Cadence: what’s the secret?

Cadence – is faster better?

As almost always in sports training, there are countless different opinions on what is the right way. This applies for the correct cadence too. Some say faster is better, others slower and some recommend choosing a cadence suiting one’s individual feeling. Even science has not eliminated this controversy yet. Research shows that cyclists should actually use a relatively low frequency (about 60 rpm) in order to move as economically as possible. The reality of race-cycling, however, displays much higher cadences. Here, optimal performance is associate with 90-110 rpm. So, it is no wonder that there are so many different opinions on this topic. In that, it is also of no help, that Marsh & Martin (1993) showed in their study that even the individually preferred cadence is well above the economic optimum.

But what is right?

To answer this question, it is worth to take a look on Mücke et al.’s (2018) field study. They investigated the effect of an eight-week low and high cadence intervention on cyclists’ performance. Additionally, they took a closer look on the cortical activation of the participants.

19 well-trained cyclists were assigned into two different groups. One group absolved their training sessions with high cadences (HFG), meaning they trained with a cadence between 100 rpm and their individual maximal rpm. The other group (NFG) spend all their training in lower cadences (50-90 rpm). Both groups trained for about eight hours per week, respectively. Examples of a training session are displayed in Table 1.

To get meaningful results, all participants underwent a standardized performance diagnostics test before and after the study.

In their findings, Mücke et al. show interesting results. Both NFG and HFG improved their performance at the individual anaerobic threshold. This effect however was relatively small (3.1 W/kg to 3.3 W/kg). Of more interest are the effects of the respective intervention on the two groups. Thus, it was only the HFG which displayed a significant increase in relative maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max). On average those participants increased their VO2max from 53 ml/kg/min to 56 ml/kg/min. This positive effect could only be observed in HFG, not NFG. Instead NFG resulted in a significant increase of relative performance at the individual anaerobic threshold (right-shift of the lactate curve).

Summarized the study tells us following:

Cyclists eager to improve their VO2max should train with high cadence.

Is the goal to maintain a high workload (watts) for a long time, like in time-trialing, low cadence training could be the right choice.

It is important to know that nearly all cycling related activities require a combination of all physiological parameters. Therefore, it is recommended to train diversified!

Mücke et al.’s full article is available to buy in the journal Leistungssport (edition 6/2018) (in German).

Table 1.