Cadence and Bicycling

How the speed at which you spin your pedals affects your performance

A cyclist climbing a hill quickly
Spinning the pedals at a high cadence. Chase Jarvis/Getty Images

Hang around bicyclists long enough and you'll hear the term cadence crop up. You'll hear debates about lower cadence versus higher cadence, and which is likely to be more efficient.

In cycling terms, cadence refers to the speed at which a person spins their pedals when they ride. More technically, it's the number of revolutions of the crank per minute or the rate at which a cyclist turns the pedals.

Pedaling Physics

Take two competitive cyclists who weigh the same, have identical bikes and identical aerodynamics, and are riding next to each other at the same speed on a flat road. However, rider No. 1 is mashing the pedals at 70 rpm while Rider No. 2 spins the pedals at 110 rpm. Rider No. 1's pedaling style dictates that he presses hard on the pedals with each stroke. But he does so less frequently than Rider No. 2, who is pushing lightly on the pedals but doing so much more frequently. So while they are riding at the same speed, they are not exerting the same amount of energy to do so.

High Cadence Versus Low Cadence

As far as your cardiovascular system goes, lower-cadence cycling costs less in terms of oxygen consumption but is more taxing on the muscles from a strength perspective. Some fitness experts have asserted that cycling at a lower cadence is a good workout because doing so recruits more muscle fibers overall as well as more fast-twitch fibers vs. slow-twitch fibers.

Why is this important? Because fast-twitch fibers burn glycogen for fuel. This glycogen is stored within the muscles and is in relative short supply. Although a well-trained, well-fueled athlete stores about 2000 calories worth of glycogen, fast-twitch fibers burn through this quickly. Not only do they fatigue quickly, fast-twitch fibers take a long time to recover before they can be used again.

Slow-twitch fibers on the other hand primarily burn fat for fuel, an almost limitless supply of fuel for even the leanest athlete. These fibers are also very resistant to fatigue, so they can go and go. They also recover quickly when allowed to rest.

Since the jury is out on the fitness benefits of lower cadence cycling, having a high pedal cadence is ideal, especially on long rides and races. Generally speaking, the faster you can spin your pedals, the faster you can go on your bike. Having a high cadence means you're spinning the pedals as opposed to mashing on them, resulting in higher revolutions per minute (rpms). Higher pedal rpms generally mean you can ride longer without getting tired since the idea is to spin the pedals more quickly at an easier gear, rather than burn through all your leg muscles pounding away in a much more difficult gear.

Measuring Cadence

If you plan to do a lot of cycling, it's important to know your cadence. Many of today's bicycles have computers that measure cadence and record it on a handlebar-mounted display. If you have an older bicycle, the best way to measure your cadence is to count how many times one of your knees rises during a 30-second interval.

Just set a stopwatch and start pedaling. You don't have to be a Tour de France cyclist, spinning at 110 rpms on all the uphills, but an ideal target to shoot for for most riding conditions is about 80 rpms.