Muscle strength? Check. Cardiovascular health? Check. Weight Management? Check. Enhanced flexibility? Check.
We could go on, but you get the idea. Cycling ticks a lot of boxes, with the physical and mental rewards manifesting in several ways. Cycling is great for the body, the mind, and (assuming the weather doesn’t suddenly ruin everything) your overall mood.
In fact, when you think about it, there are very few activities that tick quite as many boxes in terms of specific health improvements. While jogging is excellent for cardio, and lifting weights is perfect for muscle gain, cycling helps most areas, from head to toe.
But there is a frequently underlooked caveat to that fact. To be rewarded with the maximum health benefits, cycling requires the right technique: and lots of people are getting one specific technique fundamentally wrong.
The method in question is referred to as cadence, and through this blog post, we are going to explain what it is and why it matters. If you are not familiar with cycling cadence, It is worth sticking around and finding out because the correct technique will make a huge difference to the potential rewards of cycling.
But first, what is it, exactly?
Even without explanation, the name probably gives it away. Broadly speaking, cadence simply means rhythm: the repetition and manner in which we speak, move or perform any repetitive action.
In the context of cycling, cadence refers to the power and rhythm of your pedal rotations. Or rather, the stroke and timing of the way in which we peddle, coupled with which gears we are using.
So, if you apply a steady pedal rhythm delivered through an even energy throughput, you have a good cadence. If your pedaling is more of the constant stop-and-start variety – enjoying regular coasting and randomly shifting through gears without good reason – you might have a poor cadence.
That’s not to say poor cadence is a bad thing, necessarily. It’s just that a good cadence is more beneficial in terms of efficiency and exercise management.
In addition (and arguably more importantly), different benefits and health objectives can be met by applying different cadence rhythms depending on which gear you are using.
Cadence will directly influence your speed, efficiency, and stamina on the bike and has far-reaching effects in terms of your performance. If you have genuine health goals and want to get the most out of cycling, it helps to get your cadence right.
Cadence is measured in Revolutions Per Minute (RPM), representing the number of full pedal rotations made over 60 seconds. To work out your cadence, simply count the number of rotations in 30 seconds and multiply by two.
If you take a moment to look at cycling professionals during a race, you will notice they often peddle extremely quickly for very long periods of time. Their cadence is mostly quite high, frequently hitting the ceiling at 100 rpm or more.
Whilst they might ease off the pace slightly when going uphill, even then, they still maintain a fairly high pedal rate that would outstrip the average cyclist by a fair margin. Their cadence does not change significantly through either flats or inclines.
Professionals who specialize in hilly terrain maintain a remarkably impressive cadence, frequently hovering around the 100 rpm mark – even while ascending brutally steep inclines.
On the other hand, your everyday recreational cyclist (the vast majority of cyclists, in other words) tends to be more tortoise and less hare, with a cadence around the 50 rpm mark. Fitness-conscious amateurs often clock in at a respectable 75 to 85 rpm.
Cadence vs. Gear Selection
Your cadence is going to be affected by which gears you are using. So, if you use a high or ‘heavy’ gear on a long straight flat, your cadence is going to be low. Less rpm is being applied to turn the pedals, meaning each pedal stroke drives the bike further, but requires more effort.
Conversely, if you are using a low or ‘lighter’ gear on a dirt track with lots of bends and turns, your cadence is going to be high. Faster peddling is required to make the bike move efficiently over uneven terrain and navigate obstacles.
When a cyclist pedals in a lower cadence with heavier gear, they predominantly activate their fast-twitch muscle fibers. These fibers primarily use glycogen as their main energy source. Conversely, with a higher cadence in a lighter gear, a cyclist taps into the energy reserves of their slow-twitch fibers, which predominantly burn fat.
Now, while muscle glycogen is a potent source of energy, it’s not inexhaustible. Extended cycling relying on glycogen can drain these reserves, leading to fatigue. On the contrary, our body’s fat reservoirs are vast and can fuel us for much longer rides, making high-cadence cycling ideal for endurance.
For those aiming to optimize their endurance, targeting a cadence of around 80–90 rpm is often advised. That said, this ‘golden number’ might vary based on individual preferences and advice from different experts.
So, the next time you’re faced with an imposing incline, rather than pushing hard at a meager 60 rpm, consider shifting to a higher cadence. This strategy can preserve your energy, preparing you for the challenges that lie ahead on your ride.
The Role of Cadence in Cycling Workouts
Cycling cadence is a good gauge to measure your workout and a means to enhance your pedaling rates.
By mastering your cadence, you not only conserve energy during grueling long rides or competitive races but also gain a strategic advantage. A deeper grasp of cadence can guide you in tailoring your workout strategies.
For instance, during endurance rides, it might be more beneficial to maintain a subdued cadence during your active rest phases instead of completely halting your pedaling.
To fine-tune your cycling cadence, a blend of speed and control is required. There are three primary techniques to your cadence: Time, Intensity, and Power.
The Time Technique
This involves a gradual escalation of your RPM to its peak, followed by a gentle reduction. This cycle is repeated for a designated period, progressively extending the duration as you become more adept.
The Intensity Technique
With the Intensity technique, you will engage in short spurts of high cadence, subsequently settling into a more relaxed rhythm for brief intervals. This alternating pattern should be sustained for a predetermined period.
The Power Technique
The Power technique capitalizes on basic resistance to improve your strength and overall performance on the bike. The method involves cycling against heightened resistance for limited stretches, followed by intervals with diminished resistance.
Optimal Workout Intensity
Your cycling session is governed by two parameters: cadence and heart rate. If your heart rate is soaring, you might want to dial down your cadence a little. If your heart rate feels a little too leisurely, you might wish to raise your cadence.
Getting this right will improve the returns of your exercise session. Beware, though, as excessively high cadences can sometimes undermine the efficiency of your workouts.
On that note, this feels like a good time to mention something about your overall health: if you are new to cycling and plan to jump in all-guns-blazing with optimal cadence techniques, it might be a good idea to consult a doctor for a quick check-up.
We are not singling out cycling as dangerous – because it isn’t – but only ask that you ensure your body is prepared and equipped for high-energy cycling if this is new to you. The same could be said for any new exercise regime or potentially grueling activity.
How Important Is Cadence?
While we encourage you to employ the correct cadence, don’t worry about it too much. If that sounds contradictory to this entire article, let’s use a golfing analogy to make a point about how seriously you should treat cadence.
Employing an inch-perfect and beautifully orchestrated golf swing will result in more accurate shots, further distance, and fewer mistakes. However, most ‘average’ golfers do not employ the correct golf swing but still manage to achieve a fairly respectable score through an enjoyable round.
You can view the cycling cadence in the same light. Cadence is important, and it helps in achieving specific goals, but even without the correct cadence technique, you will be reaping the many health benefits of cycling and having a great time in the process.
Either way, cycling is great for you. We are certainly not suggesting that incorrect cadence will negate all of your efforts. When all is said and done, even without the correct technique, cycling is wonderfully healthy and great fun.
Whether you are flying around a race track on an expensive bike in sponsored lycra and an aerodynamic helmet – or leisurely meandering through backwater villages on a penny farthing while sporting a bow tie and a monocle – either way, you are improving your health both mentally and physically. So, well done. Cycling is a fabulous activity, regardless of technique.
We are simply suggesting that with the correct cadence, the benefits of your cycling efforts will be increased.
However, if you don’t wish to take it quite so seriously, that’s fine also!