When you start cycling, there’s a whole glossary of jargon to get your head around, and one of the most cryptic terms is “cadence”. What is cadence and why is it important to your riding?
What is cadence?
Cadence is fundamentally very simple: it’s the number of revolutions your pedals make per minute as you ride. But you don’t have to spend too long cycling to see that riders will often pedal at different rates.
Watch a bunch of pros in a race and they’ll seem to be pedalling really fast, particularly on a flat course. Their cadence will typically be very high, often 100 revolutions per minute (rpm) or more.
Most will be pedalling slightly slower on a climb, but still much faster than the average cyclist. Chris Froome’s extreme climbing style is a prime example of this, with a cadence still often around 100rpm even going uphill.
On the other hand, the average recreational rider will typically pedal much slower, at around 60rpm, while a fit amateur might be doing 80 to 90rpm.
Does it matter whether you have a high or low cadence? Let’s take a closer look at why cadence matters, how you measure cadence and whether there’s an ideal cadence to aim for.
Why is cadence important?
Cadence is a key measurement because it’s a vital component in the power you put out on the bike. After all, power is a calculation of how hard you push on the pedals (torque) multiplied by how fast you are turning them (cadence).
Cycling at a lower cadence typically puts more strain on your muscles, while a higher cadence shifts the load more to your cardiovascular system, says Dr Xavier Disley of AeroCoach, who has researched cycling efficiency and cadence, working with a number of elite cyclists.
If you have a more muscular build, you’re likely to be more comfortable at a lower cadence, while a wiry rider will probably want to push a lower gear at higher revs. There’s an energy cost to just turning the legs, which will vary with your physique, Disley points out.
Experiments have shown that trying to ride faster at a lower cadence (in a high/difficult gear) is more likely to lead to muscle strains and muscle soreness after a ride than achieving the same speed at a faster cadence, but with a lower load.
On the other hand, too fast a cadence and you’re likely to find your pelvis rocking, which could lower pedalling efficiency. You’ll also tire quickly.
The simplest way to measure your cadence is just to count how many times your legs go up and down in a minute. But for a more accurate record, there are electronic devices (cadence sensors) you can use.
Many cadence sensors for bikes are designed to attach to the left-side chainstay. A magnet attached to your crank arm passes the sensor, which in turn records how many times it goes past and then sends a signal to your bike computer. You will then have a record of your cadence over time, which you can analyse as your training progresses.
Wahoo’s RPM Cadence sensor, on the other hand, attaches to your crank and works as a standalone unit, transmitting cadence data to your computer.
And if you have a power meter, this will measure cadence and send the data to your computer too. Some bikes come with an integrated cadence sensor.
What is the ideal cycling cadence?
In truth, there isn’t one. The ‘ideal’ cadence depends on a number of factors and can vary from one rider to another.
Measuring in a lab how much power cyclists can put out relative to the energy they’re using shows that most cyclists will self-select their optimal cadence, says Disley.
Experience also matters, and riders who have logged lots of miles in the saddle will likely have found a range of cadences that work for them, depending on the terrain and demands of a particular ride.
Disley also points out it’s important to experiment with different cadences to find your optimum – and one cadence may not be best across all situations.
Time trialists, for example, tend to use a higher cadence in shorter events than they do in longer tests, Disley says. “Your aim should be to improve your cadence, rather than just to increase it,” he adds.
There are also benefits to varying your cadence in training sessions to improve your cycling technique and provoke specific adaptations.
Using a high cadence at lower loads will train your neuromuscular system to pedal more smoothly, while a lower-cadence/higher-load session will help to increase your strength.
Riding rollers is a good way to smooth your ride style, while structured drills are better than long, steady rides to get your legs spinning smoothly and efficiently.
Want to know more? The training sessions below will help you to pedal more efficiently.
Two training drills to improve your cadence
We asked Matt Rowe of Rowe and King to recommend two training sessions to work on different aspects of cadence: one to build strength and one to improve pedalling fluidity.
He’s coached pro cyclists and is an advocate of indoor training.
1. Pedalling fluidity and coordination
Rowe recommends a 20-minute session of 4x (4 minutes at 120rpm + 1 minute easy).
For the whole 20-minute block, keep your upper body as still as possible. A strong core is key. Allow power transfer to come from the waist down.
You can then rest and repeat the block for a second time if you feel adventurous, Rowe says.
2. Strength endurance session
To build your strength, Rowe recommends a lower-cadence drill with high power output.
2x 15-minute blocks at 89 to 90 per cent of FTP, at a cadence of 50 to 60rpm. If you’re not familiar with FTP (Functional Threshold Power) read our guide.
The lower the cadence and higher the power, the more torque is created. So, over time, as you progress you can nudge the power up and decrease the cadence.
Rest well between each block (between 10 and 15 minutes) for full recovery.
Get into elite-level cycling and it’s not just about cadence and power output.
Expert bike fitter Andy Sexton of Bike Science points out that elite time-trialists and triathletes are going so fast that a small increase in power output from a faster cadence will be more than outweighed if that stops a rider being able to maintain an optimal aero position.
Cadence will also vary with the type of riding: a track sprinter will put up with a much more extreme riding position and cadence for a handful of seconds in a sprint relative to a pro road rider who’s in the saddle for hours.
Meanwhile, physiotherapist Phil Burt, who has worked at British Cycling and Team Sky supporting elite Olympic and pro cyclists, points out that crank length is also an important determinant of cadence because it contributes to the rider’s gearing.
It’s easier to maintain a higher cadence with shorter cranks, Burt says, and there’s a trend for triathletes to ride short cranks for smoother power delivery at higher revs.
Crank length is typically determined by frame size on off-the-shelf bikes, but this may be an appropriate component to swap for riders looking to fine-tune their pedal stroke.