There as been a lot of debate about the appropriate cycling cadence for triathletes. In general, we recommend riding at a cadence between 80-90 RPM at a minimum, preferably over 90 RPM. A great piece of advice we give to our athletes is to increase their cadence up to 95+ RPM for the last 10-20’ without significantly increasing the tension (on the chain) or effort level being put forth by the athlete.
Increasing your cadence will usually reduce the force production and subsequent oxygen consumption while riding. We have our athletes increase their cadence to 95+ RPM or greater for the last 10-20 minutes in order to mimic the same cadence that is used while running, which is the most efficient when it is close to 90 foot strikes per minute. Within a few minutes of the finish, we recommend that the riders stretch their calves and hamstrings by standing on the pedals and flexing the hips in an effort to simulate the muscle actions involved in running
Some coaches recommend that triathletes use a high-resistance, low cadence frequency in conjunction with stretching during the final moments of the cycling leg.
So what is the “right” answer? It has been shown that when an athlete pedals at a higher cadence (<100 RPM), as compared to 90 RPM and 71 RPM, the mean running speed off the bike was 4-7% faster, resulting in a decrease of 1 minute per two miles of running (Gottschal JS, et al; 2002). This is most likely due to a common neuroscience mechanism perseveration, the rhythmic performance for an extended period of time will involuntarily continue that movement pattern. It is possible that the increased neural firing rate due to a higher cadence would bias the subsequent firing rate while running. There is also a central nervous system “rhythm generator” that might explain how cycling cadence will influence your running stride off the bike. Rhythmic signals that are generated by visual, auditory or proprioceptive frequencies are sent to your neural rhythm generator and are able to entrain your running stride pattern.
That being said, increasing your leg turnover, in a fashion that is equal to or above your desired running cadence should set you up for a better run. So what do you do if you are the triathlete that is a “masher” and loves grinding big gears at 70 RPM? The only way to generate a higher cadence on a regular basis is to develop/enhance the neuromechanical pathway through regular practice. It will take a minimum of 2-4 weeks of dedicated effort and some exploration with the gearing to find the right gear to maintain a cadence above 90 RPM without your power output dropping dramatically.
A couple really simple ways to increase your cadence are:
- One-Leg Drills: Hop on your trainer and get warmed up. Find a gear that is comfortable to pedal at 90+ RPM and then unclip one foot, putting it on the cross bar of the trainer so it is out of the way. Start of with 10-15 revolutions per leg until you have eliminated the dead spot (11:00 to 1:00 on the clock). Once you have smoothed out your pedal stroke, then aim for 30 revolutions with each leg in 20 seconds, which is 90 RPM. This is going to be awkward and uncomfortable at first, but will become second nature after a couple weeks.
- Spin Ups: This can be done on either a trainer or outside. After a good solid warm up, find a gear that allows you to pedal comfortably between 80-90 RPMS. From there, shift the rear cog set to one gear harder and increase your RPM until you start to bounce on the saddle. Once you’ve hit that point, back off the RPM just a hair so you are no longer bouncing and hold that cadence for 1 minute. After the minute, spin easy for 1 minute. This is a really good addition to a warm up, it will ensure your muscles are all loosened up and firing appropriately, especially before a tough interval session or time trial.
This is the perfect time of the year to make changes in your cycling cadence. If you spend the time now, you will reap the rewards later!
Gottschal JS and Palmer BM 2002. The Acute Effects of Prior Cycling Cadence on Running Performance and Kinematics. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 34, No. 9, pp. 1518-1522
republished from 2010