As originally seen HERE at Active.com:
“Cadence is a tool in the toolbelt to efficiently meter out your effort and energy,” says Justin Green, a USA Triathlon Level 1 TriDot Coach and assistant head coach at Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy. When your cadence is too high, you’re quickly taxing your cardiovascular system without much bang for your buck.
Think about this common scenario: You’re beginning a long hill climb and when you can no longer keep up with the cadence, you quickly drop it down to the small chain ring (easy gear) only to start spinning out of control with almost no resistance. Believe it or not, it’s a mistake that both rookies and veterans alike make. Sure, your cadence is super high, but are you getting very far?
Consider the opposite scenario of climbing that same hill. Have you ever tried to keep it in an extremely hard gear the whole time? Your cadence drops significantly, you may have to hop out of the saddle and you find yourself “grinding” instead of “spinning.” Sure, you may get up that hill faster but at a significant cost to your muscles and aerobic engine. In both scenarios, you’ve gassed yourself without much gain.
Learning how to properly manipulate cadence, gearing and power takes practice and training. You want to maximize your power potential while still maintaining appropriate force on the pedal. But how do you find this elusive sweet spot? It depends on many factors.
The Goal of the Ride
“Cadence comes down to the nature and metabolic requirements of the event,” Green says. “Are you going for a steady state or all-out effort? Is it a long-distance race like IRONMAN or a short sprint?”Long course cyclists and triathletes should seek more of a steady-state, higher-cadence effort. Not only will it limit both muscular and cardiovascular fatigue, but it will set you up for a crisp high-cadence run off the bike as well. A higher cadence ride is also beneficial on a recovery session to facilitate the eradication of any lactic acid build-up from previous strength sessions. If you are a crit rider, you will also want to do some higher cadence sessions to assist in preparation for accelerations and breakaways.
When is a Slower Cadence Optimal?
A slower cadence is ideal when you are building muscular strength and endurance. Time Trial specialists, for instance, rely heavily on maximizing and leveraging power, and comfortably pushing a bigger gear is vital to their success. “Over-gear” training sessions are done in a big gear with lower cadence to work on improving power and strength. Another lower cadence workout great for building muscular strength is doing hill repeats in a lower cadence. This can be done outdoors on a long steady climb or simulated on a trainer. The goal is to keep your heart rate as low as possible while still pushing the big gear.
Your Body’s Physiology and Metabolic Efficiency
In general, lighter athletes tend to be more efficient and comfortable with a higher cadence because their aerobic capacity is usually greater than their muscular strength. Larger athletes, conversely, often possess more muscular strength and therefore may gravitate and feel comfortable riding at a lower cadence. They can simply push more power at this lower cadence.”Metabolic efficiency is also determined by your level of expertise and experience,” Green says. As you can imagine, a newer cyclist or triathlete may not possess the power, muscular strength or technical ability to ride efficiently for long distances at a lower cadence. That sweet spot, he says, is discovered only after years of training both your muscular and cardiovascular systems.
Terrain and Elevation of the Event
Much like the goal of your ride or race determines your cadence efforts, the terrain and elevation of the course also plays a large role in determining how you will ride it. For example, if you’re racing on a flat course, your cadence won’t necessarily change much throughout the event, so you’ll likely want to settle in to a higher cadence steady-state effort, especially if you’re in a triathlon and have a long run after the ride. If the course is hilly, however, your cadence will vary throughout. The goal then becomes finessing your gears so your heart rate doesn’t spike too much during the race (unless you’re going for the win!). You want to minimize those energy expenditures or “burning the matches,” as coaches say.
Components such as your bike fit, crank length and cassette ratio can all have an impact on your cadence and therefore your efforts to make significant improvements. Visit a bike shop or set up an appointment with a certified bike fitter, like Green, who can visually assess your equipment and physiological limiters. It also gives you a chance to talk about your goals and races in depth. This conversation will go a long way in determining the proper set up that will enable you to have the best shot at maximizing your potential with both your cardiovascular and muscular systems.
Train Both Systems
The bottom line, says Green, is that there is no “one size fits all” for each rider because there are simply too many variables that factor into your ride or race. However, you want to train both your muscular and cardiovascular systems by doing sessions that include both High RPM work and lower big gear work. Both should be uncomfortable as you are working the extremes. However, by working both ends of the spectrum, you’ll soon discover your own sweet spot that falls in between.