and heart rate data can really help with this, but it’s also just as worthwhile recording how things feel at different cadences.
Having said all that, training at different cadences will benefit most triathletes by preparing you to cope with a range of terrains, conditions, road surfaces and race situations. Big gear intervals will develop strength. Small gear or single leg intervals can help to improve pedaling efficiency.
There are a few physical factors, like getting the right bike fit and crank length for your body shape, that also influence pedaling cadence. That’s a topic for another blog.
Is it different for triathletes?
There is one big difference between cadence for triathletes and cyclists. At the end of a bike ride, a cyclist will usually hit the cafe for an espresso. A triathlete has to get off their bike and run anywhere between 5km and 42.2km as fast as they can. Does this make any difference to what sort of cadence a triathlete should be riding?
You’ll get lots of advice to spin the last few kms of the bike leg to “flush the lactic acid out of you legs“. I haven’t seen any studies that confirm this and, in all honesty, I have absolutely no idea whether you’re flushing anything by doing this, but I do know from years and years of practice that animating the legs through a higher, easier gear will get them turning over better at the start of the run.
For the majority of the bike leg, I’ve yet to see any real evidence that a higher or lower cadence is really any better for triathletes (when compared to cyclists). Looking at pro triathletes, you see just the same range of cadence styles as you do in the pro peloton.
Here are a couple of sessions that will help you work on your cadence:
Session 1 – High cadence intervals (60 mins)
This session is designed to work on high cadence for an improved pedal efficiency
- 10 min easy warm up
- 15 minutes as 1 min right leg only; 1 min left leg only; 1 minute easy spin
- 2×10 minutes increasing cadence with 5 minute recovery (start at 75rpm and increase by 5rpm every 2 minutes)
- 10 minute easy spin cool down
Session 2 – Over and under gear intervals (90 mins)
This session is designed to work on a range of cadences to build strength and efficiency
- 15 min warm up – increase effort every 5 minutes
- 8x(4min hard; 4 min easy). Alternate the hard efforts as odds overgearing <80rpm; evens undergearing >90rpm)
- 12 minute cool down – decrease effort every 3 minutes
Get in touch if you want either of these workout as TrainingPeaks or Zwift workout files. I can e-mail them to you.
Working on optimising your cadence may sound like something only the pros need to worry about, but any triathlete can get benefits from working on building pedal efficiency and strength at a range of cadences, whilst also experimenting with different cadences to work out what just feels right. Here at FSA Coaching, we can help you with a range of sessions, skills and drills to build your pedaling strength and efficiency. Get in touch if you’re keen to work with us!
And check out this video from the guys at GCN for some great insight…!