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When we look at top athletes in sports such as cycling and running, we see fluidity in their movement - effortless and ‘smooth’ to the naked eye. Some great examples of this can be seen in African runners whose physique gives them an edge to run at a high pace with little cost to energy stores. Another example is that of Elite Pro cycling where the cadence and rhythm of the leg speed is sustained at a high rate, producing high power for prolonged distances on any sort of terrain. Much research has gone into these areas to identify the performance benefits for athletes of being so ‘efficient’.
Regularly, I am asked by triathletes: ‘What is the best cadence to ride at?’ For many reasons, it is difficult to answer quickly and correctly without looking at each individual's training and racing patterns. However, there are areas that can be implemented by triathletes at all levels. Cycling is not just about pushing as hard as you can on the pedals to reach the end of that leg, get into transition as quickly as possible and hope that you have something left for the run. It is important to remember your efficiency in the bike leg directly influences your ability and performance in the run.
Factors that influence your bike leg include threshold power, aerodynamics, cadence (pedal efficiency) and fuel efficiency, but we are just going to focus on the cadence part this time.
Improving your cadence and its efficiency should be integral to triathlon training. If it’s not, then you need to start thinking about it. One crucial point to consider is your cranks and their length. Most have two bikes, a road and then ‘race bike’, which ultimately will be triathlon specific. I hope most of you realise there may be different crank lengths on each bike and you must be efficient on both bikes, so that you can have the optimal performance come race day. The different crank lengths can make it harder to produce a solid effort come race day if you have not trained your body to be smooth on the race bike. If you do not know the different lengths of cranks or if one bike is different to another, I would advise you to go look.
So, now you are aware of the cranks, why do you want to improve your pedalling efficiency?
The main reasons are:
You will feel fresher, more fuelled, less likely to get injured and have more glycogen in the muscles come run time. When all of your opponents have been mashing gears and ‘fighting’ with their bike powering big gears for prolonged periods, you will have the reserves to finish your triathlon with a killer run and gain the result you hoped for.
But, mastering cadence efficiency takes time.
Many people will say that you can ride easier at 250watts (approx 25mph) at 80rpm than you will at 95rpm, which is true, but there are more reasons for wanting to ride at 95rpm than at 80rpm. Everyone is different genetically, but the same principles apply to all athletes: a higher cadence will recruit the cardiovascular system more and this system takes longer to fatigue than skeletal muscles, which are used more when the cadence and efficiency are lower. Simply put, using a higher cadence will use your heart and lungs more, which do not fatigue as quickly as the skeletal muscles, which is what you will recruit when you start using lower gears.
The ideal pedalling cadence varies in accordance with the power developed and with the kind of muscle fibres of the athlete: predominance in slow-twitch fibres (type I) will suggest higher cadences (95-105 RPM), while a predominance in fast-twitch fibres (type II) will suggest lower cadences (85-95 RPM). Just for this reason, everyone has a different answer to the question I am regularly asked. But, what everyone should look at is gradually improving their rhythm. I would suggest looking at building your cadence around 7-10% over the course of a year until you find your optimal rhythm.