Cadence is the name given to the number of times you turn the pedals per minute (rev.min-1 or rpm). It is an interesting component of cycling because it can make a given speed very easy or very hard simply by using different gears. A good cyclist can maintain over 95 rpm for an entire ride. Some people like to "grind" at less than this however as we will describe it is less efficient, more fatiguing and harder to maintain.
360 Degrees of Effective Style
As easy as it may seem it is actually quite difficult to train your body to pedal fluidly throughout the full 360 degrees of the cycle. Each part of the cycle emphasizes different muscle groups because of changes in ankle, knee and hip angles. A good cyclist is able to make the most of all 360 degrees pushing down on the pedals, "scrapping" through the bottom of the stroke (instead of thumping to the bottom), and pulling up and over. You can often spot a "thumper" as they rock side to side "mashing" through the down-stroke, and do not use the up-stroke to their benefit. It takes some practice but is worth practicing to activate your muscles through the entire cycle so as one leg is pushing down the other is pulling up working in synchrony, despite the inherent drive to pedal one leg at a time.
An effective style is helped or inhibited by your bike set up. Despite our symmetric looking bodies they tend to be anything but, and it is vital to get a set up completed by someone who can tailor your bicycle and position to make the most of your dimensions. If your seat is too far forward or back, or the wrong height it will inhibit your ability to pedal properly because it changes your hip, knee and ankle angles over the pedals and therefore muscle recruitment throughout the cycle. Strong abdominals not only look good(!), but help to keep your pelvis still. This improves pedaling technique and also helps prevent lower back pain on long rides. Concentrating on activating your lower abdominals, keeping your hips still, and shoulder back create a strong trunk for your legs to lever from.
High Cadences Save Energy
A relationship exists in cycling whereby it takes a certain amount of energy to turn the pedals at a certain cycling speed or power output. Lower cadences require your muscles to produce more force per revolution so maintaining a high cadence enables you to ride for longer and at a faster pace.
Training yourself to "Spin"
High cadences allow you to save energy and then ride for longer. Some easy drills to include when out riding to improve your cadence are:
- Up & down intervals: when riding on a flat road stay at the same speed but change to down to an easier gear for 3-5mins, then change back to your original gear, then back to the easier gear and so on. Keep repeating this with easier gears for longer.
- Downhill spins: instead of freewheeling down hills, try to keep up with the increase in speed and spin as quickly as you can until you feel resistance on the pedals.
- In tail winds don't change to a harder gear – just spin faster.
- Keep an eye on average cadence if you have a computer and gradually try & lift it each week.
Flat roads versus Gravity
With some training it is easy to maintain high cadences on flat roads, but gravity provides a unique challenge to maintaining the fluid momentum of spinning. This is where it is vital to ensure you have small enough gears on your bike to help you maintain a high cadence and climb better. When climbing hills in your seat, try to maintain over 80rpm and concentrating on a still upper body. Climbing out of the seat it is impossible to maintain high cadences for long, however it is easier if you emphasize the upstroke of the cycle and make more effective use of it. Gravity will pull your leg through the down-stroke with the help of your body weight when out of the seat, so instead concentrate on pulling the opposite leg up.
Ideally you should teach your body to be able to maintain a variety of cadences. If you are in an event and riding a long down hill with a tail wind and can only spin at 110rpm then you will likely loose the bunch you are riding with because you will run out of gears and won't be able to spin faster to keep up with them. So learn to spin and save energy, go faster for longer.
Amy Taylor-Mason is an Exercise Physiologist and Cycling Coach. She is one of the founders of Kinetic Edge Training Technology, and along with other coaches offers cycling skills training on a one on one or group basis. Kinetic Edge also offers programming for specific events, and personal coaching. For further information see www.kecycling.com or contact her directly on firstname.lastname@example.org