Does the relatively new (older) road cyclist need to focus on their cadence? (And what is it?)
If you’re relatively new to road cycling you may have heard the term “cadence” before. However you may have no idea what cadence means, or how it applies to your cycling. So let’s examine what cadence is and how, and if, you should be worried about it.
What is cadence?
In simple terms cadence is merely the number of pedal revolutions you do in 1 minute. If your feet are pedalling faster you are doing a faster cadence than if your feet are pedalling slower.
Cadence is measured in RPM, in other words in revolutions per minute. So a cadence of 80 means your feet are turning 80 times in 1 minute.
If you want to find out what your cadence is there’s several ways to do so. Of course you can just look at your watch, time yourself for a minute and count the number of pedal revolutions that you do. Quite doable, though not quite so easy.
However many modern bike computers will calculate your cadence for you, and give you a running display of your cadence at any particular moment. This is achieved by some small pieces of equipment which are fixed to your bike and your pedals.
This is a much easier way to measure your cadence and to keep track of it, and bike computers like this are available at a price affordable for most of us.
But what do those figures actually mean?
As a general rule a slower cadence, in other words pedalling slower, means that you have to push harder on the pedals to achieve the same speed as you would pedalling on the same road at a higher cadence.
In other words in a lower cadence your legs are pushing, in a higher cadence your legs are spinning and not pushing as hard.
Just think about the gears in your car. If you’re trying to go up a hill in top gear the engine is revving more slowly and trying harder than if you change down a gear or 2, when the engine begins to spin faster.
Of course it’s exactly the same on a bike, you change your cadence by changing your gearing.
New cyclists often consider a slower cadence to be better. In other words they prefer to push hard on the pedals rather than to spin, often feeling that pushing hard will provide better exercise.
How does cadence affect effort, (and exercise)?
However different cadences provide different exercise. A lower cadence will help build muscle mass in your legs, but does less cardiovascular work and so less for your cardiovascular fitness.
Higher cadence provides less resistance to your leg muscles and therefore less muscle training, but provides more aerobic work and is better for your cardiovascular fitness.
(Also, as an aside, your cadence can affect your risk of injury. Many cyclists are advised, when they are starting to notice knee pain, that they should increase their cadence and spin faster to reduce the stress on their knees.)
So now that you know exactly what cadence is how do you determine what is best for you?
That comes with practice, and in my view you shouldn’t, as an older cyclists, try to maintain any particular cadence. Varying your cadence in different circumstances is a more effective cycling strategy.
I’ll give you an example. You’re climbing a hill. In my view it’s better to vary your cadence a number of times over the hill than it is to try and maintain one cadence, by gear selection, for the whole climb.
If your legs are feeling a little tired change down and spin for while, this will help reduce the strain on your leg muscles.
And if your legs are feeling good, and you’re puffing hard, change up, push a little harder and spin less to help reduce the cardiovascular effort and allow yourself to recover.
You’ll find all sorts of advice online about how to maintain the best cadence for the best performance. Most of this is intended for athletes like triathletes and road racers. Most of this advice is unnecessary for us older riders.
You’ll read about how Lance Armstrong became a champion after he learned to spin. Chances are none of us will win the Tour De France this year, so we don’t need to know the optimum racing cadence.
Cadence, for us, is about comfort
For the older cyclists cadence is about comfort. You need to be aware that you can achieve the same result with different levels of spin and effort and you need to practice pedalling at different speeds to see how you find different cadences work for you. Find out which cadence is the most comfortable for you, and learn to vary it when appropriate.
Using a cycle computer allows you much better feedback, and will help you pinpoint the cadence which is comfortable for you, but again I suggest that varying your cadence is the best strategy. Learn when to spin faster, when to push harder and how to vary them.
However as a general rule a cadence of somewhere around 80 – 100 RPM is fine, though many beginners end up with far less than that. If that’s you then try using faster cadences and see how you find it.
Once you’ve progressed in your cycling you may then wish to learn more about how different cadences can affect your performance, but as a beginner it’s too easy to get hung up on unimportant factors, and to be worrying about too many things.
So be aware of your cadence, learn how it affects you and how you feel on the bike, learn how varying your cadence can help improve things like recovery time, and don’t spend too much time focusing on it.
Save that for when you’re in the Tour De France.