How to Develop a Faster Cadence, Part 1: Why Cadence Matters

We brought you an 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. Now we dive into the other side of the intensity equation, cadence. Specifically, let’s explore the higher end of the cadence scale and why cadence matters.

Outdoor cyclists are often coached to select a higher cadence with a lower gear (when a lower gear is available). This style of riding is called “spinning”* and is less mechanically stressful on the body. Choosing a bigger gear with a lower cadence is referred to as “mashing.” This style of pedaling 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.

The good news is that higher cadence is very trainable and indoor training can help to improve it. The not-so-good news is that 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.

Roadrunner Legs

In indoor cycling classes, we have the opposite problem than outdoor riders. 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 forward movement to demonstrate that your chosen cadence is too high and your gear is too low. Outdoors, if you were turning the pedals that quickly but still not moving the bike 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.

Indoors, we don’t have the lack of forward movement to guide us. Therefore, this crazy fast cadence is often 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. Power output is almost nil, but since their legs are spinning so fast and their heart rates and breathing rates are elevated, the riders think they are doing something beneficial.

They aren’t. Power output is too low to burn many calories, there is no technique gain, 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 excessive cadence in this series. That kind of high cadence is not what I’m talking about. Instead, I will focus on why we want to work to improve higher cadence indoors and how to do it with proper technique and resistance. As I described above, it’s very 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?

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 strength, total power output is elevated—sometimes substantially, vastly increasing potential caloric burn. So yes, even to our non-cyclist participants, developing a smooth, quick pedal stroke will be highly beneficial.

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.

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 will 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 will dive deeper into the physiology of cadence and why it tends to raise heart rate. Finally, in part 5, I will 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 anywhere else and it may be exactly what you need to resolve your 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.

Other articles in this series: 

How to Develop a Faster Cadence, Part 1: Why Cadence Matters
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: Video Tips for Quicker Pedaling

8 Responses to “How to Develop a Faster Cadence, Part 1: Why Cadence Matters”

  1. Colleen Fisher says:

    Great article — incorporating some of these drills for sure. Have definitely noticed the cadence challenges in my older and/or new riders. Thanks, Jennifer!

  2. Mary Hawkins says:

    Great article as always! I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series.

  3. BETHANTELL says:

    very much looking forward to this series. even with focused training i’ve never been able to truly increase my cadence and sustain it. curious though, what is your reason for waiting until Part 4 to explain the physiology? i would personally love to understand before implementing and be educated in case members ask. thanks for great content!

  4. Ellen Chan says:

    Good to know about the second paragraph recognizing difference of cadences. Thanks Jennifer! 🙂

  5. Julie Zweck-Bronner says:

    Thanks, Jennifer this series couldn’t have come at a better time!
    Julie Zweck-Bronner

  6. Laura Gurney says:

    I SO appreciate these articles and series! Thank you very much! I look forward to the entire series!:)

  7. Melinda Massie says:

    I am excited about this series and will look forward to becoming more educated about how to effectively communicate the benefits of this type of training to classes.

  8. MelanieKim says:

    great article can’t wait for the next

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