Understanding the bike cadence

Cycling, August 02, 2023

When you ride a bike, your effort, or power, on the bike is determined by the force you put on the pedals and how quickly you turn over those pedals known as cycling cadence (RPM).

When you ride a bike, your effort, or power, on the bike is determined by the force you put on the pedals and how quickly you turn over those pedals known as cycling cadence (RPM).

From when I started triathlon to now, the view of cycling cadence have changed considerably. Some studies emphasize that riding at a lower cadence is more economical, because it’s less taxing on the cardiovascular system. However, riding with too low of a cadence can lead to muscular fatigue. On the other hand, high cadence requires less muscle activation, but comes at a higher energy cost.

What’s the ideal bike cadence?

The answer is that it isn’t so much about a preference of high over low, or vice versa, as much as it’s about having an efficient pedal stroke. Most importantly, triathletes need to train the full range, so they can use different cadences as needed. 

Low vs. High: How cycling cadence affects the body

Pedaling with a low cadence (60-70 RPM) in a big gear allows a cyclist to push more power. However, this comes at a cost with more muscle strain. As cadence decreases, the torque on the pedals increases. 

Lower cadence recruits more muscles, but I find it’s actually possible to have a lower heart rate at the same watts. Also, lower cadence has an entirely different effect of muscling the pedals, whereas high cadence taxes the neuromuscular system and cardiovascular system (both needed for the run)

Riding at a higher cadence produces less torque, which means your muscles and joints don’t have to absorb as much force, but you will be working at higher heart rate and your breathing will be more taxed, which affects your run.

Cadences below 40 RPM or above 110 RPM have been shown to decrease efficiency. Within that range, though, the ideal cycling cadence depends upon your riding style, sport background, strengths, and goals. While the pro cycling peloton will often ride at 90-100 RPM (and even hit 120 RPM in a sprint), triathletes tend to average much lower. But riding with a cadence that’s too low will tax leg muscles for the run that follows.

Up to a 70.3 race, riding at a higher cadence will help save your muscles a bit more for the run and the typical cadence range is 75-90 RPM, which maximizes economy, energy use, and sets you up well to run off the bike. As the race gets longer, the tendency is to lower the cadence to save your cardiovascular and neuromuscular system that you will be using on the run.

For most people, the optimal cadence will fall in the 75-85 RPM range. There’s definitely an optimal cadence, but you have to figure out what it is for yourself.

For triathletes, the ideal cadence is a particularly important consideration, because there must be a balance between maintaining power on the bike and conserving energy for the run. 

Tips for training your ideal cadence 

Rather than trying to alter your bike cadence, use a polarized cadence work, to develop an efficient pedal stroke (that's why you see on most of your cycling sessions). 
A great way to start is with a low cadence, strength-focused workout on a day when you want to load your legs but not your cardiovascular system, ride at a cadence of 50-70 RPM for 4 x 12-minutes intervals at 70-80% of max heart rate or 75-85% of FTP. Afterwards, transition to a high cadence of 95+ RPM for 5-10 minutes.