If you read about cycling or have worked with a coach, you have likely been told to pedal quickly, perhaps at 90 rotations per minute or higher. This common recommendation is good as a general rule but the optimal cadence doesn’t need to always be used. In training, it is very likely we could all benefit from exploring the ends of our cadence range to elicit improvements in our fitness.
While high-rpm drills are very common at spin class, it is rare to find cyclists who include low-rpm intervals in their preparation. This is despite many coaches using these intervals frequently and studies suggesting low-cadence intervals (done at high workloads) can be quite effective at improving performance, especially in trained cyclists who have already adapted to riding frequently with their preferred cadence.
WHAT IS CADENCE?
There’s no hard and fast rule for exactly what constitutes high-, low- or medium-cadences, so you could argue it is discipline and athlete dependant. But as a general guide:
- < 70 is low cadence
- 70–90 is medium
- > 90 rpm is high
Most people’s natural cadence — the most comfortable place to pedal — falls somewhere in the medium range. And, most of the time, that’s great, but it is likely you can benefit from using low cadence as an extra stimulus in your training, and to train specifically for low-cadence moments in your riding and racing.
WHEN TO INCLUDE LOW-CADENCE DRILLS?
If you find your cadence is always very high and steep climbs or accelerations are tough, lower-rpm workouts can help. If your upcoming races require steep climbs or sudden stops and starts (like a technical mountain bike race), then low-cadence drills might help you excel on tough courses. And if you often find yourself getting dropped either at the start of races, on climbs or during accelerations (like stop signs) then putting in time at low rpm may be for you.
If you are prone to soreness and injury then gradually adding hard, lower-rpm efforts may help increase your tolerance to the forces of hard riding, but make sure to work with a physio or coach on this. The secret is that the low-rpm drills can’t just be coffee shop spins; they also need to be very hard, over threshold to gain the benefits. These hard efforts are very challenging mentally and physically, so ease in.
Beginner and novice cyclists can do very well just by riding on a variety of terrains and surfaces. Including some challenging hills, learning to stand, climb and shift smoothly is the first priority. Similarly, those with a low cadence (< 80 rpm) will also want to focus on using a higher cadence to help improve efficiency, accelerations and your power on the flats. A final group, those with knee pain, will want to avoid adding low rpm work until they can consult with a coach or physiotherapist to gradually add it to their routine.
HOW TO DO LOW-RPM INTERVALS
Low-cadence drills generally include words like ‘stomping,’ ‘force’ or ‘muscle tension’ and are used by many coaches and training systems, but, like anything, when you apply this stimulus depends on where you are in your athletic development and your season.
My favorite low-RPM intervals are 1–4-minute efforts done at maximum perceived effort (over your threshold), trying to keep cadence at approximately 60 rpm (you can use your stopwatch seconds to help time your cadence if you don’t have a cadence sensor). Simply pedal very hard and steady while seated and go up a hill at 60 rpm. Try to cover more ground each time, fight the urge to rock your shoulders and head too much, and really focus on using your hips to get more power.
A DRILL TO TRY
Jim Rutberg, author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist,” is also a huge fan of low cadence for efficient training and likes using it during even casual rides. “One of the best low-cadence drills is an over-geared acceleration from a near standstill, and this is also very easily incorporated into a commute or an urban/semi-urban ride with a bunch of stop signs and stop lights,” he says.
Find a hard-ish gear, and stay seated and focused on tightening your core and stabilizing your shoulders and arms so your upper body is quiet while you direct all power through your hips and legs. Accelerate the gear you’re in for 15–20 seconds or until you’re spun out, whichever comes first.
“From a performance standpoint, acceleratory power is crucial for getting back up to speed quickly following a corner on the road bike, a patch of soft sand/gravel during a gravel ride or a rough patch on the mountain bike,” Rutberg notes. “If you can accelerate quickly, with fewer pedal strokes, you can stay on the wheel in a group ride or race, which conserves energy in long run, compared to having to catch up after every corner.”
Rutberg adds that riders should pay close attention to their pedal strokes during these drills: “While the vast majority of the power comes in the downstroke, consciously try to extend the powerful range of your downstroke by focusing on kicking your foot forward over the top and dragging it backward through the bottom of the stroke.”