The Cadence Debate

Friday, March 6, 2015 by Coach Tommy

I received this email question from one of my athletes.


 I saw this article posted, and found it interesting.  What are your thoughts on the cadence debate?



Below is my response.

“Hi Susan,

Good question.  Here are my thoughts on cadence.

In general, I believe most athletes have a ‘self selected’ cadence.  Based on their body dimensions, fitness level, experience with cycling, etc., they will gravitate toward their most efficient cadence.  For example, my average cadence is between 85-90 rpm.  I once tried a lower cadence, big gear style of riding for a season and didn’t like it.  I felt it was too stressful on my joints.

If I have any athlete who averages 95+ rpm and is hitting his power numbers, his HR is where it should be and appears to be efficient at that cadence, then I won’t try to change anything.  On the other hand, if I have an athlete who is spinning at 95+ rpm, not hitting his power numbers or is a slow rider, and his HR is all jacked up, then I’ll incorporate some drills to change the way he rides (I actually had an athlete like this once, incredibly high cadence, but he was inefficient on the bike).

Sutton alluded to this concept when he wrote: “What works for the individual is what is right.”

I prescribe bike training at all cadences.  I give my athletes bike workouts that have a variable cadence component where they ride at a high cadence for a period of time then a low cadence.  Other workouts are ‘big gear’ workouts where the power is high and the cadence low.  Or big gear, low cadence workouts at a low power.  I believe that by training at high and low cadences, the athlete will eventually develop his most efficient, self selected cadence.

However, a cadence of 60 rpm seems a bit extreme to me.  In the referenced study, a cadence of 60 was most economical, but there are other things going on besides just oxygen usage.

Power = Force * Velocity

Force is the pressure you put on the pedal.  Velocity is how fast you spin the pedals.  At a cadence of 60 rpm, you have to apply more force to produce the same power relative to a higher cadence.  I think the cumulative force production at a cadence of 60 over 112 mille IM ride would be detrimental to running well off the bike, in general and for most AG’ers.  I’m sure there are exceptions.  I wouldn’t advocate a cadence that low.  I like to see my athletes have a cadence from 80-95 while keeping in mind efficiency.

Sometimes I’ll play a game on my bike.  I ride while varying my cadence.  The goal is to maximize power and minimize my heart rate by varying the cadence. I usually find a sweet spot in a cadence range from 80-90 rpm.

I think I just wrote my next TTT blog post. 🙂

Hope this helps,

Tommy Johnson
Triathlon Coach
USAT Level 1
Triple Threat Tough
From Fundamentals to Physiology of Triathlon”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *