Following our extensive series on how to coach riders to add sufficient resistance so that they can benefit from the results you are targeting in your profile, I will now dive into the other side of the intensity equation, cadence. Specifically, let’s explore the higher end of the cadence range and why cadence matters.
Outdoor cyclists are often coached to select a higher cadence with a lower gear (when a lower gear is available) while climbing as well as on the flats. This style of riding at a higher cadence in a lower gear is called “spinning”* and is less mechanically stressful on the body. In the other direction, choosing a bigger gear with a lower cadence is referred to as “mashing” the pedals. In the short term, mashing can generate a lot of power, but often results in a jerky motion since most of the force is directed downward. Overall fatigue is greater with a mashing style.
But simply deciding to pedal faster doesn’t always come easy.
The good news is that higher cadence is very trainable and indoor training can help to improve it (to a certain extent). However, developing a faster cadence requires focused and purposeful training and can take some time to accomplish. It’s not easy to do but is a worthwhile endeavor. In fact, it is something outdoor riders are always working on improving (or rather, they should always be working on it!). It is harder to do outdoors on a bike with a freewheel than indoors on a stationary bike with a flywheel since a freewheel does give a little bit of an assist.
In indoor cycling classes, we have the opposite problem than outdoor riders, partially because of that assist by the flywheel. In some classes, cadence is often excessively high, sometimes well over 110, 120, or even 130 rpm. The vast majority of riders can only turn the pedals this quickly with the help of the flywheel and momentum, combined with having little to no resistance on the bike. Indoors, you don’t have the benefit of forward movement to demonstrate that your chosen cadence is too high and your gear is too low. Outdoors, if you were spinning the pedals that quickly but the bike was not moving forward very fast—so much so that a child on a tricycle could pass you—you would know immediately to increase your gear and slow down the legs.
In some indoor classes, this crazy fast cadence may even be a badge of honor. But far too often, the entire class is bobbing on their saddles with horrible form, risking discomfort and even serious injury to some riders. To the observer, their legs look like the Roadrunner on the Wile E. Coyote cartoon. If these riders had power meters, they would see that their power output was very low, but since their legs are spinning so fast and their heart rates and breathing rates are elevated, the riders think they are actually doing something beneficial.
They really aren’t. Power output is usually too low to burn many calories, there is no benefit to improving technique, and there is little to no fitness improvement. Since form is usually so poor, there is no neuromuscular benefit either. Pedaling this fast with no resistance indoors is akin to taking your chain off your outdoor bike and trying to pedal—your legs would spin unimpeded but you won’t go anywhere.
Now that I got that out of the way, my goal is not to discuss the common but crazy style of super-high cadence in this series. That kind of high cadence is not what I’m talking about—but I do want to reiterate…don’t do it! Instead, I will focus on why we want to work to attain a reasonable higher cadence indoors and how to do it with proper technique and resistance. As I described above, it’s important for outdoor cyclists to work on improving cadence, but what about our participants who do not ride outside?
Why should we care about higher cadence in an indoor class? Does cadence really matter?
When done properly with good form and sufficient resistance, higher-cadence pedaling can lead to fitness improvements. When higher average cadences are combined with cardiovascular endurance training, riders will be able to last longer and resist fatigue. Functional threshold power (FTP) can be improved more easily. When combined with improvements in muscular endurance, total average power output will be elevated—sometimes substantially. For those who care about calories burned, they will likely see increasing caloric burn over time. (My suggestion is not to focus so much on calories, but I recognize that that’s the first thing most typical riders want to know.) So yes, even to our non-cyclist participants, developing a smooth, quick pedal stroke will be beneficial on their path to improved fitness.
But just like outdoors, it takes time to develop.
On indoor bikes, instructors have to be cognizant that the flywheel can assist in turning the pedals. There are ways to reduce the impact of the flywheel through good coaching and proper technique. (Note: outdoor cyclists can work on improving the mechanics of their pedal stroke in your classes, and their increased cadence preference may transfer somewhat to their outdoor bike, but to truly improve cadence outdoors, they need to train it outdoors.)
Recently, an instructor told me she has an older rider who simply cannot seem to pedal faster than about 85 rpm and was wondering what she could do to help her. I too have had riders like that. One of my regulars in her early days of riding with me would get extremely winded when approaching 90 rpm. She still struggles at times, but using the tactics I outline in this series, I’ve been able to teach her to pedal into the mid 90s. She is more in control and her heart rate response to higher leg speeds has dropped somewhat, but she still does get more winded at higher cadences. Will she ever be able to pedal at 100 rpm or higher? Not for long, and that’s ok. She’s widened the range of cadences where she’s comfortable and has improved her form. I call that a win.
Let’s talk about the physiology of pedaling, both slow and fast.
In part 2, I give you four important things to consider when training higher cadence that will increase the likelihood of success, plus I’ll provide some technique drills and references for coaching cues. In part 3, I will give you additional specific high-cadence drills to train the neuromuscular system. Part 4 is a video training with tips for quicker pedaling. In the video, I give you a demonstration on why some people simply cannot pedal quickly and provide you with a solution. It’s very common, but my solution is something I have never seen anyone else talk about and it may be exactly what you need to resolve your rider’s (or riders’) issues.
*Note: The use of the word “spinning” as a cycling term for high-cadence pedaling is separate from the original indoor cycling format, the “Spinning®” brand.
How to Develop a Faster Cadence, Part 2: Four Considerations for Training Leg Speed
How to Develop a Faster Cadence, Part 3: More Drills and 6 Profiles to Improve Cadence
How to Develop a Faster Cadence, Part 4: Three Video Tips for Quicker Pedaling