The Great Cadence Debate

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Over the years I’ve had countless dialogs and debates about cycling cadence and performance. I’ve read copious amounts of research and literature advocating for high cadence easy effort to “save the legs,” “easy stroke,” “light on the pedals,” etc.  

In my view, if an athlete has not had competitive cycling experience, the ability to learn how to ‘feel’ the pedal stroke, which enables a rider to spin effectively, is lost to all but an exceptional few. Not only that, but there is an aerobic cost that gets lost in the process as well.

Indeed, many professional cyclists who train between 750km to 1200 km a week never acquire the ability to use the high-cadence technique effectively. So if professional riders spending six days a week training a minimum of four to five hours a day are not able to find it, then what hope does someone with no cycling background putting in a maximum of 200km have of mastering the ‘Lance Armstrong high cadence’ model? In my experience, very little.

Yes, there are exceptions, but how many do you think? I tend to train not for the exception, but instead make adjustments when they come along every generation or so.

Many field and lab tests have attempted to show that high cadence spinning is more efficient to the newcomer than just stomping the big gear. Yet the results in nearly all cases only serve to prove that the exact opposite is true. In fact most tests show that tri-athletes produce more torque/power between 78-84 rpm without sacrificing aerobic cost putting them in a stronger state for the run to follow. Any higher and the efficiency is lost. I’ve seen studies from USA, Australia, England and even France that all come to similar conclusions.

A common theme across all studies is that the heart rate began to climb at the various cadence levels and that once the riding novices were asked to hold 100 cadences, not only did their performance diminish, but also their heart rate rose to levels approaching 15 % below maximum for the entire test. The data on this is pretty clear cut and I would hope to any reasonable person, it’s not a debatable point.

So how does this knowledge inform my opinion on using low cadence work?

In triathlon we have to train not one, but three disciplines and our actual bike hours are limited for training compared to cyclists.

Most, if not all triathletes are not ex-professional cyclists with an innate feel of the pedals. Thus the style of spinning may be detrimental to them riding to the best of their ability.

In triathlon, the race is not over once the bike leg is finished. Riding with an elevated heart rate close to one’s anaerobic threshold is not advisable if one wants to jump off and run at an optimal pace. Hence the reason I advocate using low gear, moderate cadence training. Over the years, experience and results have proven this effective as all age-group athletes I have worked with have gone on to make rapid and sustainable gains on the bike.

Tri-Active Endurance is more concerned with function than form. What works for the individual is what’s right. Watching a 100kg athlete spinning down the road at 100 cadence makes me want to cry, as does watching certified level coaches teaching 50kg, 5’2 females how to swim like Michael Phelps for their upcoming tri races. It is not right. Phelps is 6’6 and has the wingspan of a small jet. What works for the top 1% of athletes at the top 1% of their sports is not the model that is going to improve your triathlon.

Construct a plan for the athlete, don’t put an athlete in a plan.

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