The Importance of Cadence Part 2: The Bike

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In part one of this series I addressed the importance of cadence when swimming, in this week’s addition I am going to discuss the importance of cadence on the bike.

Like swimming, bike cadence is extremely important in developing speed, power, and an efficient pedal stroke. Many novice cyclists spin at a race of 70-80 rotations per minute. Moreover, they have a large dead spot in their stroke. Instead of applying force on the pedal throughout the whole rotation, they mash down on the pedal and only apply force on the down stroke. This low cadence, mashing style is extremely inefficient.

If you have ever used a power meter or a computrainer, you can observe when you do this that your power is all over the place; your watts sky rocket on the down stroke when you are pushing down with all your body weight then goes to zero on the up stroke. Do this over and over again and your legs will soon fatigue and your speed will drop.

To improve your spin, you first need to address your cadence. While it is an extremely touchy and hotly debated subject within the cycling community about what the ideal cadence is, the majority of pro triathletes and cyclist have a higher cadence between 85-95. As in swimming, there is not perfect cadence for everyone, but generally the sweet spot is in this zone. In addition to higher cadence, focusing on applying equal pressure throughout the stroke.

Here are some tips to not only improving your cadence but also your stroke efficiency:

  1. Shift down: I find that many athletes like to push a big gear when cycling. While you may feel like a bad ass doing this, dropping down a gear or two will increase your cadence, improve efficiency, and actually make you go faster.

  2. Single leg drills: Doing SLD helps you focus on applying equal pressure throughout your stroke. As you do this drill, visualize your stroke as a box with you scraping your cleat across the top, bottom, and sides. I would do this on the trainer until you can develop enough balance to do it outside.

  3. High Cadence drills: In this drill, you spin at an rpm of 90-100 rpm for thirty seconds, then 100-110 for 20, then 120+ for 15 seconds. You will have to lower down the resistance for these. Try to control your legs as much as possible instead of them  letting them fly all over the place. By spinning at such a high rate, you are activating many more leg muscles and training more neurons to fire with each stroke. Building these neuromuscular connections is essential for effective cycling.

  4. Set a reminder: if you have a Garmin, you can set it to beep if your cadence falls below a certain number. Setting this to 85 will prevent you from zoning out and dropping to a lower cadence.

  5. Hills! Even on hills a higher cadence helps with efficiency. Although you may feel faster getting out of the saddle and pounding your way to the top, your heart rate sky rockets and your power jumps temporarily then plummets down. Instead, it is much more efficient to drop to a lower gear, sit back in the saddle and spin up.

In addition to the above tips, changing crank arm length, cassette gearing, and chainring sizes can help with cadence.   While cadence does not answer all your cycling problems, it is an easy way to improve your cycling speed and power.