When we first start cycling, someone will inevitably tell us to use a higher cadence. This is generally good advice for a beginning cyclist, who will likely pedal slower because they aren’t familiar with — or coordinated in — the cycling motion yet. But as we get used to cycling and those pesky shifters, we graduate to intermediate status.
Spinning with a high cadence can be efficient and help save energy: you can see this by watching the Tour de France racers pedal quickly in the peloton using cadences that are relatively high or track cyclists using very high cadences to power around the velodrome. The key for ‘regular’ riders who are not pros is to learn to pedal efficiently in a range where they produce the most power and meet the demands of their discipline. In training, developing a wider ‘effective’ cadence range helps you rocket down descents that push you into your hardest gear, and also grind up steep grades that max out your gearing.
Here are four common symptoms of spinning above your optimal cadence range:
SYMPTOM #1: YOU RIDE IN ‘GRANNY GEAR’ ALL DAY, EVERY DAY
If you ride in your easiest gears a lot and shift down at the first sign of a hill, you are likely over-spinning. While using your easiest gears is not a bad thing, it becomes a problem if you aren’t using them as properly. We want to make sure we are keeping our cadence in a reasonable range. If you have driven a car with a standard transmission, this is like dropping to first gear when you are moving quickly: The car whines very loudly because you have mismatched your rpm to your speed. On the bike, you would likely spin erratically or with large ‘clunks’ in your pedal stroke, or you might even stop pedaling for an instant as you come into the climb. This over-spinning reduces your speed and momentum as you come into a climb and keeping that high cadence requires extra effort to get up rolling climbs that a proper cadence would have let you roll right over.
READ MORE > 5 SIGNS YOUR CADENCE IS TOO LOW
SYMPTOM #2: YOU AVERAGE VERY HIGH RPM
Using a cadence sensor and a bike computer, you can see your exact cadence while you ride and also assess your average for a ride or interval. The numbers you see will be specific to your body, your strength and your event goals, but most cyclists should aim to be efficient in the 80–100 rpm range. There are exceptions (track cycling, single speed, time trials, low rpm drills, etc.) but if you are creeping above 100 or below 80 rpm during intervals or rides, assess if you are doing so intentionally, and whether you could improve your performance by adjusting your cadence. For some athletes, this preferred cadence is ‘bad’ but may just mean they are coasting too much and missing the chance to boost their fitness and sustainable cadence by focusing on steady pedaling.
SYMPTOM #3: YOU RARELY USE YOUR BIG/HARD GEARS
Inevitably, we go downhill and shift into the big ring, and our ‘hardest’ gears help us keep our bike moving steadily and allow us to accelerate against an appropriate gear rather than spinning wildly at high speeds. If you find yourself spinning like crazy and going to stand up to sprint but immediately sitting back down because you have no gear to push against, that is a sign you need to be shifting to harder gears sooner. Using our standard car analogy, we want to be up in fifth gear when we are on the highway, not in third with the engine squealing!
SYMPTOM #4: YOU HATE CLIMBS AND DON’T STAND UP
A classic sign of over-spinning is the intense hatred of climbs. (Not to be confused with a normal slight hatred of climbs!) It is often the sensation of pushing hard on the pedals that these riders are seeking to avoid. To fix this, your first goal is to climb more. After a few weeks of riding more hills, start adding intensity in the form of repeats on the same hill, where you can play with gear choice (or specific cadence goals) and track your wattage as well as your time up the hill. This performance output is what we are concerned with. To climb hills better, you will want to use your optimal cadence. For over-spinners, an additional intervention can be to add lower cadence work with short sets around 60–70 rpms to try and pull your preferred cadence down into that 80–100 rpm range. The higher muscle tension at a low cadence trains your muscles to work there, but can also trick your brain to accept the sensation of higher muscle tension and be comfortable with moderate ranges in the hills or on the flats.
Developing coordination on the bike is a skill that takes practice, but if you pay attention to how you use your gears, you’ll quickly pinpoint places where you’re being inefficient with your cadence. Fix that, and you can avoid spinning too high and wasting your valuable energy.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT RIDE