Find the Right Cadence

Cadence is a key aspect of Triathlon, especially on the bike, and there is much debate about this subject: should one ride high cadence or low cadence? There is usually a trade-off: lower cadence means more muscle stress and drain with a lower heart rate level, while higher cadences mean higher heart rate and aerobic strain, but muscles will have less stress. Preserving muscle energy is key for triathlon, given that after the bike it is important to have legs for the run, so I tend to agree with the group that defends a higher cadence >90rpm (especially since I am very comfortable pacing and monitoring my heart rate – some might not). At the same time the cadence needs to translate into power output, therefore the high cadence should be paired with a maximum sustained output for a given target. The target here would be a triathlon race, where after the bike, there needs to be energy and muscle strenght for the run.

*** please note, all information here is a compilation articles and posts, and fruit of my own experience. I have no formal knowledge on the matter and I am in no position to provide technical advice ***

Given my experience, I recently train and race in a range of 90 to 95rpm, if I need to err it will be for the upside (95 to 100rpm) rather than on the low side. The only time I will maintain a cadence lower than 90rpm is on easy rides and climbs. Before the end of the bike leg I usually put a lower gear and increase cadence even further to help loosen-up legs and make then lighter and sharper for T2\run.

Currently I do not own a powermeter therefore I guide myself on cadence and heart rate. My strategy is on average to maintain cadence above 90rpm, for efficiency, and heart rate close to 160bpm (zone 4 would be around 155 to 180), which I can sustain for long periods of time. In the last IM70.3 I raced the 96km bike leg in an average cadence of 92rpm, and Strava calculated power output of 226w (more information). For a recent individual time trial I participated in, this was the outcome: cadence 93rpm, power 272w (Strava estimated – i think this is higher than what really happened), avg speed 36.7km\h, 15.7 km, 25:47min, 156 elevation gain. Everything well into the target, consistent cadence. (Strava link)(Giro da Race 2015 – stage 1 – individual time trial).

When I started riding my bike I used to pedal at a much lower cadence, so it was not natural to make the change. It was at Race Consultoria Esportiva, under Ricardo Arap, that I got the first sessions based on cadence (not that he advocates for higher cadence, it was just a scheduled training session). The first time it was a solo session of 40km maintaining the cadence above 90rpm. I did not think I could sustain that, but I was able to finish the sessions within target and started to experiment with that in other rides. The gain in efficiency was amazing and the gain on climbs was also visible. I feel that I have become a much improved rider all around because my pacing is much more consistent.

I have recently watched a video by Cris Silva (Alta Performance Assessoria Esportiva) who advocates an ideal range between 85 and 105. On practice it might not be so easy to remain within this range. She is most comfortable around 94rpm. She affirms that the ideal cadence will depend on the riders’ weight (bigger riders will tend to use lower cadences and more force), personal characteristics of the rider, course\race, and gearing (speed, MTB, others). In the end grinding the gears will yield a lot of force (low cadence), but force runs-out faster than resistance, and the riders who win the races are the strongest within the more resistant: “force is like money, if you save it, you will have it.”

An article on Trifuel supports high cadence (link). Some of the advantages pointed out are: it will reduce oxygen consumption and it will help in the run leg of the race (a cited study shows high cadence biking correlates to faster run times in triathlon).

On the other hand, Chris McCormick supports cadences around 80 to 85, which he calls mid-cadence and the argument is that heart rate should be maintained as low as possible (especially for longer races) and a high cadence could deplete aerobic system and be detrimental later in the race (check out the video below). I found another post on Australian Triathlete that states high cadence is proper for cyclists and not for long distance triathletes: “bike racing and higher powered\faster events and\or those requiring accelerations”.  And it goes to show that lower cadence is more efficient and provides a better run off the bike, also that cadence is a personal choice.

SUMMARY

In the end it is hard to argue that cadence will ultimately be a personal choice, on my experience I adapted very well and feel I gained a lot from switching to a higher cadence pace for my racing. 90 to 95 is the sweet spot for me. And this is the range where I currently want to build optimal output. The key take away based on my anecdotal perception:

  • i have improved my pacing (key for tri and tt)
  • by monitoring maximum heart rate I have a safe guard I am not blowing my aerobic condition, although i am revving high
  • the higher cadence on the bike do make my legs feel lighter and sharper for the run
  • my climbing also benefitted from the high cadence training – again related to better pacing
 Of course a complete training program will consist of various stimuli, including low cadence gear grinding. The leap in my bike riding came from joining the Race group, mentioned above, training 4 times a week, including various drills, climbing sessions, long endurance rides, and solo TT sessions. That provided me an organized set of training, coaching oversite and other athletes to benchmark and motivate.

 

Below = Macca talks about triathlon specific cadence

The GCN guys made one of their ‘GCN does science’ videos about overall cadence in cycling, the take away is that everyone will have their preferred range:

Finally, a very technical video on cadence by Graeme Street (cyclocore) brings a lot of important information. The focus here is climbing cadence:

 

featured photo by Daniel Ferreira

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