Sunday, July 3, 2022

Higher Cadence Cycling Slows You Down?

Stage 2 by Tim de Wale/ Getty images from The Guardian
The most important of all cycling races, the Tour De France (TDF) 2022 started on Friday night in Denmark. Cycling fans worldwide will no doubt be following the race as it unfolds. I definitely am.

Mere mortal cyclists (myself included) often like to copy what the pros do. Ever since the Lance Armstrong era, high cadence cycling or riding in excess of 90 revolutions per min (RPM) became popular. 

With his superb spinning of the pedals in the 2001 TDF he attacked and dropped Jan Ullrich in the memorable stage at Alpe d'Huez (watch from 0:27 min) on his way to victory on that stage and overall victory.

Probably from then onwards, new cyclists and recreational cyclists often believe that faster pedaling is always better. 

However, a published study concluded that amateur cyclists do not get any added benefits from high cadence cycling. In fact, it actually tires you out, especially when you ride at high intensities.

The researchers studied a group of recreationally active men and women and had them pedal hard to to ventilatory threshold (the intensity when breathing becomes laboured). Cadences between 40 to 90 RPM's were used. Heart rate, pedaling forces, thigh muscle oxygenation (amount of oxygen needed by thigh muscles to make the energy needed to keep pedaling) were all measured.

As the subjects pedaled faster, the force generated with each pedal stroke decreased. Since your muscles contract more frequently and less intensely, force generated will drop. This makes you fatigue less and helps you to recover quicker, especially while climbing. 

However in the study, the subjects' heart rate increased, meaning this required more energy, making it less efficient. At 90 RPM, their heart rate increased by 15 percent, their efficiency decreased while muscle oxygenation dropped. 

The authors concluded that this shows that pedaling at higher cadences is inefficient for recreational cyclists. This is due to wastage of energy trying to stabilize themselves while coordinating their pedaling at higher RPM's than what they are used to. 

Try it when you next get on your bike (although trying on a stationary bike may be safer) and pedal very fast at low resistance. You may be wobbling all over the saddle and your postural and stabilizing muscles will be working hard to minimize your wobbling. This leads to more work done and higher oxygen demand overall. 

Different cyclists can ride at the same speed whether they are pedaling 60, 90, 100 RPM or any other cadence. It depends on how much wattage (or work done) produced, how comfortable you are and most importantly, what you can sustain. No point pedaling at a high cadence if you cannot ride for long or far with that. You will not enjoy your ride.

I will add that the study did not consider the length of crank arms on the bicycle. Crank arm length definitely matters. A shorter crank arm will help you spin faster more efficiently. 

My experience is that if your legs feel tired quicker than your lungs, your gear is probably too heavy and you should shift to an easier gear and increase your cadence. 

If you're breathing too hard and your legs feel fine, you can use a heavier gear and pedal at a lower cadence. Try switching back and forth with the gears and take note of how you feel. This will help you find the right cadence to ride longer and stronger.


Formenti F, Dockerill C, Kankanange K et al (2019). The Effect Of Pedaling Cadence On Skeletal Muscle Oxygenation During Cycling At Moderate Exercise Intensity. Int J Sp Med. 40(5): 305-311. DOI: 10.1055/a-0835-6286

Stage 2 in Denmark last night, watch this excellent video from official TDF website.

Picure from

No comments:

Post a Comment