Cadence is a murky subject for cyclists. We all know that pedaling at one cadence feels very different from spinning at another, and we naturally gravitate towards certain cadences as we ride. But few of us really understand how cadence affects our efficiency on the bike, and there’s lots of contradictory information on the topic. So what actually is the optimal cycling cadence, and how can you use pedaling drills to become more efficient?

For more training and cycling related deep dives check out the Ask a Cycling Coach Podcast Episode 285.

What is Cycling Cadence

Cadence is one of the most basic variables of riding a bike: the speed at which you turn the pedals. It’s expressed in rpm (revolutions per minute) and can be measured with inexpensive sensors. If you have a power meter on your bike, it probably measures your cadence automatically. 

On fixed-gear bikes, cadence increases proportionally with speed, so the faster you go the faster you pedal. But geared bikes allow you to maintain a relatively constant cadence by shifting as your speed and resistance change. 

Typical Cycling Cadences

Cycling cadence varies widely from rider to rider, and in different situations. Recreational riders and commuters often pedal rather slowly, around 60 rpm. Racers and more experienced hobbyists usually average between 75-95 rpm, and pros can sustain over 100 rpm during attacks or more than 110 rpm during sprints.  

Different cadences make different physiological demands on the body. Low cadences require more force to be exerted in each pedal stroke, placing a greater burden on the muscular system and activating more fast twitch muscle fibers. High cadences typically involve less force per pedal stroke, shifting the load to the cardiovascular system and slow twitch muscles. But as we’ll see, the effect of different cadences is even more complicated than it might seem.

What is the Most Efficient Cadence?

Here’s where things get interesting. There’s lots of good evidence to support the idea that lower cadences are more bioenergetically efficient. When you pedal faster, oxygen consumption increases, even if the same amount of work is being performed. From this simple standpoint of metabolic efficiency, research shows the optimal cadence is around 60 rpm – a speed most cyclists would charitably characterize as a grind. This pace isn’t sustainable for most of us, for an important reason- there’s more to riding a bike than being efficient.

The other half of the equation is power, and the ability to generate it. At low cadences, your muscles contract at speeds well below the rate at which they are strongest. As the power you’re trying to create rises, the cadence at which your muscles are most effectively able to produce it increases, too. So while pedaling slowly has the lowest overall metabolic cost, it effectively limits your ability to produce high power, a dealbreaker in most race scenarios.

In the end, the science is confusing and sometimes contradictory. But a wealth of evidence suggests the most effective cadence depends on situation and event type. Low to moderate cadences of 70-90rpm are comparatively weak but efficient, and useful for ultra-endurance riding when energy conservation is of primary concern. High cadences of 90-100 rpm are better for most racing and time trial situations, in which power production is most important. And very high cadences of 100-120 are most effective when the highest power is needed for short periods, such as during attacks, surges, and sprints.

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Should I Train at Different Cadences?

Yes! Bike racers of all disciplines inevitably encounter situations requiring cadence changes, such as steep climbs or hard accelerations out of corners. These crucial moments can be very fatiguing if you’re unprepared to face them. Practice and experience make perfect, and acclimating yourself to a wide range of cadences in training can help you be ready on race day. 

Cadence work also improves the quality and efficiency of your pedal stroke overall. In fact, studies of professional cyclists have shown that some elite riders are actually most efficient at high cadence, despite the previously-discussed evidence that low cadence is most economical. This is likely due to pro athletes’ fluid movement patterns and good form, learned through practice. For all these reasons, simple cadence drills can benefit every rider.

How to Improve Your Cadence 

Cadence Drills can be incorporated into almost any easy or moderate workout to rehearse movement patterns and develop efficiency. The Base Period is an excellent time for this, since establishing fluidity early in the season is easier than correcting entrenched habits later on.

Cadence drills can include short ILT (individual leg training) and SLF (single leg focus) exercises, longer high-cadence endurance spinning, and sprints for form, speed, and strength. Cadence drills are never about producing higher power overall- the goal is developing good form. Incorporate them into low-stakes riding or steady state work where they don’t compromise your ability to meet a power target. You’ll likely feel awkward at first, but improvements can come quite quickly. 

Cadence Drills in TrainerRoad Workouts

Many TrainerRoad workouts incorporate optional cadence intervals, especially during the base period.

TrainerRoad workout Pettit

Pettit is one example. This aerobic endurance workout and includes form sprints, speed-endurance intervals, as well as pedaling-quadrant drills. Since this workout is so easy, it’s a great chance to practice skills and pedaling mechanics without compromising interval quality. 

TrainerRoad workout Ericsson

Another example is Ericsson. In this sweet spot workout, cadence drills are incorporated into the intervals themselves. Riders begin with a slightly quicker-than-usual spin for the first 4 minutes, increase their pedal speed for the following 3 minutes, and then spin all-out for the final minute. These drills aim to improve sustainable leg speed and fine-tune pedaling economy. 

Cycling Cadence for Triathletes

One final aspect of cadence to consider is how it might impact the subsequent run during a triathlon. Since multisport events reward athletes who can conserve energy across a race, an economical cadence would seem to be beneficial. Indeed, some research confirms this idea. Several studies have shown that running time-to-fatigue is reduced after a low-cadence bike leg, and that low cycling cadence increases efficiency on the bike and afterwards in the run. For triathletes, a slightly slower pedal stroke probably is better, overall.

But as with all things cadence, there’s a catch. Two studies show that triathletes who ride with a higher cadence at the end of their bike leg start their run at a faster initial pace. In a close competition between evenly-matched athletes, this just might be enough to get a gap and make the difference. It’s also good evidence that even triathletes can benefit from the ability to pedal at a wide range of speeds. 

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Sean Hurley

Sean Hurley is a bike racer, baker of sourdough bread, and former art professor. He is a connoisseur of cycling socks and a certified USAC level 3 coach. Rumor has it he also runs a famous cycling instagram account, but don't tell anyone about that.