Cycling cadence is a vital and often overlooked component of cycling performance. Although pedaling a bike seems relatively straightforward, there’s more to it than most realize. Whether it’s understanding how your cycling cadence is impacting your power output or how it’s affecting your efficiency on the bike, it’s important to pay attention to how you’re turning the pedals.
But what is cycling cadence? How do you measure it? And what can you do to improve it? Whether you’re just getting started or an experienced rider looking for tips and best practices, this guide will help you get the most out of each pedal stroke.
Table of Contents
What is Cycling Cadence?
Expressed in revolutions per minute (RPM), cycling cadence is simply the rate at which you turn the pedals. For example, if your cadence is 90 RPM, this means each pedal is making 90 full revolutions in a minute. A higher cadence generally means you’re pedaling faster with less resistance, while a lower cadence is associated with more resistance and a slower pedal speed.
Cycling cadence will often vary from one rider to another depending on factors such as rider preference, fitness level, and the type of riding being performed. Different types of bikes and their respective gearing setup can also impact a rider’s cadence. On fixed-gear bikes, cadence will be proportional to speed. The faster you pedal, the faster you’ll go. However, you can control your cadence on bikes with multiple gears by shifting up or down as speed and resistance change.
How Do You Measure Cycling Cadence?
The simplest way to measure your cycling cadence is to count how many times your right or left knee rises in 15 seconds and then multiply that number by four. The downside to this method is it only provides a momentary snapshot of your cadence. This means to measure your cadence at different points throughout your ride will require a lot of counting. Needless to say, this method can be very tedious and ultimately distract from the enjoyment of a ride.
Cadence sensors, on the other hand, are an easier and more accurate way to measure cycling cadence. Standalone cadence sensors typically attach to either the crank arm or the left-side chainstay. In addition to measuring power output, power meters can also measure cycling cadence. Both types of sensors record cadence data and then wirelessly transmit it to a bike computer, sports watch, or smartphone app. In addition to improving the ease and accuracy of measurement, cadence sensors make incorporating cadence into a training plan easier as well.
Why is Cycling Cadence Important?
Cycling cadence plays a critical role in cycling performance, specifically in power output, riding efficiency, and even injury prevention.
The power you produce when cycling is a product of your pedal force (torque) and pedal speed (cadence). This means increasing or decreasing your cycling cadence will directly impact the power you’re able to produce.
Like fuel efficiency in a car, riding efficiency is all about how well you use your energy stores. The longer your ride, the more impact your riding efficiency has. When you pedal at a cadence that’s too low, you’re putting extra strain on your muscles. This can lead to quicker fatigue and exhaustion, making it difficult to finish your ride.
On the other hand, pedaling at a cadence that’s too high wastes energy. Not only does it unnecessarily tax your cardiovascular system, but it doesn’t allow you to get the most out of every pedal stroke.
Pedaling at a cadence that’s either too low or too high can also increase the risk of overuse injuries. A cadence that’s too low has been shown to increase muscle soreness and strain as well as lead to knee injuries. Conversely, a cadence that’s too high can lead to a breakdown in pedaling form, which can put your joints at risk.
What is the Ideal Cycling Cadence?
The short answer: There isn’t one.
The “ideal” cycling cadence is different for every rider. Beginner cyclists typically pedal slower than those with more riding experience. On the other hand, professional cyclists can sustain a much higher cadence, even during sprints and climbs.
When racing, a moderate cadence is more economical for endurance events. For time trials and shorter races, a higher cadence is often better. For brief periods of riding that require a lot of power, such as attacks, surges, and sprints, a very high cadence is going to be the most effective.
In a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia set out to determine the most economical cycling cadence. They did this by measuring the amount of energy expended (metabolic cost) at different cadences.
They found that metabolic cost was lowest at 60 RPM but that study participants preferred an average cadence of 81 RPM. They also discovered that the preferred cadence of 81 RPM coincided with producing the most power without negatively affecting riding efficiency.
Most riders end up self-selecting their ideal cadence through trial and error. Because one cadence is rarely best across all situations, it’s important to experiment and find what works best for you.
How Do You Improve Cycling Cadence?
Incorporating cadence drills into your regular workouts is the best way to improve your cycling cadence. High cadence drills at low resistance are used to improve your pedaling smoothness and cadence range, while low cadence drills at high resistance help increase strength.
During your warm-up and cool-down, shift into an easier gear and increase your cadence to 100+ RPM. Then hold for five minutes.
The goal is to spin as quickly and smoothly as possible without bouncing or rocking on your saddle.
In your warm-up, perform a 10-minute session of 10 x (30-sec spin-up + 30-sec recovery). Select a middle gear on the small chain ring and begin pedaling at an easy speed.
Steadily increase your pedaling speed while focusing on keeping a uniform pedal stroke. Ensure your hips stay square on the saddle without bouncing or rocking your torso.
By the end of the 30-sec interval, you should be pedaling at a speed where you can no longer keep your pedal strokes even. Shift into an easier gear and pedal for 30-sec, then repeat.
This drill is best performed when riding on a flat surface or using a bike trainer.
During the main portion of your workout, drop into a harder gear and unclip your left foot. For 30-sec pedal only with your right leg. Focus on full 360-degree engagement during each pedal stroke.
Clip back in and pedal normally with both legs for 30-sec in a medium gear. Then switch legs and repeat. Do this for 10 minutes.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can rest and then repeat this block for a second time.
Now that you understand what cycling cadence is and why it’s important start incorporating the above cadence drills into your regular workout routine. If you want to learn about other performance metrics and how to use them to improve your cycling, check out our guide on functional threshold power.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does cycling cadence differ based on the type of cycling?
Cycling cadence can vary based on a number of factors, including the type of cycling being performed. For example, time trialists typically ride at a higher cadence compared to road cyclists. This allows them to maintain a consistent pace and produce more power. However, in mountain biking, cadence tends to be lower. This makes it easier to tackle steeper climbs and navigate technical terrain. Although cycling cadence can differ based on the type of cycling, it’s important to experiment and find what works best for you.
Does crank length affect cycling cadence?
Yes, crank length can affect cadence. While a longer crank will produce more power, it does lead to a lower cadence. Conversely, a shorter crank length will produce less power and a higher cadence. This is because as crank length increases, more distance and time are required for your foot to complete a full pedal stroke at a similar effort.
Should I vary my cycling cadence or remain consistent throughout a ride?
Varying your cycling cadence during a ride can provide a more well-rounded workout by challenging different muscle groups as well as your cardiovascular system. However, maintaining a consistent cadence can help improve pedaling efficiency and overall cycling performance. Because of this, it’s generally recommended to incorporate both types of cadence training into your workouts.
Does cycling cadence have an impact on endurance?
Cycling cadence has a significant impact on endurance. When riding for extended periods of time, it’s important to find a cadence that allows you to conserve energy while sustaining a consistent rhythm. Doing so will not only help reduce muscle fatigue but prevent early exhaustion. By avoiding overly high or low cadences, you can maintain a steady pace, maximize your cardiovascular efficiency, and ride longer distances without feeling excessively tired.