What is the ideal cadence?
In our view, there is no subject that has been written about as much as cadence. One of the reasons for this is that nowadays there is a very wide range to choose from. For example, in the 80’s the lightest toothing was a 42 at the front and a 19 at the back. Now you can buy a group set with both 34 front and rear which results in a ratio that is twice as light. With the advent of these options, the most steep climbs are rideable for almost everyone. Sometimes you can ask yourself if it wouldn’t have been better to buy a pair of hiking boots instead of a bike.
But in addition to the large range of teeth, we also see many professional cyclists with very high cadence riding up a mountain. This throws some oil on the fire in the discussion about cadence because most recreational cyclists find it almost impossible to ride a cadence of over 90. So what exactly is going on here? Before we dive into this, there is a big difference that is often overlooked. For example, there is a difference in ideal cadence, in which many factors play a role, and the most efficient cadence is an optimum between energy consumption and power then delivered.
The least oxygen consumption
Contrary to what you might think, the most efficient cadence in terms of energy costs and power delivery is very low. Research shows that for both experienced and inexperienced cyclists at a cadence of 60 rpm, oxygen consumption is significantly lower than at a higher cadence. So the answer to most efficient cadence is not that difficult to answer in that respect.
In spite of that, this is a bit too short. The problem with such a low cadence, for example, is that the muscle tension becomes very high. That means that a low cadence for one short climb might be the best choice. But what if you have several climbs to do, or even want to perform several days? And approaching cadence from the point of view of oxygen efficiency does not answer the question why so many pros choose a very high cadence. They’ll know what they’re doing, won’t they?
They know that for sure. Factors such as experience, power, muscle fibre type, slope and speed play a role. Firstly, muscle fibre type is important. It is known that a muscle is most efficient when it contracts at 1/3 of the maximum speed at which it can contract. The maximum speed at which a muscle can contract depends on the type of muscle fibre. The body contains fast and slow muscle fibers and the ideal contraction rate is different. More anaerobic fast muscle fibres will therefore result in a higher cadence than a cycling race with especially a high aerobic capacity.
The role of speed
The slope of the road is also a factor that plays a role. When you ride up a mountain there is less kinetic energy and also your position on your bike is different. This means that the force peak on the pedals is more likely to be in the downward pedal movement than when cycling on flat terrain. So because the pattern of the force on your pedal changes when and which muscle group provides the most force. This means that with higher speed and more kinetic energy on the flat, the ideal cadence will be between 90 to 100 rpm depending on the precise speed you ride. Up hill the ideal cadence will be between 70 and 80 rpm or even lower depending on the climb.
The more power the higher the cadence
Thirdly, power is an important factor. When you deliver relatively low power it is inefficient to have a high cadence because there is a lot of energy in moving your legs down and relatively little real power comes on the pedals. It seems that you also have to maintain a lower cadence at lower power. This should also match the level of the rider. A pro delivers much higher power, so the percentage of energy that is lost in moving your legs is small compared to cyclists of a lower level. Experienced riders also have a better pedal movement. This means that at higher cadence the cooperation between muscles is better and there are no dead points in the pedal movement. So less experienced riders have a less efficient power pattern when the cadence increases. Another factor is that experienced riders have more veins that can supply the muscles with more oxygen. This effect of training is called capillarity. Recent research has shown that there is less blood supply at high cadence compared to low cadence at the same intensity. The theory is that more veins can reduce this difference or even completely counteract it.
The ideal cadence is very personal
In short, it seems almost impossible to answer what is the ideal cadence for you. There are too many variables and possible outcomes. But fortunately the body is able to indicate the most comfortable and therefore the most ideal cadence. All you have to do is listen to your body and think less. Don’t just imitate what you see the pros doing on TV without being a pro yourself. But keep training on high and low cadence. Training is a way to make your body difficult and the body responds by getting better. So training with different cadence will definitely help you to get better.
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