Coach Talk: Getting Nerdy About Cadence
Last week, I spoke with Julie Krasniak about the benefits of working to increase cadence. She gave some interesting insights about how it has helped her along the way and how/if it can benefit normal schmucks like me. This week, we dig a little into the nerdy scientific side of cadence with Russell Cree, a Physical Therapist and Cycling Coach who owns Upper Echelon Fitness and Rehabilitation in Portland, OR.
Here’s what he had to say:
We could debate the benefits of slower or faster cadences, but I’d leave it at this: It’s good to understand the use of different cadences and to determine what cadence is best for your abilities and goals. I won’t say one cadence is better across the board, because that’s not true, but I will recommend paying attention to cadence and working some drills into your training.
Think about your goals and ambitions. If you are a competitive road cyclist, you should work on high cadence and high force. This is the skill-set needed to be smooth in the peloton, to accelerate with the surges of the pack, and to sprint and attack. If you are training for a European cycling tour with lot’s of mountains, then I’d recommend incorporating low cadence/high force intervals into your training.
Now, why do different disciplines use different techniques? Two reasons: physiological benefit and equipment constraints. For flat road racing, gearing is plentiful so a rider can pedal as fast or slow as they choose. Pedaling faster means lower force for the same given wattage. The philosophy here is less force leads to recruitment bias of aerobic muscle fibers. Utilizing aerobic energy means longer endurance and sparing of glycogen (sugar) based metabolism. So pedal faster to pedal longer. [i.e. Your heart and lungs can take repeated punishment for long periods of time and they recovery quickly after hard efforts, while your muscles will fatigue relatively quickly]. Also, a smooth, fast cadence keeps you from getting bogged down in your gearing with fluctuations in pace in the field.
On the other hand, a slower cadence taxes your high-force-producing skeletal muscles, specifically your quads, which burn glycogen for fuel, which is stored in the muscles and is in relatively short supply. For this reason, these big muscles will tire more easily and recover less quickly than your heart and lungs. These anaerobic efforts should be used sparingly, as that is a limited energy source. For individual time trials, one might use a lower cadence because the race will be over quickly and using glycogen might be a good strategy.
Training and intervals are most often described in terms of metabolic intensity and time periods. For example, 2 x 20 minute intervals at 88-92% of Threshold with a 10 minute rest interval. This is excellent and we use intervals like this all the time! But also think about the neuromuscular demand of cycling as they relate to cadence. Different disciplines will have different demands and your intervals should reflect this.
By using power meters, athletes and trainers are getting more and more detailed with their programs. By power, we mean watts. Wattage = force x cadence. For a given wattage, you’ve got two options then, right? You can pedal harder or you can pedal faster. What is best for you? There are 4 types options for technique:
• High Cadence, High Force -> Example: Sprinting
• High Cadence, Low force -> Example: Mass Start road racing, in a peloton
• Low Cadence, Low Force ->Example: Recovery ride
• Low Cadence, High Force -> Example: Mt Biking, steep road climbing
This has changed a lot over the years! In the 1980s, ten-speeds were all we had! Since then, the gears have more then doubled, with 22 gears on a many modern road bikes. And the largest cog in the rear was once a 23 tooth sprocket paired with a 39 inner front ring. Now, we have a compact front set, which is perfect for most riders. Why so many cyclists think they need the same gearing as Alberto Contador, I do not know! Compact is an excellent option for most cyclists living anywhere with hills. And the cassettes have a huge amount of options now. You can now go up to a 32 tooth gear in the back cassette, making it possible to maintain a higher cadence up steep hills. This technology is out there and should be a serious consideration when setting up your bike.
Now that you’ve thought about your goals and the neuromuscular demands, AND you’ve put the proper gearing on your bike, you are ready to start incorporating this into your training. There are many different ways to do this, but here are a few drills.
• High Cadence Drills: Pedal as fast as you can for 30-60 second intervals without bouncing or rocking and then rest for 60 seconds. Repeat this 3-5 times per ride. Note your average high cadence during the intervals and you should see this improve over the next 4-6 weeks.
• Big Gear Intervals: From a stop or slow speed, shift into the biggest gear that will allow you to reach 100rpm in 10 seconds. Stay seated, with a stable core and controlled breathing, and push hard on your pedals to accelerate to 100rpm as fast as you can. Stop to rest after 10 seconds, then repeat after 1 minute rest interval. Repeat 5-10 times.
• Climbing Intervals: Keeping a steady wattage/pace, alternate 1 minute standing at 70-80rpm and 1 minute sitting at 90-110rpm. Do this for the duration of a 10-20 minute hill with a moderate grade.
To summarize, cadence is not to be overlooked. It’s a key component to being an efficient cyclist and should be addressed in your preparation. Consider the demands of your discipline and work this into your training for an increase in your fitness, health, and performance.
About Russell Cree, DPT
Russell is a Physical Therapist and Cycling Coach at Upper Echelon Fitness and Rehabilitation in Portland, OR. He uses his background in cycling training, bike fitting, and Physical Therapy to train and rehab all levels of cyclists and triathletes. More information: www.UpperEchelon.com
You can read part one, “Pro Tips: Talking Cadence with Julie Krasniak” here.