Cycling Cadence in Training and Racing

Option #3: Standing = power spike = high fast-twitch recruitment = you know the drill. From riding with a powermeter for many years I can tell you that if you don't have a meter it is VERY difficult to stand in the saddle and not toss out huge watts for a brief amount of time. It might "feel" ok, but chances are very high that you just burned a few matches with your little burst.

Option #4: Bingo! Spin up the hill, burn slow, not fast matches so you can use those matches on the run, burning the last one as you cross the finish line.

What Is the Optimal Cadence?

So I've sold you on the value of high cadence v. low cadence. But what is the optimal cadence. In my experience, most athletes should ride at a cadence of 88-95+ rpm. A few notes here:

  • Notice that this cadence is right in line with our optimal running cadence. I believe it is hard to run off the bike at 90+ rpm if you've been cycling for hours at 80 rpm. You're asking your legs to make a huge adjustment, in addition to the difficulty of transitioning from cycling to running.
  • More experienced and stronger cyclists will be comfortable within a wide range of cadences. When I began cycling, anything under 88 rpm felt like mashing, while 95+ felt too fast. I was always searching for that right gear. Now, after many, many miles, I can ride equally comfortably at 78-82 or 100-105. My tool kit is much larger (see below).

Cadence and Training

Some coaches prescribe low-cadence intervals as a method to train your body to push harder on the pedals. However, consider the importance of specificity: if you want to run longer, run longer; if you want to swim faster, swim faster; if you want to ride the bike farther, ride the bike farther. If you want to ride the bike faster at 92 rpm, then ride the bike fast (high watts, i.e. greater work output) at 92 rpm.

Having said that, both low- and high-cadence work are useful for increasing your "cadence comfort," or your comfort within a wide range of cadences. By this I mean you have strong, resilient, well-adapted legs that can handle a broad range of cadences, including that high force/high wattage contraction that may happen if you run out gears, decide to climb out of the saddle, etc. You have a large tool kit to handle a broad range of conditions.

The most common tool is a period of low cadence intervals fitted into the early season. My guidance:

Beginner: Useful tool early season for developing sport-specific strength and "cadence comfort" quickly in their cycling careers.

Intermediate: Useful early season, see above. However, after four to six weeks of low-cadence intervals, transition to lactate-threshold intervals at normal, time-trial cadence. Reserve low cadence for fartlek-style training: Grind up a hill at random, to build or retain this cadence comfort.

Advanced: High watts at race-specific cadence is more useful. These athletes have already developed cadence comfort and a period of low-cadence intervals, I believe, is often an unnecessary step. I reserve low-cadence work for:

  1. Fartlek, see above.
  2. The last hour of long rides, to force recruitment of fast-twitch fibers when they are already on the edge.

Athletes training with power: The ability to measure watts while cycling at very low cadences creates possible exceptions to this guidance.

The power-training athlete can truly turn his bike into a piece of gym equipment and is, I believe, more justified in adding low-cadence intervals to his training routine.

In Summary

1.Focus your training to develop speed (wattage) at your race-specific cadence, the cadence you plan to race at. My suggestion is 88-92+ rpm, with weaker, less experienced cyclists targeting the high end of this range.

2. Supplement this race-specific training with informal low-cadence/out-of-the-saddle work to build this resiliency above and expand your range of comfortable cadences. See my guidance above for how to build low-cadence intervals into your particular training season.

3. Bring the proper gearing to the race! And when in doubt, bring more gears! I think a compact crank is an excellent tool for all cyclists to consider.

4. Bring these fast, strong, resilient legs to the race. Put them on a bike with the proper gearing. Exercise smart, disciplined pacing and climbing skills to limit the number of matches you burn on the bike course, burning that last match at the finish line!


Rich Strauss is the head coach of Crucible Fitness, a Joe Friel Ultrafit Associate and a USAT Level I certified coach. Since 2001 Rich has specialized in training, coaching and racing the Ironman distance, having coached more than 150 Ironman finishers and delivered pre-race talks to more than 450 athletes at IMNA races. Rich makes his training knowledge and experience available to all athletes, for all distances, through a series of high quality and affordable training plans for only $79 each. Features include more than 70 pages of supporting documentation, a copy of the Swim Clinic E-Book and continued support via a secure message board. Visit www.cruciblefitness.com for more details.


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