High Cadence vs Low Cadence Cycling
A smooth, fluid pedal stroke combined with a good cadence is an integral part of riding fast and efficiently (and therefore winning races.)
Cadence can be described simply as your pedaling speed. It is measured in Revolutions Per Minute, or RPM. This is the number of times your legs complete full circles in 60 seconds of riding.
(Don’t know your cadence? Here is how to count your cadence.)
Cadence varies between riders and even the same rider will vary their cadence in a given situation, but most elite riders use a fast cadence. There is no “one size fits all” perfect cadence, but we’ll look at the differences between the high and low cadences in this article.
For the purposes of this article, I will use the following measurements to describe cadence:
- Very slow: 50-70 RPM
- Slow: 70-80 RPM
- Moderate: 80-90 RPM
- Fast: 90-100 RPM
- Very Fast: 100-110 RPM
- Extremely Fast: 110+ RPM
To simplify even further, you can consider anything under 90 RPM to be a low cadence, and 90+ RPM would be a high cadence.
High vs Low Cadence: The Pros and Cons
Let’s start by looking at the pros and cons of each cadence…
If you are riding with a high cadence in an easy gear, pedaling is going to tax your cardiovascular and respiratory systems. If you have a strong heart and lungs, you can probably hold a fast cadence for a long period of time. Because of the easy gear, it will produce less strain on your muscles.
Low cadence riding in a hard gear taxes your skeletal muscles, specifically your quads. Since you’re using a big gear, you have to apply lots of force to turn it. If your legs are very big and powerful, this may work well for you.
Turning the big gear slowly has less effect on your heart and lungs, so you’re less likely to be gasping for air or have a skyrocketing heart rate.
However, there is an edge towards the higher cadence riding. Your heart and lungs can take repeated punishment for long periods of time (and they recovery quickly after hard efforts,) while your muscles will fatigue relatively quickly.
A high cadence also places less stress and torque on your knees. So if you have bad knees, you’re usually better off spinning faster, in a low gear.
There is also a tactical advantage to using a high cadence. Spinning fast in a low gear allows for faster accelerations, because you can bump up your cadence even more to increase your speed. If you need to shift gears, that’s also easier, since the drivetrain in under less stress.
If you’re pushing a big gear and the pace changes, you’re in trouble. You won’t be able to change cadence or shift gears quickly, so you may get dropped.
Cadence in the Pro Peloton
The most noteworthy example of cadence in the pro peloton is the rivalry between Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong in the mountain stages of the Tour de France. When Lance came back to win the Tour, he was riding at a very fast cadence, usually 110rpm or more. Ullrich, on the other hand, was grinding out the big gears at a cadence closer to 65-70rpm.
While both riders were very talented, Lance and his higher cadence always seemed to get the better of Ullrich (and everyone else in the race, for that matter.) But don’t forget, Jan Ullrich won the Tour back in 1997, so it’s entirely possible that some future TdF champs will be turning the pedals slowly.
I’d put my money on a higher-cadence rider, though. There has been at least one study of professional cyclists (from the European Journal of Applied Physiology) that showed a link between high cadence riding and better overall performance. The reasoning is that the less tension on the muscles, the longer you have before fatigue sets in.
Since I don’t have cadence data for all pro riders, I can’t specify what cadence is the most popular, but I’d venture a guess that most riders fall in the 80-100rpm range, depending on the situation. Especially today, with studies and anecdotal evidence supporting a high cadence for performance riding.
Finding Your Most Efficient Cadence
Despite the edge in favor of high cadences, the best thing to do is perform some tests to determine your optimal cadence.
Time Trial Cadence Test
The easiest way to determine your optimal cadence is by performing a time trial multiple times, using a different cadence each time.
First, determine a course on local roads that takes about 10 minutes to complete. This route will be the same for each time trial.
Next, perform a time trial on the course at a cadence of 80rpm. When finished, record your time and rating of perceived exertion (RPE.)
Ride easy for 15-20 minutes, then perform another time trial, this time using a cadence around 95-100rpm. When finished, record your time and RPE.
A couple days later, perform the same test again, but do the first time trial at a high cadence and the second time trial at a low cadence.
Now you can compare the data. Whichever cadence produced faster times and lower RPE values is probably your ideal cadence.
For example, if the slow cadence has your legs burning and your average speed slowing down, while you feel great at a high cadence and cut a minute off your slow cadence trials, it’s a safe bet that you should be riding at a high cadence.
You could perform this test multiple times for a better sample size, but in general, you’re just comparing how fast you could ride a course at different cadences. If you want to get specific, you could try doing time trials at 80rpm, 85rpm, 90rpm, 95rpm, 100rpm, 110rpm, etc.
If you ride comfortably somewhere in the range of 85-110rpm, that’s probably good.
Hill Climb Cadence Test
Find a hill climb that takes about 3 minutes to complete. (You’ll be doing more time trials, but you won’t need to record data.)
On trial one, ride the first 2/3 of the hill in a low gear and a cadence around 95rpm. For the last 1/3, use whatever gear and cadence you want.
On trial two, ride the first 2/3 of the hill in a big gear and a cadence around 80rpm. For the last 1/3, use whatever gear and cadence you want.
To get the results, just remember what you did on the last 1/3 of the hill in each test.
For the last 1/3 of the hill, you probably wanted to recover, and you would have switched to whatever cadence is more comfortable for you. If you were staying in and switching to a lower gear and high cadence, then high cadence riding is for you. If you couldn’t wait to shift to a harder gear and slow your cadence down so you could catch your breath, then you may be best suited for big gear and low cadence riding.
There are pros and cons to high and low cadences. You should test out a variety of cadences and ride what is most comfortable and fastest for you.
The ‘right’ cadence is different for everyone, and you’ll probably vary your cadence depending on the terrain, so you don’t have to freak out about getting the exact cadence. All I can say is that your ideal cadence will fall somewhere between “holy sh*t my legs are on fire!” and “I… can’t… breathe!”
If you can’t seem to pick a favorite RPM within that range, err on the high cadence side, just below the point where you can’t breathe steadily.