Whether it’s reducing muscular fatigue, conserving energy or riding at a higher power output, the pedal cadence you choose can have a big influence on how well you perform out on the road.
But is there really one ideal cadence that can work for all cyclists? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of high- and low-pedal cadence styles so you can decide which one is right for you.
PROS & CONS OF HIGH CADENCE
Pedaling at a higher cadence simply means using an easier (or lower) gear to pedal above 90 revolutions per minute (rpm) to achieve a similar power output as a lower cadence. If you’re a fan of the Tour de France, you’ve probably seen pros dating back as far as Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong utilize a high cadence on the way to victory. Today the trend continues, with Tour de France winner Chris Froome swearing by his high-cadence style.
The argument for high cadence (in the 95–110 rpm range) is centered around the fact that because there is less stress placed on the muscles, you can pedal longer and reduce your time to fatigue — particularly when pedaling at high-power outputs. Pedaling quicker also means you’ll get more blood flow to the muscles, and more oxygen in the bloodstream means you’ll be able to carry waste away from the muscles more easily.
But, like anything else, pedaling quicker has its drawbacks — especially for those of us not pedaling with high-power outputs. While it won’t task your muscles as much as pedaling at 60 rpms might, it will place extra stress on your cardiovascular and respiratory system. This extra stress can raise your heart rate and eventually cause you to slow down if you haven’t properly adapted your aerobic capacity through training — which can take years.
In fact, in one study by the University of Oxford, scientists showed that using a high-cadence style for all but those at the highest level can waste up to 60% of your energy stores. While a high-cadence style may be beneficial in certain instances, it’s definitely not the answer for everyone.
PROS & CONS OF A LOW CADENCE
Generally, a lower cadence is considered anything in the 70–85 rpm range. While it might not be as popular, cyclists like Alberto Contador and Jan Ullrich are proponents of using a lower cadence — particularly when riding up long, steep climbs.
While the rpms aren’t extremely low, they place more of the effort on the muscles while taxing the cardiovascular system a little less. The heart rate will be lower and your breathing will be a little less rapid. But, because it can cause more muscular fatigue, choosing a gear that can be maintained for an extended effort is one important key to success.
If you get your effort right, a slightly slower cadence can be the sweet spot you’re looking for — taxing the muscular and cardiovascular system equally as you utilize muscular endurance. In this scenario, neither system is overloaded and you tap into both to get you to the finish. But if you get it wrong, you could risk bonking or fatiguing the muscles to a point that makes it hard to recover.
WHAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU?
There is no perfect cadence that’s right for everyone. Your style of riding, genetics and strengths and weakness as a cyclist ultimately determine what cadence range you choose to ride in most of the time.
For instance, if one of your strengths as a cyclist is your cardiovascular system, a high cadence might work well. On the other hand, if you’ve got thunder thighs and power to burn but your cardiovascular fitness is your weakness, opting for a lower cadence in the 80–85 rpm range might be a smart choice.
Just beware that when competitive cyclists like those in the Tour de France choose a cadence it can often be slightly more complicated. When pedaling at a higher power output, a higher cadence can allow you to adapt to constant changes in terrain and attacks from your competitors a bit easier, while maintaining high speed on a flat road in a time trial may lend itself more to lower cadences instead.
Because there are advantages and disadvantages to various cadence ranges, it’s important for all cyclists attempting to improve fitness and performance to train your body to be well rounded. Being adaptable and training your muscular endurance along with your cardiovascular fitness ultimately helps you to become a stronger, faster cyclist.
And while it’s true that every cyclist will have a natural cadence that falls somewhere just above or below 90 rpms, training your body for the extremes at each end during your weekly workouts is a good idea. Incorporating high- and low-cadence intervals is ideal for improving overall fitness, and doing so might also give you a better understanding of which end of the spectrum you prefer.