The Inside Scoop on Cycling Cadence

How to get the most out of your ride with the right cadence or pace

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Cycling Cadence

When you climb onto the saddle on an indoor bicycle, the goal isn’t always to pedal as fast as you can. Just as your form, technique, and posture contribute to the quality of your workout, there’s an art to your pedaling pace or “cadence”, which refers to the rate at which you turn the pedals. Measured in revolutions per minute (RPM), your cadence is influenced by the amount of power you put into each pedal stroke and the amount of resistance that’s on the bike.

It’s an important variable that allows you to manipulate the intensity and efficiency of your ride.

Here’s an analogy that’s sometimes used: Just as a drummer’s cadence provides a steady beat for a marching band, a cyclist’s consistent cadence can provide a sense of order and discipline that can enhance his or her performance on the ride. In the cycling world, riders are sometimes identified as "mashers" or "spinners": Mashers enjoy pedaling hard on high gears with low or moderate cadences, whereas spinners prefer to ride on low gears with high cadences.

If you’re new to indoor cycling, there’s a good chance you’re riding at a cadence that’s not exactly optimal. Some newbies think they’ll get a better workout if they push such heavy resistance that each pedal stroke becomes a strain and their quads burn—but this is hard on your knees. Others think it’s best to cycle as fast as possible against light resistance—but this doesn’t do much to build fitness or strength.

There’s a sweet spot between the two extremes, and you’ll want to pay attention to your cadence so you can learn to adjust it for different riding conditions and to vary your cycling training.

Playing the Numbers Game

When it comes to cadence, there isn’t a single magic number. Your pedaling speed should vary, based on the terrain you’re riding on (a hill versus a flat road, for instance).

Cadence also will vary from one person to another, based on the rider’s conditioning level, including his or her aerobic power and muscle strength.

Generally, higher cadences—as in, 80 to 110 RPMs—are used with lower resistance levels, including seated and standing flats. By contrast, lower cadence ranges—between 60 and 80 RPMs—are typically used with higher resistance levels, like a seated climb or a standing hill climb. Rather than sticking with a steady pace, varying your cadence throughout a ride will help you become stronger, build power and endurance, and train both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers. Slow-twitch muscles use oxygen more efficiently to generate fuel for continuous, extended muscle contractions (for an endurance ride, for example), whereas fast-twitch muscles are better at generating brief bursts of strength, power, or speed (during a sprint). 

Cadence Check

These days, many indoor bicycles have computers that monitor your cadence for you by continuously displaying your RPMs.

If the bike you’re riding doesn’t have a computer attached, you can compute your cadence with a simple check, using a stopwatch (or even the second-hand on your watch): While pedaling, focus on the upstroke of one leg (it helps to place your palm just above that knee so that it bumps your hand on the way up); count the number of upstrokes or hand-bumps for 15 seconds then multiply your result by four. If your 15-second count is 15, your cadence is 60 RPMs; if it’s 20, your cadence is 80 RPMs; if it’s 25, your cadence is 100 RPMs. Once you determine the cadence you’re aiming for, you can do a periodic check to make sure you’re matching the pace you want to achieve, while maintaining big, smooth pedal strokes.

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