Cadence in cycling is defined as the number of revolutions per minute (RPM) you complete at a given speed. The power you are able to produce on the bike is the product of torque (force on the pedal) x angular velocity (or your pedal speed). Based on this formula it is easy to see why an increase or decrease in your cycling cadence will directly impact the power you produce on the bike. While many cyclists will work towards their sought-after goal of increasing their threshold power, potentially a new benchmark could be to increase their cycling efficiency by focusing on cadence work.
Running and swimming are sports where poor form and efficiency will show themselves quickly by producing slower results. Cycling on the other hand is more forgiving and can allow people to ride relatively well even with poor pedaling form. When you watch elite cyclists, their ability to produce smooth cyclical motions seems effortless and much of this is attributed to their neuromuscular coordination that has been developed over years in the saddle, as well as attention to detail in improving cadence.
By increasing your cycling cadence at a given power, would then produce less force on your pedal, thus less muscular strain. While you reduce your muscular strain, this would in turn increase your time to fatigue. Riding at 130% of your FTP at 30-40 RPM most people would find it difficult if not impossible to maintain this for lengths of time over 90 seconds (some people may not even hit that!) On the flip side, if you tried to pedal at the same percentage but at 130-140 RPM, most riders would also struggle to make it beyond a minute or two due to the high cardiovascular strain this effort would take. Why? This occurs due to decreased efficiency at higher cadences. In fact, most cyclists are only about 23% efficient in translating the energy placed into pedaling to power. How can you increase this? Practice, practice, practice!
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Neuromuscular Coordination and Co-contraction
In order for the smooth, fluid movement to be produced requires complete synchronization of many different systems to communicate harmoniously with one another. You can think of it as an orchestra where many different instruments play simultaneously to produce a cohesive piece of music. This does not happen by luck, but by neuromuscular coordination. At first, the sound is a bit clumsy and incohesive, but over time and through practice it becomes one succinct sound. When your body performs high cadence work, your body communicates contraction and relaxation of the muscles involved out of sync and rhythm. This increase in neuromuscular communication is due to co-contraction. Co-contraction involves the two sets of muscles that surround a joint, flexors and extensors, and their simultaneous activation (trying to shorten.) An example of co-contraction would be flexing your bicep (elbow flexor) and tricep (elbow extensor) at the same time. Both muscles are contracting, but the lower arm is not moving.
We can relate this to a cycling pedal stroke. When pedaling a complete revolution, your muscles are not working independently. Leg muscles including the quads (vastus lateralis and medialis, rectus femoris), and hamstrings (biceps femoris (long and short head), semitendinosus, and semimembranosus) are all working together to produce smooth movement. If they worked independently, your motion would be very stiff and jerky. As the quadriceps lengthen and produce force into the pedals, your hamstrings shorten and produce a pulling movement against this force.
Why Does This Matter?
If you can improve your neuromuscular coordination on the bike, then you can ride harder….for longer. Incorporating cadence builds, cadence drills, and high cadence holds frequently in training can and will improve your neuromuscular coordination. This increase in coordination will improve your power across all ranges, not just the top end. No one ever rode faster by riding less efficiently.
Sessions to Improve Cycling Cadence:
Looking to incorporate some cadence drills into your own training? Try some of the following below:
60-minute ride including:
4-5 x 20-30 sec. cadence builds, 5-7 min. recovery
*Focus on engaging your core and be sure you are not bouncing out of the bike saddle.
60-minute ride including 3 sets of:
30 second cadence builds; recovery 1 minute
45 second cadence hold at 100% FTP (at highest cadence you can hold); recovery 1 minute
60 second single leg
60 second recovery
60 second single leg
7 minute recovery between rounds
60 minute ride including:
3 x 20 second cadence builds
3 minute recovery between each effort
5 x 60 second 110-130rpm cadence hold at tempo effort
4-5 minute recovery between efforts
By regularly working on your cycling cadence, you’ll become a more efficient, faster, stronger rider. You’ll fatigue less and be able to go longer and harder.
Mac Cassin is the Chief Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Sports Science. He holds a degree in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has won multiple National Championships. The experience of juggling athletic goals with collegiate and career responsibilities has taught Mac that peak performance is achievable even for those who cannot focus exclusively on training. While concentrating on exercise physiology in an academic setting, Mac competed at the World Championships, Pan American Championships, and World Cups on both the road and track.